This year, the Democratic National Committee decided that presidential candidates can qualify for the first two debates by earning at least 1 percent of the vote in three national or early-primary-state polls conducted by qualifying pollsters or by receiving donations from at least 65,000 unique donors, including at least 200 individual donors in at least 20 states. I assume that this liberal approach was a reaction to charges that the DNC stacked the deck against outsiders four years ago.
There will be outsiders galore participating in Democratic presidential debates this year. According to FiveThirtyEight, 16 Democrats have already met at least one of the DNC’s two criteria.
Here’s the list:
To make matters even more chaotic, several other candidates may be close to qualifying. FiveThirtyEight points to Marianne Williamson, an author and “spiritual adviser.” Williamson may be hard pressed to reach the 1 percent polling threshold, but apparently she has a shot at meeting the donor threshold. Last week, her campaign website claimed she was about 9,000 donors shy of 65,000.
How will the Dems accommodate so many debaters? Says FiveThirtyEight, “the DNC plans to split up each debate over two consecutive nights to accommodate up to 10 candidates per night; if more than 20 candidates qualify, it will choose qualifiers based on a ranking system that incorporates both thresholds.” They will determine which candidates participate in which debates by random selection.
It’s interesting and perhaps instructive to compare the Dems’ approach this year to the GOP’s approach in 2016. The Republicans had two debates, both on the same night. The preliminary one included only second-tier candidates, as determined by polls. The main event featured the top-tier.
The GOP’s approach seems more sensible than the one the Dems have opted for. Voters presumably would like to compare the performances of all leading candidates in a head-to-head-to-head setting. And the Party probably loses by depriving itself of a “main event.” Diluting the debates presumably means a smaller audience for the leading contenders than what could be achieved by having all of them together on the same stage.
It’s also interesting and instructive to compare the lower tier Republicans from 2016 with the lower tier Dems in this cycle. Participants in the GOP’s preliminary debates included one of the most prominent members of the Senate (Lindsey Graham), a former two-term Senator and leading contender for the 2012 nomination (Rick Santorum), the former governor of New York (George Pataki), the former governor of Texas (Rick Perry), and the governor of Louisiana (Bobby Jindal).
In 2020, the second tier of Democrat debaters would include an obscure congressman from Maryland (John Delaney), two relatively obscure members of Congress from Ohio (Tim Ryan) and Hawaii (Tulsi Gabbard), and quite possibly that “spiritual adviser.”
Most members of the Dems’ top tier also lack the stature of, say, a Lindsey Graham and a Rick Perry. But even if we confine ourselves to an apples-to-apples comparison, we see the gravitas gap between the two parties. We also see the ridiculousness of allowing second-tier Dems to mingle with front-runners (at some of whom are serious contenders with stature) in the debates.