The Democratic Debates Are Going to Be a Nightmare

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The Democratic primary race, which has been going on as far back as I can remember and will surely continue until I have returned to dust, is building toward the debates. But getting there is going to be an absolute mess.

The problem stems from the fact that there an utterly ludicrous number of people running for president. In and of itself, that’s fine. It is good and democratic to have many people interested in running for office. Splinter: We love democracy! But it presents the DNC with the weird logistical hurdle of how to manageably and (somewhat) fairly cull that number to a manageable field that can debate one another and produce the best possible ticket going into November 2020.

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The DNC’s current solution is to allow any candidate into the debates who has passed 65,000 individual donations or cracked 1 percent support in three unique polls. This seems reasonable, but as a New York Times piece pointed out today, it creates some weird situations for candidates who have the name recognition to poll decently well but still don’t have shit for money:

The potential for embarrassment is this: According to a New York Times analysis, seven candidates will qualify based on polling but not, as of now, based on donors. Hitting 1 percent support in a handful of polls is a breeze for most candidates. But these seven Democrats risk appearing like they are skating onto the debate stage because of a really low poll threshold, not because of appeal among grass-roots donors.

The Times analysis found that if the debate was held today, 16 of the 20 candidates would make it to the stage. The qualifiers will be divided into two groups at random. This means that a number of candidates at the back of the pack in polling and fund-raising will still share a stage with the heavyweights in the race.

This puts the DNC, and anyone who plans to vote for not-Trump in 2020, in a tough spot.

The shameless image-promoters at the bottom of the pack, most of whom are currently running lackluster, utterly forgettable campaigns, aren’t worthy of the time or money it would cost to get them on the stage. But thanks to the DNC’s strange rules, many of them are technically on the list for the debates. Per the Times, this means the DNC may have to do further “winnowing,” perhaps on more and more confusing criteria, as the debates approach and (potentially, god forbid) more candidates join the race:

If more than 20 candidates qualify, the D.N.C. has said it will prioritize those who met both the donor threshold and the polling threshold. If more winnowing is needed, polling averages will come into play, and that’s where some candidates could really be in trouble: Kirsten Gillibrand, for instance, clears the “three polls of at least 1 percent” bar just as surely as Senators Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren do, but her average is much lower.

If that didn’t do the trick, the final tie-breaking measure would be the number of donors, in which case candidates who just barely cleared the 65,000 threshold could be cut.

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It does seem like a shame that people like John Hickenlooper and Jay Inslee may skate into a debate where they have—by all appearances so far—nothing to add. It also, unfortunately, means the chances of Mike Gravel’s teen-led insurgent campaign to make it into the debates for the sole purpose of yelling about the U.S.’s disastrous foreign policy aren’t looking great. (The Times doesn’t even mention him as part of their calculus.) Gravel’s campaign was banking on squeaking past the donor threshold in time for the debates; there’s a chance now that that may not be good enough when push comes to shove.

I don’t really have a better system for this besides pushing the candidates to robustly defend their positions and debate one another more often—perhaps forcing candidates to actually show up in the same place and square off more often, instead of only campaigning on their own terms. Political campaigns are usually extremely risk-averse, so that seems unlikely—but in a unique year where everyone seems keen to take a run at the White House, narrowing down the field is going to be an even more messy process than usual.

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About the author

Jack Crosbie

Contributing Writer, Splinter