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Are The Democratic Debates Already A Mess?

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.


sarahf (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): Republicans struggled with setting debate criteria during the 2016 presidential election because of their large and unwieldy field, and Democrats seem as though they’ll have their own issues in 2020. We already count 20 candidates who have qualified for the first two debates via one of the two criteria the Democratic National Committee has set up: receiving at least 1 percent in at least three qualifying polls or having 65,000 people donate to their campaign, with at least 200 donors in 20 different states.

The DNC has said that it will cap participation at 20 candidates, so the next candidate who qualifies, via one of the two criteria for entry, will trigger the tiebreaker rules. Those get complicated fast, but the topline is: If more than 20 candidates qualify, then meeting both the polling and donor requirements will be paramount for candidates — those who do will get first dibs on debate lecterns.

But why is it so hard to figure out a fair metric for inclusion? Is there a better way to determine who makes the debate stage?

julia_azari (Julia Azari, political science professor at Marquette University and FiveThirtyEight contributor): It’s difficult to figure out a fair metric for inclusion because the whole process is weird. Ideally, it’s both inclusive and efficient (i.e., it narrows options for a nominee relatively quickly), but it’s not really possible to do both at the same time.

geoffrey.skelley (Geoffrey Skelley, elections analyst): Right, and in the aftermath of the 2016 Democratic nomination, when the DNC was criticized for “rigging” the debates for Hillary Clinton, the DNC really wants to seem transparent and inclusive.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): So, 1) It’s good to have objective criteria, 2) as objective criteria go, fundraising and high-quality polling is perfectly fine, but 3) the DNC set the bar too low. Getting donations from 65,000 people is not that hard. And polling at 1 percent in any of three polls out of the many, many polls out there is even easier, probably.

sarahf: Although, to be clear, the DNC is not counting all polls from all pollsters. It has said, however, that it’ll consider both national and early-state polls, and qualifying polls can come from 18 different organizations).

geoffrey.skelley: Yeah, it’s still pretty easy to qualify via three polls at 1 percent or more — 19 Democrats have already done that. However, if the DNC had set the threshold at 2 percent or more, just eight candidates would meet that mark.

Only 8 candidates are polling at 2 percent or more

Democratic presidential candidates by whether they have received at least 1 percent or 2 percent support in at least three polls that would qualify them for the first Democratic presidential debates, as of May 21, 2019

IN at least 3 DEBATE-QUALIFYING POLLS, HAS SUPPORT OF …
Candidate 1 percent or more 2 percent or more
Joe Biden
Cory Booker
Pete Buttigieg
Kamala Harris
Amy Klobuchar
Beto O’Rourke
Bernie Sanders
Elizabeth Warren
Steve Bullock
Julian Castro
Bill de Blasio
John Delaney
Tulsi Gabbard
Kirsten Gillibrand
John Hickenlooper
Jay Inslee
Tim Ryan
Eric Swalwell
Andrew Yang
Michael Bennet
Seth Moulton
Marianne Williamson

For candidates deemed “major” by FiveThirtyEight.

Sources: Polls, Media reports

natesilver: Yeah, hitting 1 percent is soooooooooo easy. Like people can literally just pick your name at random almost.

The DNC is spending too much time trying to avoid mistakes they think were made in the previous Democratic nomination process when there are probably more lessons to be learned from the Republican nomination process.

geoffrey.skelley: Well, part of what the DNC wanted to avoid was the mistakes the Republicans made in the 2016 cycle with prime time and undercard debates.

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, elections analyst): I think the Democrats have already done a better job than Republicans did in 2016. The DNC has said that they’ll randomly distribute candidates across the nights, rather than hold “varsity” and “junior varsity” debates. I think that’s a good move.

natesilver: Oh, I’m not sure I agree with that, Nathaniel.

nrakich: How is a junior varsity debate better, Nate? My problem with splitting the candidates up by tier is that it requires splitting hairs between a candidate who gets, say, 3 percent in a poll and a candidate who gets 4 percent. (Margins of error are real!) I guess it’s fine to argue that you think the threshold should be higher and there should be only one main debate, but if you are going to split the candidates into two debates, I think randomly doing it is the only good way.

natesilver: Well, if you wind up stuck in the JV debate because you poll at 2 percent rather than at 3 percent, I don’t have much sympathy for you, even though that’s a minor difference.

nrakich: But the debates are candidates’ chance to raise their polling numbers up from that 2 or 3 percent.

Debates should start off inclusive but probably get less inclusive as we get closer to voting.

Like, the New Hampshire debate three days before the primary should probably only have the candidates with a serious chance of winning that primary.

nrakich: My beef with using polling averages as a debate criterion is that they assume that candidates can be precisely ranked by their standing in the polls. But in reality, polls are imprecise instruments, and you can’t do much more than lump candidates into rough categories (and even those have fuzzy boundaries). For example, all candidates polling between 0 and 5 percent are basically in the same spot.

julia_azari: I agree with Nathaniel here. I would also add that these differences don’t, in my mind, clearly differentiate candidates. And does it really matter if it’s 20 or 22 candidates on the stage? Either isolate the top-tier candidates or let everyone in.

sarahf: Julia, the number of evenings we have to devote to watching the debates is at stake!

julia_azari: If other people haven’t blocked off all of 2019 and 2020 to watch debates, that’s not my problem. People want an open nomination process. This is where that goes.

nrakich: Some pollsters have also said that they are uncomfortable with their work influencing elections. Their role is as measurers, not active participants.

natesilver: Meh, the pollsters complain too much.

If you believe in the quality of your poll, you shouldn’t have any problem with it being used as an objective metric.

I think they should literally have tiers on stage based on where you’re polling.

nrakich: Nate 🔥 take

natesilver: So like Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders are on the top tier and have big giant podiums. And Swalwell is in the cheap seats in like a broom closet.

julia_azari: This chat is a serious warning about overpopulated debates, and there are only five of us.

natesilver: I do think for this first debate, they might as well just let everyone in. And then set the criteria a lot higher for future debates.

geoffrey.skelley: But the polling average tiebreaker might not even solve things. Say there are a few candidates who have a bunch of polls in which they are hitting only 1 percent. If the polling average can’t settle a tie, it comes down to the number of qualifying polls a candidate has. But what if three or four candidates have the same number of qualifying polls? It’s going to be a mess one way or the other.

natesilver: Again, though, I’m realllllllly not sympathetic to the borderline cases. The primary has been underway for a while now, and if you can’t both get 65,000 donors AND poll at 1 percent in three polls, there’s probably something pretty wrong with you.

And I’d rather give more time to, say, Cory Booker or Amy Klobuchar to make their cases and less to Eric Swalwell or Bill de Blasio.

julia_azari: This is a recurring problem for parties. They try to solve a lot of these problems informally by limiting who runs.But when these conversations break down like they did in 2016, the formal solutions — like trying to come up with a fair threshold for inclusion in a debate with so many candidates — show why those problems were being solved informally: It’s a mess.

natesilver: Do we think the debate rules factored into how many candidates have decided to run?

Mike Gravel, whom we don’t consider a major candidate yet, explicitly seems to have run based on the possibility that he’d get 65,000 donors and therefore some sort of platform to talk about U.S. imperialism or whatever.

nrakich: Good question. Probably not? There are other ways to get media attention aside from the debates — it looks like every candidate is getting a CNN town hall, for example. And a few candidates have jumped in so late that it’s not clear whether they’ll make the debates at all, like Seth Moulton and Michael Bennet. So why are they running?

geoffrey.skelley: I don’t know — it could have pushed a few candidates who were on the fence.

julia_azari: That’s hard to know, but what’s interesting to me is that not that long ago, debates were mostly about getting the top-tier candidates to show up. Now, even though the evidence that they matter is somewhat mixed, they’ve taken on this whole different significance because of the record number of candidates and the scramble for inclusion.

sarahf: So what good are debates, Julia, especially this far out?

julia_azari: Well, the default position in political science tends to be that not that many people are watching and that those who are have already made up their minds. But the latter point is a bit different for a primary debate, since partisanship doesn’t shape decisions in the same way.

sarahf: Right, here at FiveThirtyEight, we’ve been saying things won’t get interesting until the debates!

julia_azari: So on the one hand, there’s not really hard evidence that debates affect who wins the primary. (Studies do suggest that debates might affect citizens’ perceptions of personality and viability to win the nomination.) But usually the primary is … not that competitive. The 2008 Democratic primary really stood out in this regard, because there were two strong contenders through most of the primary season, making the contest a real competition.

sarahf: Yeah, I think the debates will stand out this year, too, as they’ll be one of the first opportunities for people to get to hear from the candidates directly (outside of a CNN town hall, which, as FiveThirtyEight’s Clare Malone has noted, can be overly orchestrated to begin with).

geoffrey.skelley: And primary debates can certainly make or break a candidate — earlier this year, I examined their effects. Rick Perry in the 2012 GOP primary debates really stands out to me because after he defended Texas’s in-state tuition policy for undocumented immigrants, his standing among Republicans plummeted. It was much worse than when he forgot the name of the third federal agency he wanted to dismantle!

nrakich: I feel like the debates are one of the events in the Olympic Games that are the primary season. You have to participate in them and be rated favorably by the judges (the media) in order to win gold.

natesilver: But quite a few people watch at least relative to the size of the Democratic electorate, don’t they?

Here’s some ratings data on the 2016 Democratic primaries from Wikipedia:

By comparison, 31 million people voted in the Democratic primaries in 2016. So having an audience of 16 million for the first debate isn’t bad compared with 31 million!

nrakich: It’s interesting how viewership dropped off so starkly after the first debate.

natesilver: That may have happened because I don’t think either Sanders or Clinton were particularly interesting debaters. They were perfectly competent, but not interesting.

sarahf: Do you think candidates who go the second night will be disadvantaged?

I realize Democrats aren’t splitting the debates into a varsity and JV debate, but maybe one debate will be enough for folks?

geoffrey.skelley: Depends on who is in each debate. If it’s a random draw but a number of leading candidates end up in one debate, that debate will probably get the most attention.

natesilver: There might be a wee bit of fatigue, Sarah, but it probably depends more on the draw. If Biden, Sanders and Warren are all on the second night, that’s the one most people will care about. But if the heavyweights are all on the first night, the second night could feel like more of a JV affair.

geoffrey.skelley: Yeah, but if the heavyweights are all grouped together, I think that could still be good for some of the underdog candidates. It could give them an opportunity to stand out without facing the same “main event” vs. “undercard” judgment that was explicit in how the GOP handled things in 2016.

julia_azari: I don’t know. I’m going to remain on team skepticism about 2016 Republican type ratings. It’s possible that people will tune into these debates with a genuine eye toward actually deciding between candidates or learning more about some candidates. But I don’t expect that these debates will draw in Trump-level ratings.

The Democratic field is crowded, but it doesn’t have an animating rivalry between two candidates and it’s not a clown show.

sarahf: … at least not yet!

There’s still so much we don’t know.

julia_azari: But people weren’t watching in 2016 because they wanted to hear the finer points of Marco Rubio’s tax plan vs. Ted Cruz’s. There was a show-biz factor with Trump, to put it politely. And he delivered consistently enough.

nrakich: I dunno, Julia, I’m pretty worked up about the Swalwell vs. Hickenlooper rivalry.

sarahf: Nathaniel 🙄

Is there another debate matchup you all are looking forward to?

natesilver: Trump was uniquely unpredictable in the context of the debates, so I’m not sure whether there will be a point of comparison.

But you will have the dynamic of other candidates working to take the front-runner down, which has both potential risks and rewards for the front-runner.

I think the first debate is probably more likely to hurt Biden than help him, however.

geoffrey.skelley: The lack of a Trump-like figure will certainly make a difference. But it could get really interesting if Biden and Sanders are on stage the same night. One could easily imagine Sanders going after Biden straight away, just as he did with Hillary Clinton in 2016.

natesilver: I mean, I think debates sometimes tend to cause reversion toward the fundamentals. So if we think Biden’s numbers are a little bit inflated right now by a post-announcement boost, and I think they probably are, he’s more likely to decline than improve.

julia_azari: Counterpoint: Biden is actually quite good in these settings. His experience helps as he’ll be less likely to go deer-in-the-headlights on a specific question. And he really knows how to work emotion, if you recall his performance in the 2008 VP debates.

natesilver: Who do we expect to be an effective debater? Kamala Harris? Elizabeth Warren? Pete Buttigieg?

Although, maybe it’s not a good thing if expectations are high. Everyone’s going to expect Harris to be super incisive with every response and for Buttigieg to speak Norwegian or something.

julia_azari: I am OUT if I have to learn Norwegian for these debates.

I think people expect Warren to be wonky and unlikable, but my impression is that she’s actually pretty good in front of a crowd, so maybe she’ll do well.

natesilver: For Warren, I think you can argue that she is someone for whom the fundamentals are misaligned. She’s an “objectively” strong candidate and “should” be doing better (I know how loaded those terms are — it’s a chat, so give me a break). Maybe the same is true for Harris. So they both stand to gain.

Or to put it another way, if Harris and Warren don’t benefit from the debates, then maybe we have to start concluding that they’re products that voters just don’t like very much for whatever reason.

sarahf: So who … do we think won’t make the debate stage? Because it does seem as though we’re headed toward some sort of tiebreaker, right?

nrakich: Maybe Marianne Williamson? She’s the only candidate currently who’s qualified via the donors criterion but not the polling criterion.

sarahf: If Marianne Williamson is the one who’s cut … it’s kind of like what was the point of the DNC introducing the 65,000-unique-donor threshold anyway.

geoffrey.skelley: But Williamson only needs to earn 1 percent support in one more survey to qualify via polls. So I actually like her chances if it comes down to a polling-average tiebreaker because she might hit both the polling and donor criteria.

And yeah, Sarah, that’s a big question mark: How many of the candidates who have qualified via polls but not via donors will actually get 65,000 donors?

It sounds like Inslee is close on the donor count, for instance. But what about John Hickenlooper or Kirsten Gillibrand or John Delaney, etc.? I haven’t found any new information about their donor counts.

natesilver: There’s no particular reason to limit it to 20 candidates instead of 21 or whatever.

nrakich: We live in a base 10 world, Nate. Get used to it.

natesilver: But it just sort of seems to defeat the purpose of being inclusive if you’re excluding just Williamson.

Moulton might not make it.

geoffrey.skelley: Yeah, Moulton is the one who is really up a creek without a polling paddle — he doesn’t have a single qualifying survey yet.

nrakich: The new hot take: I should be considered a serious candidate for president even though I have raised no money whatsoever.

natesilver: Sorry, but you’re not a major candidate according to our criteria, Rakich.

sarahf: OK, so as we’ve discussed, there are pros and cons to having a debate stage as wide-ranging and inclusive as what the DNC has settled on. But it’s also really hard to do any of this fairly. So to end today’s chat, what would you have liked to see the DNC do differently?

julia_azari: I mean, the DNC is in somewhat of a no-win position, but given that I’m not sure they can actually regain (or gain) legitimacy by having 20-candidate debates, it might have made sense to just raise the thresholds to begin with.

nrakich: Overall, I think the DNC did well. The criteria are arbitrary, sure, but they’ve turned out to be well-calibrated, at least for someone like me who wants initial debates to include (almost) everyone.

geoffrey.skelley: I think 10 Lincoln-Douglas debates between pairs of candidates would be the best approach.

Oh sorry, Newt Gingrich took over my Slack account for a second there.

But seriously, I think the DNC could’ve made a case for higher thresholds, such as polling at 2 percent instead of 1 percent.

nrakich: I think this chat did convince me that stricter thresholds are appropriate for later in the primary season, closer to the actual voting. We’ll see if the DNC agrees.

natesilver: I think maybe there should have been both a money qualifier and a donors qualifier for the donor threshold. Like, you have to raise donations from 65,000 people and raise at least $5 million, or something.

That’s basically what airlines’ frequent flier programs do now — you have to fly a certain amount of miles and spend a certain amount of money.

nrakich: The DNC should be more like airlines — there’s a winning electoral position!

natesilver: ThE AiRLiNe InDuStRy Is UnFaIrLy MaLiGnEd

julia_azari: This debate has been canceled due to mechanical failure. Tomorrow, we fly you to Poughkeepsie instead of Atlanta.

natesilver: And if I were the DNC, I’d stipulate my criteria for future debates sooner rather than later. Because otherwise it’s going to look like they’re engineering the rules around which candidates they do/don’t like.

geoffrey.skelley: Which would defeat the point of being so inclusive in the first place.

Sarah Frostenson is FiveThirtyEight’s politics editor.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Julia Azari is an associate professor of political science at Marquette University. Her research interests include the American presidency, political parties and political rhetoric. She is the author of “Delivering the People’s Message: The Changing Politics of the Presidential Mandate.”

Nathaniel Rakich is FiveThirtyEight’s elections analyst.

Geoffrey Skelley is an elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

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