Pundits have been quick to identify winners and losers from last night’s debate. There are, of course, many problems with such commentary. We know which teams win soccer matches because they score more goals, and we generally know which candidates win elections because they receive more votes, but we have no similar objective measure for debates.
Just as beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, so is success at a debate performance. In addition, the pundit class is not representative of America. What appeals to political commentators often diverges from what matters to voters.
But we can identify one clear loser from last night—the public. This was an important chance for people to become familiar with the different candidates, and each candidate should have been given an equal opportunity to connect with the voters. But the debate didn’t come close—or even try to come close—to providing a level playing field.
According to a calculation of time speaking per candidate, there were vast differences. The candidate with the most exposure was given more than twice the amount of time as the candidate with the least exposure, and the disparities were even larger during the first hour of the debate. There was no small irony in a debate highlighting income, health, and other unfair disparities in the United States that there were unfair disparities in participation among the candidates.