What’s motivating the DNC’s debate rules

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Martin O’ Malley, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders at a presidential nomination debate on January 17, 2016, in Charleston, South Carolina. 

Democrats are trying to learn from 2016 and prevent the same problems in the nomination race.

The Democratic National Committee’s newly released rules for participation in the September presidential primary debate reveal a party experimenting with ways to exert control over a large field of candidates. But what’s most notable about these rules is how they show the party wrestling with the lessons of 2016.

The new rules ramp up the polling and fundraising thresholds for candidates to be invited to September’s DNC-sanctioned debate:

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

These thresholds are twice as high as they are for the summer debates, and now candidates will have to clear both the polling and fundraising hurdles, instead of just one of them.

Based on research and interviews I’ve been conducting, these debate rules appear to signal a party adapting to what are generally seen as three main lessons from the 2016 election. Those lessons are:

  1. Anyone is electable: Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 general election, despite his association with many damning scandals and his determination to alienate huge segments of the electorate, suggested to candidates and donors that pretty much anyone with a major party’s label next to his or her name can win. This has been a huge motivator for Democratic candidates, encouraging quite a few to run who might have otherwise sat the race out or focused on more winnable races like Senate seats. This is a major contributor to the fact that roughly two dozen people have now declared for president.
  2. Large fields of candidates are unpredictable and dangerous: Donald Trump received the 2016 GOP nomination even while many Republican leaders were clearly uncomfortable with or even hostile to him. He did so in part because the field of candidates was so large; this made it harder for party elites to coordinate their support on an alternative to Trump. Democratic leaders are probably less concerned that a failure to coordinate will result in someone like Trump as their nominee (there’s not really anyone quite like that in the running this year), but they do wish to maintain some control.
  3. Party preference for some candidates over others is perceived as illegitimate: The DNC was widely derided for appearing to be biased in favor of Hillary Clinton in 2016, and suspicion of insiders influencing the party demobilized supporters of Bernie Sanders in the general election. While the DNC actually did little of any real substance to enable Clinton’s nomination, it has gone out of its way to appear neutral in the 2020 nomination contest. This was what motivated the reforms last summer that reduced the power of “superdelegates” in the Democratic National Convention by stripping them of their first ballot vote.

So the party is attempting to satisfy several (contradictory!) goals at once. It seeks to cull an oversized field but in a way that does not appear systematically biased against any particular set of candidates. Well, it’s apparently okay to be biased against one set of candidates — the unpopular. Those who have been less successful in introducing themselves to primary voters have also been less successful in raising money.

Presumably, those less successful candidates are the ones most likely to drop out in the early 2020 contests, so making them ineligible to participate in the 2019 debates just accelerates that process by a few months. (And the party is even hedging against that a bit by pitting less popular candidates against more popular ones in the early debates, unlike the GOP’s 2015 approach of creating overcard and undercard contests.)

To be clear, major parties have used rising polling thresholds in past nomination contests, as Julia Azari and I noted here and here. But the fundraising targets are new, and these goals are being announced well in advance, giving candidates a clear set of targets to hit.

Does the DNC’s approach harm other groups of candidates? There’s some evidence that women and people of color face somewhat greater challenges in fundraising than white men do, as Eugene Scott has noted. However, these lessons may not apply at the presidential level for the 2020 contest. Nearly all declared candidates seem to have qualified for next month’s debate, and those that haven’t yet include white men like Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA). And as for the September debate, this FiveThirtyEight analysis suggests only a handful of candidates have qualified for it so far, with those ineligible candidates being overwhelmingly white men.

Of course, who ends up qualifying for the September debate will hinge on how the summer debates go — lesser-known candidates could have break-out performances and attract supporters and donors, while leading candidates could stumble. We just don’t know what that field of candidates will look like.

But what we’re watching is a party, in an unusually assertive way for the modern era, trying to shape a presidential field and proclaim in a clear and unbiased way who may and may not participate. This is a difficult needle to thread, and it will almost certainly be put to the test at some point — perhaps an omitted candidate with an enthusiastic base of supporters will protest or file a lawsuit, as has happened before. At that point, we’ll see whether the DNC prioritizes the winnowing or the appearance of neutrality more.