Democrats' hurdles for debates make no sense

CNN Opinions 2 months ago
Former Obama strategist David Axelrod and Bush campaign adviser Mark McKinnon analyze the candidates' performance on the debate stage in Houston.

The Democratic National Committee just announced the debate criteria for November. As expected, it has modestly raised the bar again, asking for candidates to meet a slightly higher polling and donor threshold than the last debates. But like my elderly cat when we got a slightly taller box spring, some candidates just can't make the leap.

And yet, we are hearing a lot of meowing of protest from the field. Candidates have said they are being forced to adjust their campaign strategies away from winning votes to meet these benchmarks; party insiders are saying the benchmarks are excluding highly credentialed voices in favor of celebrity candidates; and down-ballot Democrats are complaining the donor threshold is taking much-needed money away from their races.

    But first, let's be clear that Democratic primary voters want to narrow the field. Generally speaking, a larger and more fractured field tends to benefit some front-runners (Joe Biden) while disadvantaging others (Elizabeth Warren). And, of course, no candidate left off the stage is going to praise a system that torpedoed his campaign, but even those candidates know they can't get their message across with 24 people on the stage. This is all to say, there is no solution to make everyone happy.

    The Republican National Committee experienced much the same problem in 2016 and some of us would argue blew it in far more epic fashion. (Full disclosure: I worked for Carly Fiorina during 2016 and was watching the March debate from my hotel room as a handful of dudes tossed around not-so-veiled references to the size of their penises.) My point being that we should at least give the DNC credit for trying to trim the fat with a scalpel instead of the RNC's machete that arbitrarily set and reset qualifications each month based solely on poll numbers.

    Even so, I am not the first to point out that there's something wrong here. Polling and fundraising don't measure whether someone will be a good president -- or even a good candidate. And incentivizing your candidates to spend money to meet those thresholds doesn't move the ball down the field for the party or the eventual nominee.

    And of course, there's the absurdity of putting that much stock in national name recognition whereby the only way for your candidate to get exposure to tens of millions of viewers during the debate is to have high national poll numbers, which more often than not are simply a reflection of name recognition among voters who have already been exposed to that candidate. Captain Yossarian would be proud.

    It's almost as if you'd be better off if you'd starred on a hit reality TV show for years instead of served as a governor or run a Fortune 50 company.

    Defenders of the system, though, would say it's working. We started with 20 debaters, and by November, we may be down to eight.

    But here's the problem. If we had whittled the field too quickly in 1991, there would have been no President Clinton. By July of 1991, he had a polling average of only 1.7% -- in a tie for 13th place with Jay Rockefeller. As Nate Silver has pointed out, in two of the past nine cycles, the eventual Democratic nominee was not even in the top 10 by July -- and both Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton went on to win the presidency the next year.

    So here's an alternative I'm proposing to the DNC:

    • The top three polling candidates according to an average of qualifying national polls get an automatic ticket to the stage. In the end, this is still our closest approximation to votes. But why should this be coupled with fundraising? If you're a great, progressive candidate who has managed to capture the support of 20% of your party's supporters without creating an enormous money machine, you have perhaps all the more reason to be on that stage.

    • Any candidate with a million individual donors gets a ticket. The goal of this metric isn't to reward a big fundraising haul but to measure support that may not be showing up in the polls. The threshold, therefore, must be meaningful and high. Bernie Sanders is the only candidate to hit this number so far. But by way of example, if Sanders were polling at only 2% nationwide, would the DNC really want to exclude a guy with a million high-enthusiasm Democratic voters who presumably has a uniquely powerful message that is resonating with those who have heard it?

    • Any candidate with more than 15% support when the same polling averages are weighted for name recognition would be on the stage. Silver has a nice chart on adjusted polling averages here. But in short, if two candidates both have 5% in the latest poll but Candidate A's names is familiar to 80% of voters and Candidate B is known by only 30% of voters, we would assume Candidate B would poll higher than Candidate A if all voters knew who both of them were. So you would "weight" that poll by multiplying their support as if they had the same name recognition as the most well-known candidate (Biden). Suddenly, Candidate B would have a weighted polling average just over 15%. Side note: It boggles my mind why this hasn't already happened. If voters haven't heard your message because you're, let's say, the governor of Montana without a lot of national airtime, why would the party want to limit your only chance to reach a broader audience with how you've succeeded in implementing progressive policies? And on the flip side, if you are a celebrity politician with near-universal name recognition among voters but only 4% support in a poll, do we really need to hear more?

    These rules would have ensured Clinton made the stage in 1991. Ironically, it also would have excluded Biden in 2007 (along with Dennis Kucinich, Wesley Clark and Chris Dodd, among others).

    And what of 2020? Of course, it's impossible to say for sure because the candidates would have run their campaigns differently if the DNC rules had been, well, different. Like those who talk about the popular vote versus the Electoral College, you can't rerun the game with different rules and assume the same inputs.

      But as of July, the field would have been narrowed to Biden, Sanders, Kamala Harris, Warren, Pete Buttigieg and Beto O'Rourke. And given how close Cory Booker and Andrew Yang would have been to the cutoff, it seems fair to assume they would have tweaked their strategies to get to an adjusted 5% as well.

      Funny enough, it's the same eight who will probably be on the stage come November. But it sure sounds a lot fairer, doesn't it?


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