There’s no way to please everybody in organizing presidential nominating contest debates when you’ve got more candidates than you can stir with a stick. And the Democratic National Committee is vulnerable to criticism for being heavy-handed after multiple complaints in 2016 that it tried to “rig” the debates and the primaries for Hillary Clinton.
Still, with a 23-candidate (or by some counts 24) field, the party needed to do something to avoid making the upcoming debates a complete mob scene. So it adopted a qualifying system for the first two rounds of debates this summer providing alternative polling and grassroots fundraising benchmarks. Then, more controversially, it toughened those standards for the third and fourth debates this fall, basically doubling the polling and fundraising requirements.
With participation capped at 20, the first two debate rounds will accommodate most, though perhaps not all, of the candidates who have a snowball’s chance in hell of becoming viable. But there’s inevitably some people upset, particularly partisans of Montana Governor Steve Bullock, the very late-announcing candidate whose debate eligibility was endangered by a DNC ruling on polls that can be used in qualifying.
But a more generic complaint by another late-announcing laggard, Senator Michael Bennet, has challenged the very idea that the DNC should be in the candidate-winnowing process, as it definitely will be with those toughened second-round requirements (which at this point only eight candidates would definitely meet).
It’s unlikely the party is betraying any individual candidate preferences in setting debate rules that merely hold down the crowd to the size of the biggest family table in a restaurant. And by eschewing the GOP’s 2016 practice of demoting a big chunk of the field to a “kid’s table” preliminary event that few will watch, and giving all qualifiers an equal, random assignment, the DNC is doing its best to avoid putting a thumb on the scales for the candidates most likely to win.
Still, there’s at least a theoretical argument that the party should not do anything to discourage anyone until the caucuses and primaries come around and let voters do the winnowing. Otherwise, late-blooming candidacies will be killed before their time.
So this raises the empirical question of whether we’ve seen viable candidates in the past who might not have met the current polling thresholds for participation in debates (it’s infinitely trickier to retroactively apply fundraising standards, so I won’t, and most 2020 candidates are qualifying via polls in any event). This analysis is made feasible by two recent posts by Geoffrey Skelley at FiveThirtyEight showing polling averages for candidates the year before the primaries dating back to 1972.
1972 Democratic nominee George McGovern would have met a low-single-digit polling threshold in 1971, but not by a lot; in that preliminary year he was running behind former New York City mayor and congressman John Lindsay (!). The more clear-cut example of a winner who might have been winnowed is the 39th president, Jimmy Carter, who was polling below one percent throughout 1975 as he toiled in obscurity in places like Iowa (which his successful candidacy basically put on the map).
In the 1984 Democratic field Gary Hart was polling in the low single digits in 1983, before emerging as Walter Mondale’s most formidable opponent (the Big Bertha that ultimately misfired was John Glenn, a 1983 polling behemoth whose candidacy fell apart when voters started voting).
In 1992, another soon-to-be-president, Bill Clinton, was polling at under two percent in the first half of 1991, though he did poll a lot better (albeit still far behind Jerry Brown and ultimate no-show Mario Cuomo) the second half of that year.
Fast-forwarding to 2008, the top Republican challenger to eventual nominee John McCain was Mike Huckabee, who was polling at under two percent in the first half of 2007. (That contest had two high-polling flops, Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson).
In the 2012 cycle Rick Santorum’s polling average was under three percent throughout 2011. He won Iowa, though, and went on to come within a few thousand votes in Michigan of derailing Mitt Romney’s nomination.
The 45th president didn’t even announce his candidacy until mid-June of 2015, so he barely registered in early polls, before rocketing to the top in the autumn of that year and staying there.
The lessons of history aren’t entirely clear; there were a lot fewer polls (and for that matter, debates) back in the day, and less pressure from donors and media to dazzle from the get-go. It’s also worth mentioning that the DNC’s debate thresholds allow candidates to qualify via early-state as well as national polls, which accommodates candidates like Huckabee and Santorum who focused obsessively on Iowa at the expense of their national standing.
Any way you cut it, though, a candidate like Jimmy Carter probably wouldn’t have survived an effort by his own national party to throw cold water on his early candidacy. Against the possibility of burying a diamond in the rough the party has to balance the risk of a debate stage so crowded it loses viewers and meaning, or worse yet, of a candidate field so large that it produces inconclusive primaries and a contested convention where Establishment super-delegates control the nomination in now-smokeless but still-questionable back rooms.
Nope, there is no way the DNC can please everyone.