DNC Mulls Higher Bar to Qualify for Primary Debates
The Democratic National Committee may have an overcrowding problem on its hands, and is considering ways to address it.
After relaxing its rules, the party must now accommodate a sprawling field of presidential candidates who have qualified for the first two primary debates this summer. Based on the current formula, 15 hopefuls have already earned a spot on stage for the first nationally televised debate, which will be spread over two nights, June 26-27.
But following the second debate on July 30-31, some of those same candidates might not make subsequent cuts. Sources with direct knowledge told RealClearPolitics that the DNC is considering a rule change.
“This sort of low entry point into the debates is not going to last forever,” one party official said before mentioning possible higher standards in terms of fundraising and polling that would create “a natural winnowing before we get to Iowa.”
“That is the conversation we are having right now. And it is incumbent on the party not to put our thumb on the scale — everyone is very cognizant of what happened in 2016 — but also not to let this thing drag out.”
Democrats are haunted by Hillary Clinton’s candidacy four years ago, which, some complained, was more of a coronation than a real contest for the nomination. Primary opponents Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley repeatedly griped that party brass had rigged the system in her favor. Both accused the DNC of limiting the number of debates and manipulating their schedule to shield the front-runner.
Hoping to avoid accusations of favoritism this time around, Democrats decided to democratize the process. DNC Chairman Tom Perez announced new rules in February that prioritize national polling as much as emphasizing grassroots fundraising to qualify for 12 total debates. To punch their ticket, candidates must either score above 1 percent in three polls or rake in donations from at least 65,000 unique donors (with a minimum of 200 donors in each of at least 20 states).
“Because campaigns are won on the strength of their grassroots, we also updated the threshold, giving all types of candidates the opportunity to reach the debate stage and giving small-dollar donors a bigger voice in the primary than ever before,” Perez explained.
The initial requirements for qualification were never set in stone to begin with, however, and applied specifically to the first two primary debates. During a March 22 interview with CSPAN, Perez left the door open to higher standards for subsequent debates.
“In all the prior primaries, we saw the thresholds evolve as the campaigns evolved, and this will be no different,” he noted.
“I think it’s important for candidates to show that they've made progress. We haven't made firm decisions on what those thresholds will be but it’s absolutely undeniable that as we move forward we will adjust the thresholds to reflect the fact that we're closer to the caucus and to voting.
“We will do it thoughtfully,” he added, without offering any specifics.
The current requirements have set up a June battle royale in Miami where heavyweights will mix it up with lesser-known long shots. It will be an opportunity for front-runners to solidify their status and for dark horses to break out of the pack.
It also bears an uncanny resemblance to early Republican primary debates in 2016 when Donald Trump ran roughshod over more than a dozen other contenders. Critics belittled those GOP contests at the time as “clown shows,” and while Democrats insist their field will be better behaved, some fear under-performing candidates will succumb to temptation, act out and, in the process, cannibalize the party.
“How sharp are those elbows going to be?” a party official asked. “If this is a really contentious and nasty primary and we’ve done the work of the Republicans for them, it’s going to be much harder for us to beat Donald Trump.”
Seth Masket, a professor of political science at the University of Denver, explained the predicament: “When you have this many candidates and there is no obvious heir apparent, no sitting vice president or someone who came close last time around, it makes it very hard for the party to pick a favorite, and these additional candidates make it hard for people to coordinate on someone.”
Any attempt to head off that potential problem from the top down risks cultivating alienation and bitterness among voters, cautioned longtime Republican operative Tim Miller. “Democrats might regret putting together a system that allows for a fragmented field to continue for a long time,” he said.
Looking from the outside in, the former Jeb Bush spokesman also warned that “while the easy take from the sidelines is to say ‘Democratic leaders should get together and pick two or three people to narrow the field,’” picking favorites “would have massive downstream negative backlash consequences.”
Democrat brass has taken steps to head off any sour-grapes complaints: Another party official told RCP that campaigns have been briefed ahead of time that the qualifying requirements for debates that will resume in the fall could change.
“It is just like the NBA: You know that in order to get into the playoffs you have got to have a certain record,” the official said. “If you don’t get it, you are going into the next draft. Everyone understands those are the rules of the game. That is how it is played.”
If the rules do change ahead of the third debate in September and a candidate misses the cutoff, they won’t find much sympathy over at the DNC headquarters. Any complaints that the party lent an unfair advantage, the official insisted, would be “disingenuous.”
“We have to avoid this sore loser mentality of ‘Well, because I didn’t get in even though I knew things were going to be more difficult or I didn’t do the things I knew I needed to do to get in, then that is a problem with the institution,’” the official said.
“You have to own it because it is your campaign. If you aren’t getting the traction, you have to look in the mirror and ask why you’re not getting that traction. It isn’t the DNC that’s doing that. It isn’t the DNC’s job to promote your campaign. It’s your job,” the official continued.
The Democratic National Committee did not return RCP requests for comment.