The new rules for the Democratic presidential primary debates have gone public. And for those concerned that the vast size of the candidate field means the Democratic contest will look like the Republicans’ melee in 2016, these rules offer little solace.
The party has capped the number of debate participants at 20, and to qualify to take the stage, a candidate will need to get at least 1 percent support in three national polls or polls of early primary states, or raise money from a minimum of 65,000 donors from 20 states, including at least 200 unique donors per state. If more than 20 candidates meet this criteria, the party will give preference to candidates who clear both the polling and fundraising thresholds, and if that’s still too many people, invitations will go to candidates who have the highest polling averages. And if the number of qualifying candidates is too unwieldy for a single debate, the Democratic National Committee said it’ll hold primary debates on multiple nights if necessary, assigning candidates randomly to the two debates rather than dividing them based on polling like Republicans did in 2016. The DNC told FiveThirtyEight in an email that this criteria only applies to the first two debates; later debates may have different thresholds for inclusion.
On the whole, the new rules make the barrier to entry in the Democratic primary debates … low. And this is probably intentional, given the backlash the DNC faced in 2016, when critics argued that its debate schedule favored longtime front-runner and eventual nominee, Hillary Clinton. If 2016 is any guide, unwieldy debates among lots of candidates who are polling in the low single digits won’t result in a few of the strongest competitors separating themselves from the pack, which is undoubtedly what the party would prefer. The problem is that there’s no real way for primary debates to resolve the party’s conflicting goals — inclusion and unity.
Primary debates are meant to winnow the field
Contemporary presidential nominations almost always have a clear front-runner. Since at least 1972, parties have fielded an average of about 10 major candidates for president each cycle (excluding primaries for parties that were fielding a president running for re-election). And most of the time, one or two candidates have an outsized advantage. There have been exceptions, though. The Democratic contest in 1988, with no clear dominant figure and several well-qualified senators and governors in possible contention, offers a rare parallel for this year’s contest. And, of course, the 2016 Republican primary is the most recent example of a crowded primary field, with 17 major candidates.
When the candidate field grows very large, as it did in 2016, participation in the early primary debates becomes contentious. The giant field meant that 2016 Republican debates were often split in two events — a prime time debate for the polling leaders and an “undercard” or “JV” debate for the rest of the qualifying candidates. Being relegated to the second-tier event did not sit well with some candidates, who pushed for rule changes that would get them onto the bigger stage, in some cases successfully.
Had the qualifying polling average been higher, it likely would have reduced the chaos of the early 2016 Republican debates by limiting the field to a more manageable number of candidates. For example, had the cutoff to qualify for the Oct. 28, 2015, “prime time” debate been 6 percent, rather than 3 percent, the number of participants would have dropped from 10 to six.1 And with a smaller group on stage, each candidate would have had more time to make their views known to potential voters. As it was, the crowded debate field greatly advantaged those candidates whose names and platforms were already widely known.
But winnowing has to be seen as legitimate
But while low thresholds invite chaos,2 the party’s efforts to slim down the field can anger voters and the media outlets who carry the debates. In 2008, the New Hampshire Republican Party withdrew from collaboration with Fox News when the network declined to include Republican then-Rep. Ron Paul of Texas. Fox was also accused of selectively enforcing its rules in 2007 when it didn’t invite Chicago businessman John Cox to debate in South Carolina — even though he was on the ballot there.
In addition to network complications, the party itself is stuck juggling a set of difficult tradeoffs. On the one hand, the party wants to assert some control over the process. It can’t invite the more than 180 people who have filed to run for the Democratic presidential nomination, and even including just the candidates who have some experience as elected officials leaves a daunting number of debate participants.
On the other hand, the party wants its attempts to control the process to be seen as legitimate. If a few candidates with decent followings and resources are excluded from the debates, they would likely complain, file lawsuits and hold press conferences claiming that the system was rigged and the nomination contest was illegitimate.
This is dangerous for any party, but it’s particularly dicey for Democrats in the wake of the 2016 nomination. Many voters were skeptical of that process, and leaked emails from the DNC suggested that the committee was biased against Sen. Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign rather than maintaining the strict impartiality it has often claimed. A Fairleigh Dickinson University poll released in October 2016 found that 64 percent of respondents said it was either “definitely” or “possibly” true that “both political parties rig the primaries so that outsider candidates have a hard time getting the nomination.” Distrust of the party has lingered, and party leaders are working to respond to concerns about fairness to all candidates, as the committee can’t afford to risk any more legitimacy problems.
The fundraising minimums imposed by the DNC this year are new, and while they may help lesser-known candidates with strong grassroots support earn a seat at the debates, they could leave the party vulnerable in other ways. Relying on small-dollar donors may help immunize candidates from allegations that they serve corporate interests, but those small donors are some of the most ideologically polarized political backers, which could push an extreme candidate to the front of the field and hurt Democrats’ chances in the general election. Alternatively, a self-financing billionaire with low name recognition might be left off the debate invitation list, which means that candidate would get less the vetting than others but would still be able to exert significant influence on the primaries and caucuses in 2020.
But more inclusive thresholds for who gets to debate might mean that the field remains fractured and chaotic for longer. As long as parties face pressure to both winnow the primary field and be inclusive of all kinds of candidates, they’ll have to choose one direction or another — it’s hard to do both at once.
UPDATE (March 4, 2019, 4:45 p.m.): This article has been updated to add the fact that the DNC says its announced debate criteria applies only to the first two debates; later debates may have different thresholds for inclusion.