Debatable Choices

Not everyone who wants to participate in a presidential debate can. I probably shouldn’t be included, and not just because I haven’t filed my paperwork as a candidate yet. The Democratic National Committee exists in part to help officiate this sort of thing. No matter what they do, somebody loses out. Somebody will have a solid complaint. It’s not fun to play referee. That said, the current situation is ridiculous.

Just over 48 hours ahead of the next debate, five candidates have qualified. Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, and Amy Klobuchar. These were the top five finishers in varying order in each of the first two states. All have earned at least one convention delegate. As such, they qualify regardless of poll numbers. Nobody will reasonably question their inclusion. The problem is who is missing.

You’re thinking first about Mike Bloomberg. Logically so. Prediction markets have him as the second most likely nominee. FiveThirtyEight thinks he’s the third most likely to get a delegate majority before the convention, with an additional shot at having a plurality of delegates. He’s in third place in the Real Clear Politics national average. He leads in the most recent Florida poll. That’s ignoring the $300 million plus he’s dropped on the campaign so far, the high share of media attention he’s getting, or that he’s the regular subject of attacks by his opponents.

Any system that’s keeping him from debating is a bad one. It’s also arguably helping his candidacy. Bloomberg is having no trouble getting attention right now. And it’s mostly free media, plus his own ads. He hasn’t had to stand next to his peers and take their best shot. It’s still possible. The DNC cutoff is 11:59pm Tuesday night. Bloomberg only needs a single qualifying national poll of 10% or higher. There’s a 99.9% chance that any additional qualifying poll will have him high enough.

Even if the poll lands in time, Bloomberg can reasonably argue he wasn’t given enough time to prepare, and could say he didn’t want to cancel whatever events he has scheduled for debate day/evening. He’s got an out even if he gets in. That doesn’t serve his opponents, or the party, given the point of a primary process is to pick the best possible candidate to win the general election.

Then there’s the matter of which polls qualify. Though you might not be crushed Tom Steyer will view the debate on TV, it’s absurd he won’t be on stage. In his case, the barrier is in the details. He hasn’t won a convention delegate yet, with his best performance being 6th in New Hampshire. Not great, but also within 5 points of Joe Biden. He’s nowhere near the double-digit results needed in national polls. But neither is Klobuchar. His third path is state polling. The DNC is requiring two surveys of at least 12 percent in either Nevada or South Carolina.

Steyer has them. The most recent South Carolina survey had him in third place at 14%. The most recent Nevada poll has him *leading* with 19%. But there’s a catch. Neither survey is a qualifying result. The other Nevada poll taken in the past month is both not qualifying, and too low, recording him at 11%, in fourth place, ahead of Buttigieg and Klobuchar. Three polls have been taken in the last 30 days. He’s averaging 15%. He’s in first, third, and fourth respectively. None count.

Perhaps it’s the nature of the surveys. Maybe there’s a good reason the DNC doesn’t count these. The new Nevada poll from Point Blank is highly questionable (and not just because it sounds like a movie.) They have Sanders at 13%, which seems impossible. Point Blank is a political consultancy, not an independent polling company or university. But the other two are very legit. And they are the only bits of data from after Iowa started caucusing. No qualifying pollster has surveyed either state during the window the DNC is allowing for qualifying results.

Let me repeat that. There are no surveys that qualify. When approved pollsters did survey Nevada and South Carolina in early January, Steyer got a 15% result in the single South Carolina poll, and 12% and 8% respectively in Nevada. In late January, he got a non-qualifying 18% South Carolina result from a local newspaper’s survey. Whether or not it’s great for democracy that Steyer bought himself support in these states, it worked. He’s unquestionably a contender for delegates in both places.

As bad as it is if Bloomberg doesn’t qualify or has an easy out, he’s not competing in either Nevada or South Carolina. His absence is problematic because of how it impacts his competitors. But Steyer has focused like a laser on these two states, and has succeeded in getting the attention of their voters. He’s legit. But not included unless two surveys from the right pollster drop in the next 30ish hours.

Why?

Partially the Law of Unintended Consequences. Partially Tulsi Gabbard. I doubt DNC Chair Tom Perez realized there would be zero qualifying surveys in Nevada or South Carolina. It seemed reasonable to ignore polls taken more than a month ahead of the debate, before anyone voted in any state. Unless we see documentation that the DNC told the pollsters to stay away, we need to assume this was unforeseen.

Still, why was the barrier set so high? Why at least twelve percent in a state poll, ten percent nationally? Were they worried about a crowded stage? There are only 8 active candidates right now. If they could fit 10 earlier in the process, surely this wouldn’t cause chaos. Couldn’t the DNC have said that if there were more than 10 candidates who had earned at least 3 percent from actual voters in the first two states, then more rigorous methods would be used to cull the herd?

No. Because Tulsi got 3% in New Hampshire. And the DNC isn’t willing to have her on stage, launching missiles at candidates, that will frequently cause them to stumble, not to mention creating great ad clips for the Trump campaign. They had to exclude her, without making it too obvious that was the goal. I don’t think this is horribly wrong. The DNC does. Not. Exist. For. Fairness. Their goal is to elect a Democrat president, protect the House, take the Senate, and win as often as possible in state and local elections.

But they picked a bad way to do it. Debate qualification rules weren’t a thing until the 2016 GOP field wound up being both oversized and filled with too many candidates meeting the basic standards of presidential plausibility. Not even counting the guy who actually won the nomination. The Varsity/Junior Varsity setup was panned, so the DNC tried something else this time. Which proved equally controversial. Unless a Democrat under the age of 77 wins the presidency in November, both parties are likely to face this again in 2024. I’m pretty certain we’ll see more candidates than ever before on each side.

National political parties are undergoing plenty of change. They don’t fit in the way they used to. Candidates are pulling in money directly, reducing their importance in fundraising. It’s harder for parties to block undesirable primary participants from entering. Donald Trump has captured the RNC, lock, stock, and barrel. But one thing only a national party can do is set debate participation rules. Both have plenty of time to think about 2024. And they better do better. If you think this round was controversial, just wait a few years.

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