The Debate Debate (Part 2)

[ Posted Thursday, May 30th, 2019 – 17:13 UTC ]

I generally try to avoid writing more than one article per week on any given subject, and although official Democratic debate rules is a wonky thing to write about to begin with, it is going to be critical to how the 2020 presidential nominating contest plays out. So I thought it was worth a second look, because the debate surrounding the Democratic debates just got a little more intense.

In the first article I wrote this week, I pointed out that after the first two debates, the rules would have to be tightened in some fashion to limit the sheer number of candidates allowed to participate. I predicted this would be "painful for many," and it's looking like that's already becoming true. Just after posting my previous article, the Democratic National Committee announced the rules for inclusion in the third debate, to be held in September (the D.N.C. has planned at least one debate every month this year, although August will be skipped for some reason).

From the Washington Post, here are the new rules, in detail:

To appear in the party's third debate, to be broadcast by ABC News and Univision, candidates will have to earn at least 2 percent support in four party-approved polls between late June and August. In addition, they will have to show that they have attracted at least 130,000 donors since the start of the campaign, including at least 400 contributors from a minimum of 20 states.

. . .

In recognition of how much this might cut down the field, party leaders are leaving open the possibility that the September debate would be held on just one night. Each of the first two debates will feature 20 candidates and will be split over two nights.

. . .

In the September debate, unlike the earlier events, candidates will have to meet both the polling numbers and the fundraising goal.

. . .

Polls to qualify for the third debate must be publicly released between June 28 -- just after the first debate in Miami -- and Aug. 28.

. . .

Democratic Party rules bar candidates from debate participation if they appear in unsanctioned debates. Last year, [Democratic National Party Chair Tom] Perez said he would design an inclusive debate system with several goals, including a desire to increase the voice of the grass roots, maximize voter viewership and allow for a robust discussion of issues.

Perez has a tightrope to walk, but so far he's been doing a fairly good job of it, at least from where I sit. The first two debates have an incredibly low bar to entry, which was designed to be as inclusive as possible at the start. But having 20 candidates on stage (over two nights) is nothing short of a marathon. Each individual candidate will likely get 10 minutes or less to speak. Sooner or later the voters are going to want to hear more from the candidates who have shown viability and widespread support, and less (or nothing) from candidates who are struggling for even name recognition. Perhaps this is unfair, but it is also a basic reality. With 24 candidates in the field, sooner or later more and more of them will have to be excluded in order to hear a "robust discussion of the issues" with the candidates who actually have a chance of winning the party's nomination. As the article notes: "That raises the pressure on candidates in the crowded field to seize attention during the first two debates to generate the poll numbers and donations to qualify for the third." But there's really nothing wrong with that. They're already under a lot of pressure to seize attention in the first two debates.

Currently, only eight of the candidates would meet the polling threshold of two percent (Joe Biden, Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren). But that's currently -- not "after the first two debates." If a candidate can't manage to boost their support during the first two debates (or at some other point over the whole summer), then their campaign will be going nowhere fast no matter whether they are admitted to the third debate or not. Two percent is not all that much support, to state the obvious. That equates to one-in-fifty Democratic voters supporting you. If you can't even clear that bar by the end of the summer, then you are not likely to become the nominee no matter how many debates you are allowed into.

Some underdog candidates are complaining about the fundraising criterion, arguing that this metric shouldn't even be used. They have a stronger case to make than the candidates complaining about the polling requirement:

Former U.S. representative John Delaney (Md.), who has been largely self-funding his campaign and did not intend to devote great energy to raising money at this point, wrote a letter to Perez asking for "complete transparency" on how the criteria for the September debate were determined. He asked for the names of Perez's advisers, the rationale for using a donor standard, and whether Perez was prioritizing "attributes of certain candidates."

"Forty percent of the American people can't afford their basic needs like food, utilities, and housing, so obviously, they're voiceless in this process," Delaney wrote. "If you can't afford your basic needs, you're not giving money to candidates. Why is that a good decision for the party?"

Sen. Michael F. Bennet (Colo.), who joined the field recently and may not qualify for the first debate in June, called for the party to "review" the just-announced qualifications.

"I don't think it should be based on national fundraising and cable news," Bennet said. "It's all just completely arbitrary, and I wish it weren't."

Democratic Party officials dispute those criticisms, saying the process has been carefully calibrated.

They do have a point about the importance of having a large number of donors -- especially for a self-funder like Delaney -- but at the same time, the D.N.C. has to impose some sort of limits or else viewers are going to get bored with hearing from candidates with no appreciable support. For better or worse, they've chosen their two criteria to measure the electorate's support.

While there are currently only eight candidates who are polling at two percent or better, this is almost certain to change before the third debate. Some candidates will make their mark in the first two debates and experience a rise in interest from both the national media and the voters. This may be a flash-in-the-pan phenomenon which then fades away, or it could launch one of the current underdogs to more sustained support from the voters. But it'd be surprising if this didn't happen to at least a handful of candidates who are now struggling in the polls. If I had to lay money on it, I'd guess that at least an even dozen candidates will make the cut and appear at the third debate. Again, two percent isn't all that drastic a requirement.

Perhaps, if the voices decrying the new rules are loud enough, there could be a possible compromise. Perez could announce an added debate in August, rather than just taking the month off. In it, perhaps the dividing line could be drawn at 1.5 percent (the D.N.C. is measuring the polls in tenths of a percent already), with the same fundraising qualification as the first two debates. This would cut fewer candidates than the rules just announced for the September debate, so it would create a more gradual winnowing process. Whether that would be good enough to satisfy everyone is uncertain, but it would at least give struggling candidates another shot at having a breakout performance before September.

But again, from where I sit, the new rules seem reasonable enough as is. The first big cut will be the most painful, as measured by how many candidates get excluded, but it is also entirely necessary. Future cuts are going to be brutal as well -- perhaps even more so, because at some point candidates with more than a single percent support are going to have to be excluded. The ones being cut at that point will be more well-known, with more supporters to get angry, in other words.

But as the campaign winds onwards, I would much rather hear more during each debate from the candidates with a real shot at the nomination. In order for this to happen, fewer people are going to need to be on the stage. By the time the primaries begin, I'd much prefer to see -- at most -- only the top five or six candidates debating each other, without having to sit through minor candidates desperately trying to gain some last-minute traction. To reach that point, the polling cutoff might have to rise as high as five percent. Which would be fine with me.

I'm not arguing for such strict criteria in the first debates, though. I think Perez has actually bent over backwards to be as inclusive as possible for the first two debates. Who among us could complain that seeing 20 candidates somehow wasn't enough? But after they've been given the opportunity to make their mark, as we get closer to the actual voting, the minor candidates are going to become nothing short of a distraction, robbing voters of the opportunity to hear more from the candidates which have captured people's attention. It's a tightrope to walk, but the rules for the third debate seem adequate to move the process towards this goal.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


19 Comments on “The Debate Debate (Part 2)”

  1. [1] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    If I were Perez, I'd just put the limit at the top ten candidates based on whatever get to all the debates if they so wish and the rest get to drop out.

  2. [2] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Oh, and the number of questions from the moderators go to the candidates based on their polling numbers.

  3. [3] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    if there's a funding requirement, why no pie requirement? blatant discrimination!

  4. [4] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    I know that one of the candidates likes pie better than all of the others and should have a one-on-one instead of a silly debate, anyway.

  5. [5] 
    Paula wrote:

    The field has to be winnowed and there has to be a way to do it. DNC started out being pretty loose coz they couldn't know how many people would step up. Now they know and they have to proceed to reduce the field, but in a way that doesn't make THEM the deciders. If you want to avoid appearance of favoritism you have to pick arbitrary standards and apply them to everyone. I don't think there's any perfect solution - I think these standards are reasonable.

  6. [6] 
    neilm wrote:

    I'm going to enjoy this primary series. I like most of the serious contenders, and they are so wildly far from Donald Trump (they aren't stupid, they aren't criminals, they don't lie 5,000 per year, they understand that issues aren't black and white, the list could go on and on) that they'll get my vote.

    So I'm opening some fresh popcorn (the Trump inquiries are in a fact gathering stage at the moment, important, but not too exciting) for the horse race. All I need is the fastest one to beat the broken down loser in the final.

  7. [7] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    That's a pretty good question, Don. I like your idea.

    There's just one problem with that … Senator Biden will take up everybody's time. Heh.

    Actually, that's not a problem at all and I really do like your idea!

  8. [8] 
    Balthasar wrote:

    The campaign trail is gonna be grueling. The Debate stage will be either cramped, or too wide. There will be little time for more than a cattle call, I think. Overtime speeches will occur.

    But we'll see them all lined up. It's a start.

  9. [9] 
    Paula wrote:
  10. [10] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    So, what's all about. Give us the gist of it, Paula.

  11. [11] 
    Paula wrote:

    [12] Liz: it's short. Go read it!

  12. [12] 
    Michale wrote:

    Sounds good in theory..

    But less than 30% of Americans want Democrats to impeach..

    And Democrats have proven they can NOT walk and chew gum at the same time...

    Which is why the Dim House hasn't seen ANYTHING meaningful come out, legislation wise..

    But hay.. What do I know??

    Yes, Democrats.. You definitely SHOULD impeach President Trump..

    I DOUBLE DOG dare ya!!!! :D

    So, what's all about. Give us the gist of it, Paula.

    I'll be glad to help out..


    Has no factual basis in reality, requires Democrats to lie, lie and lie some more and will have the same effectiveness that the Mueller probe had..

    Namely, it will be a HUGE win for President Trump and the GOP..

    But hay.. Democrats should REALLY do this!! :D

  13. [13] 
    Michale wrote:

    But it's apropos that it comes from a web site called CROOKED dot com...

    Because it describes the Dumbocrat Party perfectly..



  14. [14] 
    Michale wrote:

    Third, an impeachment inquiry should be plotted out more like a TV show than a trial.

    Funny.. Trump haters laugh and ridicule President Trump for planning his presidency that way...

    I guess it's OK if Democrats do it, eh? :eyeroll:

    Fourth, turn the relative unpopularity of impeachment into an asset.

    Oh sure.. Just upend decades of political reality at the snap of the fingers... Remember you must gather all the Infinity Stones first... :eyeroll:

    Who wrote this garbage???

  15. [15] 
    Balthasar wrote:

    Just throwin' around the furniture, eh, Michale?

    Jes' want you to know that a friend of yours, a fellow Trumpian, just told me that Fox had become "too liberal, except Tucker, ingraham, and Hannity", and that to get the 'real news', I now have to go to the One America Network (OAN). He tried to say that it was a result of the sale of Fox to Disney, and I tried to explain that the Fox News Channel wasn't a part of that deal, and he won't believe me.

    So should I: 1) press the point, and make him look dumber than he is, or 2) wait and inject the truth later, as if it's always been there.

    Arrgh! Either way, he'll fail to grasp that Fox is still in Rupert Murdoch's hands. That's just annoying.

    Well, good riddance to him. Sounds as though he slipped down the rabbit hole awhile ago..

  16. [16] 
    Michale wrote:

    Just throwin' around the furniture, eh, Michale?

    Commenting on the ridiculous-ness of the Democrat Party...

    Aren't YOU against impeachment????

    Jes' want you to know that a friend of yours,

    I don't have any friends.. :D

  17. [17] 
    Michale wrote:

    Just throwin' around the furniture, eh, Michale?

    Commenting on the ridiculous-ness of the Democrat Party...

    Aren't YOU against impeachment????

    Jes' want you to know that a friend of yours,

    I don't have any friends.. :D

  18. [18] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    I don't have any friends.. :D

    wrong as always ;)

  19. [19] 
    Michale wrote:

    Nicest thing anyone here has said to me.. :D

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