With the first two Democratic primary debates being essentially wide open to at least 20 of the 24 declared candidates, the decision by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) to tighten the thresholds for the third and fourth debate is drawing ire from some campaigns asking for transparency and an explanation of how the DNC arrived at the arbitrary set of guidelines to cut the debate field essentially in half.
As we noted on Wednesday this week, the DNC announced ABC News as the host of the third debate in September, along with releasing the participation thresholds for candidates to gain access to the ABC debate stage.
The first two debates, set for June 26-27, and July 30-31, will only require candidates to receive at least one percent polling support and have a fundraising report of at least 65,000 unique donors, with 200 unique donors from twenty different states. So far, at least 19 candidates have met these guidelines, with a 20th likely by the time the end of June rolls around.
For the third and fourth debates, however, the numbers have been doubled with candidates requiring at least two percent polling support, and 130,000 unique donors, with 400 unique donors in 20 different states.
The decision to tamp down the debate availability has stirred up anger from some of the lower polling candidates, as reported by the Associated Press:
“It’s all just completely arbitrary,” Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet said as he campaigned in New Hampshire. Bennet, who’s yet to secure a spot in the first two debates and would face an uphill battle to meet the higher standards for September, called the process “a challenge for democracy.”
Former Maryland Rep. John Delaney wrote a letter to Perez demanding an account of how DNC sets debate parameters.
“I just think we deserve transparency,” Delaney told The Associated Press. “You’re acting as a gate keeper. … These people, in many ways, are the most important people in determining who our democracy is.”
Bennet calls the numbers “arbitrary,” and he’s basically right, they are arbitrary, but the line has to be drawn somewhere or there will be thirty candidates debating for a week straight.
What it boils down to is simply the hard truth that most of the 24 declared Democratic candidates have absolutely no shot at becoming president. They know it, the DNC knows it, and the voters know it, which is why these candidates aren’t polling above zero or one percent, to begin with.
The DNC responded quickly since they expected pushback from some campaigns:
“The DNC has established debate qualifications that are fair, transparent and appropriate for each phase of the primary season,” said Xochitl Hinojosa, one of Perez’s top aides who assisted senior party adviser Mary Beth Cahill in developing the debate process along with the hosting television networks.
Bennet’s other allegation that the debate rules were not “transparent” may ring somewhat true, but how much more transparent can they be? Is Bennet alluding that these rules were arrived at in conjunction with higher-polling campaigns as to shut out the underdogs? If that were true, you’d have expected a tighter threshold from the start to keep the one-percent candidates entirely off the national stage.
As it stands now, the participate threshold for the first two debates is very, very low. To get 1% in a poll can be achieved almost at random if a handful of respondents pick a name from the list, which is truly arbitrary.
If most polls have a margin of error around 3% to 4%, then perhaps a better threshold would be to say a candidate must have at least 3% polling support so as to eliminate candidates who may make the debate based on polling errors. Even that isn’t a perfect model, but it’s probably less arbitrary than defining 1% or 2% as the baseline.
Delaney and Bennet have gotten some support from other candidates, such as Sen. Kamala Harris, who said that the DNC should foster a “robust process” for letting voters choose:
One of the leading candidates, California Sen. Kamala Harris, indicated some sympathy for rivals trying to find stronger footing. “I’m not in a position to tell the DNC what to do, but there is no question that we need to support a robust process of letting everyone make their case to the American people,” Harris said Wednesday as she campaigned in South Carolina.
Harris is playing nice with this one, she knows that letting literally “everyone” make their case on the Democratic debate stage would be a colossal mess for candidates and viewers alike. How can voters learn anything about a candidate who gets to speak upwards or 2 to 3 minutes in an hour with so many competing voices?
As we saw in 2016, with a large debate stage on the Republican side, the result is short soundbites and general chaos as only a few candidates really get time to fully answer questions and deliver their thoughts.
With the new rules in place for the third and fourth debate, it’s true that some fairly big-name Democratic politicians will be left out in September and October:
That could mean several sitting senators and governors, along with the mayor of the nation’s largest city, are mere observers in September. It could set a challenge for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock. They just launched their bids in recent weeks, so they must hit the fundraising mark in a compressed time frame.
For campaigns like Bennet, Delaney, de Blasio, and others, it means they better spend time appealing to voters and making a case that they are at least an option that voters should consider in the coming months for the Democratic nomination.
If they can’t do that, then they probably have no business taking up a podium spot on a national debate broadcast past the first two debates which they will have access to.
The other aspect of the tighter rules for the September and October debates will mean the June and July debates are much more important for the trailing candidates:
The high bar for September makes the June and July debates all the more pressure-packed for candidates at the back of the pack, as they look for breakout moments to spur donors and climb in the polls.
The month of June will mark the mad dash for campaigns to sure-up their positions in terms of fundraising and polling to try and avoid the cut-off or avoid being stuck in the tie-breaker position where they might miss the cut.