The Dubious DNC Debates
Presidential campaign debates should be fair. Everybody running for president deserves the chance to make their case to the public on a level platform.
And yet, they can’t be completely fair. Right now, there are 178 Democratic presidential candidates who have filed with the Federal Election Commission. They can’t all be on the same broadcast network soundstage. Someone has to draw the line.
Unfortunately, as we will see in the first presidential primary debates this Wednesday and Thursday, the Democratic National Committee has drawn a ridiculous line.
Two candidates with credible resumes, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, won’t be on either debate stage. Meanwhile, two utterly unqualified candidates with no serious chance of becoming president will: Marianne Williamson (pictured), a successful self-help book author, and Andrew Yang, an unsuccessful nonprofit executive.
How is that possible? Because the DNC created new thresholds for inclusion in the first debates scheduled for June and July: reaching 1% in three party-recognized polls and accumulating 65,000 donors. These standards are not just low. They are easier to meet by appealing to the fringe than by career accomplishments alone.
Why did the DNC do this? Because it wanted to avoid charges of favoring “establishment” contenders after suffering accusations of rigging the 2016 primary to help Hillary Clinton dispatch Bernie Sanders. But those charges were always overblown, and now the party has overcorrected in response.
Let’s review how we got here. The national committees of both parties had long sponsored their own primary debates, but did not punish candidates for participating in unofficial debates. This led to scheduling anarchy, with at least 20 debates each in the 2008 Democratic primary, the 2008 Republican primary and the 2012 Republican primary.
John Dickerson, writing for Slate in 2014, summed up the problem: “Debates are a huge diversion from campaigning and raising money because they require at least a day of preparation, a day to compete, and a day to clean up or celebrate how the candidate did. Multiply that by 20 debates, and that’s 60 days that are out of the campaign’s control.” Furthermore, “the process put a premium on zingers, confrontations, and gaffes,” which doesn’t necessary help primary voters determine who would be the best general election candidate, let alone the best president. (I would also argue that after a few debates, they can get repetitive and no longer very informative.) The 2012 Republican debates were particularly clownish, with former pizza chain executive Herman Cain briefly a front-runner, thanks to his glib debate performances.
So for the 2016 presidential primary debates, the Republican National Committee declared that any participation in unofficial debates meant disbarment from official debates, and the DNC quickly followed suit. That streamlined the schedule. The Republicans ended up holding 12 debates and the Democrats nine.
That didn’t exactly stop the clown show problem. The manifestly unqualified Donald Trump turned that year’s GOP debates into such a grotesquely compelling reality show that he won the primary and the presidency. But the Democratic debates were robust, substantive and clarifying. They helped Sanders legitimize his insurgent challenge, and prevented a quick coronation for the establishment front-runner Clinton. And having plenty of time outside of debates to build a grassroots movement helped Sanders fiercely compete to the very last contest.
Nevertheless, his supporters complained from the start about the party’s debate schedule, insinuating it was a deliberate attempt to prevent a challenge to Clinton from gaining traction. They claimed the initial schedule of six debates was too few and the debates were scheduled in poor time slots.
So the DNC tried to neutralize any similar criticism for 2020 by scheduling 12 debates and making small-donor fundraising success – the hallmark of Sanders’ 2016 campaign – practically required for securing a debate invite.
Bullock and Moulton hurt their own chances by entering the contest later than the rest of the field, giving them less time to build up a fundraising network and register in the polls. But it’s particularly egregious for a governor to be denied an early debate slot. Governors, who have executive experience that is removed from the loathed Washington, are often strong general election candidates. The current Democratic field only has two other governors among a morass of Beltway denizens, and unlike Bullock, they don’t hail from a Trump-won state. Late polling may be a saving grace for Bullock and get him into the July debate, but it’s madness that the one red-state Democratic governor isn’t on the stage from the get-go.
The DNC tightens the criteria for its planned September debates, with invites going to those who reach 2% in four sanctioned polls and earn 130,000 donors. For those candidates who just barely crossed the 65,000-donor threshold (including Sen. Kristen Gillibrand, Sen. Cory Booker and Gov. Jay Inslee) or who didn’t reach 65,000 donors but qualified for the first debates on polling, (including Sen. Michael Bennet, former Gov. John Hickenlooper and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio) they most likely need a breakout debate performance to juice their fundraising operations enough to remain viable.
But with such crowded stages, breakout performances will be hard to manufacture. With 10 people behind lecterns and just two hours (minus time taken up by moderators), candidates can expect to talk for only about eight minutes total. And candidates with no hope and nothing to lose have a tendency to grab a share of the spotlight. If Williamson or Yang sucks up that limited oxygen with their own viral debate moment, once again a candidate who will not become president will be taking opportunity away from someone who could.
There’s no crying in baseball, or in presidential primaries. At the end of the day, the burden is on the candidate to survive under whatever rules are in place. Some candidates will always enter the race with more initial support than others, and the challenge for the lesser known is to become better known. If the third-tier candidates can’t go up a tier by September, and are forced to drop out, that’s ultimately on them.
But the party has an interest in fostering a process that helps produce candidates most likely to win. Instead, it has built a process that makes it easier for candidates who cannot win to crowd out those who can.
We can’t know in advance of Wednesday and Thursday how the early debates will turn out. The process isn’t the only factor that determines the quality of these events; the candidates themselves play the biggest part. In 2016, for example, no party-built guardrails were going to stop Trump from steamrolling the Republican field.
However, we can say in advance that a system that puts indisputably unqualified people on a debate stage before uniquely qualified people is a bad system. Small-donor fundraising prowess is a nice skill for a presidential candidate to have. But people with cultish followings who are unqualified to be president can possess those skills, and exploit the current rules to promote themselves.
Neither party has any civic obligation to make it easier for people who shouldn’t be president to run for that office under their party’s banner. The DNC should take note of how the 2020 debate criteria have failed, and fix the problem for 2024.