In theory, the largest and most diverse array of presidential contenders in modern history should be a bracing tonic for democracy. Every primary voter should feel that he or she is offered a choice, not an echo. And with more than eight months to go to the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, little-known contenders will have ample time to try to replicate Jimmy Carter’s 1976 rise from “Jimmy Who?“ to the White House.
The reality is more complex and arbitrary. Instead of the voters in the early states winnowing the Democratic field to manageable proportions, that making-of-the-president power may well end up vested in the hands of the TV networks that sponsor the debates.
Since John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon battled face-to-face in a Chicago TV studio in 1960, debates have been a dominant feature of presidential races. The 2016 GOP face-offs came close to setting ratings records for primary debates. Campaign debates are really two events: what unfolds on the TV screen and the spin afterwards in which the media anoints winners and losers. In a sense, it doesn't matter if the post-debate interpretations are amplified by print (the 1960s), television (the 1990s) or social media (today). What does matter is that a candidate is a non-person if he or she is not on the debate stage.
The Democratic National Committee, to its credit, learned important lessons from the thumb-on-the-scales spectacle of the 2016 GOP primary debates that slavishly followed poll ratings (and TV ratings) to the detriment of everything else. Faced with an unwieldy 17-candidate scrum, the Republicans allowed the TV networks (beginning with Fox News) to divide the field into two tiers based solely on national poll numbers, which mostly reflect name recognition in the early going.
The result: Donald Trump was placed front and center in every major debate he participated in, while senior legislators like South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham were consigned to separate face-offs with the other also-rans that attracted much lower TV ratings.
In negotiating a 2020 debate schedule with the networks, the DNC came up with a much more equitable system. Gone are the separate kiddie-table debates, which were humiliating for the candidates barred from participating with the grown-ups. If two debates are needed because of the number of candidates (as is obviously the case this time around), participants in each session will be chosen by lot instead of poll numbers. As a result, there is a 50-50 chance that Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), the current leaders in the polls, will be assigned to different nights when the Democrats launch the debate season in late June in Miami.
To participate in the initial debates, a candidate will either need to reach 1-percent support in certain national polls or attract 65,000 individual donors. If more than 20 candidates qualify by these methods, priority would be given to those with both enough poll support and donors.
(Many of these DNC debate rules are similar to the recommendations that I sketched out in a 2017 Brennan Center paper, The Chosen One: Thoughts on a Better, Fairer, and Smarter Way to Choose Presidential Nominees. Honesty requires me to add that the similarity may have been coincidental).
But no one envisioned too many candidates to fit on two debate stages. As a result, candidates on the cusp are reduced to begging for donors. (In fact, the New York Post put New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio on its front page this week with a cup and a mock sign, “BROTHER, CAN YOU SPARE A BUCK?”)
In the last 24 hours on my Facebook feed, I have seen paid ads for Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (NY) and Cory Booker (NJ), Gov. Jay Inslee (WA), and Rep. Seth Moulton (MA), all pleading for contributions as small as $1. As Gillibrand’s ad put it, “The DNC rules may keep me off the national debate stage. Give $1 today to guarantee my voice can be heard in the campaign.”
In case more than 20 candidates qualify based on both surveys and campaign contributions, the polling numbers would prevail. As Geoffrey Skelley explained in FiveThirtyEight, “With so many candidates hovering around 1 percent or so in the polls, a few tenths of a percentage point could make or break a candidate’s chances of qualifying.” And that's well within the margin of error.
Already, there is the danger that a respected senator, Michael Bennet (D-CO), who entered the race late after surgery for prostate cancer, will be at home during the first round of debates while a vanity candidate like spiritual guru Marianne Williamson will be on stage outlining her vision for America.
A better solution would be for the DNC to exclude candidates that it knows have no chance of winning: Williamson, Gravel (who received exactly 404 votes in the 2008 New Hampshire primary after being included in most debates), and Wayne Messam, the little-known mayor of Miramar, Florida. With 21 candidates remaining, the choice then would be to also boot entrepreneur Andrew Yang (who has never been elected to political office) or cram 11 candidates into one of the debates.
But the DNC (still skittish over accusations that it was biased against Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primaries) prefers objective criteria over any exercise of judgment.
A second set of debates, slated for July 30 and July 31 in Detroit, will follow roughly the same rules as the kickoff round in Miami. But then, after a month’s hiatus for August, matters get tricky.
The TV networks are reportedly pressing the DNC to cut the field by more than half before the debates resume in September. In initially announcing the debate rules, DNC Chairman Tom Perez reserved the right to tighten the criteria for later debates. As Perez put it during a March interview with C-SPAN, “In all of the prior primaries, we saw the thresholds evolve as the campaigns evolved, and this will be no different.”
The DNC may give in to heavy network pressure and raise the standards in September (maybe requiring 4 percent in national polls) so that no more than 10 candidates qualify for future debates. Serious figures in the Democratic Party (senators like Gillibrand and Bennet, governors like Inslee and Steve Bullock of Montana) would be in jeopardy of being cast into oblivion, dismissed by their own party as fringe candidates.
What makes such a move unconscionable is that a September debate would be roughly five months before the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary. Political history is punctuated with last-minute breakthroughs in these early contests, from Gary Hart in New Hampshire to 1984 to Rick Santorum in Iowa in 2012. None of these surges would have been possible if underdog contenders were arbitrarily excluded for the debates.
Both parties have come a long way in the 60 years since presidential nominees were mostly anointed by party bosses. Voter sovereignty is now the watchword with almost all the 2020 Democratic delegates slated to be chosen in primaries. But this triumph of democracy will be hollow if the ratings-driven demands of the TV networks end up arbitrarily shrinking the presidential field before any voters get a say.
The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.
(Image: Justin Sullivan/Getty)