The DNC Went Out of Its Way to Make the Debate Process Fair

The stage has been set for the next Democratic presidential debate, which will take place on September 12 in Houston, cohosted by ABC News and Univision. Ten candidates qualified, including Biden, Warren, Sanders, Harris, Buttigieg, O’Rourke, Booker, Klobuchar, Castro, and Yang. The good news is that this time, the debate will take place on one night with all 10 candidates on the stage together. The bad news is that we will have another debate with 10 candidates on the same stage, meaning that there will be little time for each candidate.

Some of the candidates who didn’t make the cut are complaining about the process put in place by Democratic National Committee. For example, Tulsi Gabbard’s campaign released a press statement.

The presidential campaign of U.S. Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard is calling on the Democratic National Committee to revise their list of debate qualifying polls to ensure transparency and fairness in light of numerous irregularities in the selection and timing of those polls…

The Democratic National Committee has the responsibility to facilitate more conversations between the future leaders of this country, not less.

The DNC announced the criteria for participation in this debate back in May, including which polls would qualify. Gabbard’s campaign didn’t object back then, but only after it became clear that she might not make the cut.

It is true that the DNC could have included a wider array of polls, but a look at the national polling average at Real Clear Politics shows that, based on the ones they include, the field wouldn’t have broadened, but actually narrowed, with the exclusion of Castro and Klobuchar.

Michael Bennet complained about the DNC process as well.

“I’m ready to lead our party and our country to victory next November, but I’ve got to be honest, and I say it with love,’’ the Colorado senator told the delegates at the party’s summer meeting. “The DNC process is stifling debate at a time when we need it most … rewarding celebrity candidates with Twitter followers”…

“These rules have created exactly the wrong outcome, and they will not help us beat Donald Trump,’’ Bennet said.

After spending more than $325,000 a day to get out his message, Tom Steyer had a similar complaint.

Mr. Steyer’s campaign has complained in statements that the DNC should have included more state-level polls than it did and pointed to Mr. Steyer’s higher, but still-single-digit, support in several Nevada surveys that don’t count toward making the debate.

“The American people deserve to hear this message in September, but are being denied by the lack of recent qualifying polls,” the campaign said in a statement last week.

While I recognize that it is in these candidates’ self-interest to make statements like this, I suspect that if they spent time talking to actual Democratic voters outside the confines of their most ardent supporters, they would find that people are actually grateful to have this unwieldy number of candidates being whittled down—finally.

In actuality, the DNC set the bar extremely low when it comes to qualifying for these debates. A candidate simply had to reach a 2% threshold in four of the qualifying polls to make the cut for September. In addition, they had to raise $130,000 from small donors, a criteria that was added this year specifically to demonstrate grassroots support and limit the ability of billionaires like Steyer to buy their way into the debates.

All of that was a step up from criteria for inclusion in the two previous rounds of debates, which is why 20 candidates qualified. That led a lot of pundits and party faithful to complain about the DNC process from the opposite direction, suggesting that there were too many candidates.

But there might have been some method to that madness. After sponsoring two debate rounds with 20 candidates split over two nights, the complaints from Gabbard, Bennet, and Steyer ring hollow. In other words, the DNC did the opposite of “stifling debate” or even giving the appearance of rigging them in favor of a particular candidate(s). Even someone like Marianne Williamson got her shot. If, after four or five months of campaigning, they can’t reach 2% in at least four qualifying polls, it is clear that voters aren’t interested in their candidacy.

Let’s give Tom Perez and the rest of the crew at the DNC some credit. After last year’s contentious primary, they bent over backwards to be both transparent and inclusive—to the point that now voters are actually asking them for assistance in winnowing the field.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.