Democratic National Committee’s Tightened Debate Rules Could Help Early Frontrunners

TOPSHOT - Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren gestures as she speaks during a campaign stop at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia on May 16, 2019. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN / AFP) (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Four debates for candidates seeking the Democrat presidential nomination are scheduled, but those who make it to the stage in the third and fourth debates will have to meet stricter conditions, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) announced last week — a move that will most likely slash the number of candidates participating.

To qualify for the first and second debate, on June 26 and 27 and July 30 and 31, candidates must have one percent or more support in four national or early state polls. They can also make the cut if they receive donations from at least 65,000 unique donors, with a minimum of 200 unique donors in at least 20 states.

USA Today reported on who will take part in the first debates:

The campaigns of 12 candidates say they have met both the polling and donor qualifications to take part in the first two rounds of debates.

They are: former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Tex., Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., entrepreneur Andrew Yang, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, former HUD Secretary Julian Castro, Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee and activist Marianne Williamson.

But, according to ABC and other news outlets, the list of candidates on the debate stage could be drastically slashed for the third and fourth debates:

Candidates must receive 2 percent or more support in at least four national polls, or polls conducted in the early-voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and/or Nevada. Each poll submitted must be publicly released between June 28 and Aug. 28 and be must be sponsored by one or more of the following organizations approved by the DNC: The Associated Press, ABC News, CBS News, CNN, the Des Moines Register, Fox News, Monmouth University, NBC News, The New York Times, National Public Radio, Quinnipiac University, University of New Hampshire, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Washington Post, and Winthrop University.

Any candidate’s four qualifying polls must be conducted by different organizations or — if by the same organization — must be in different geographical areas. And each poll must be publicly released between June 28 and Aug. 28, 2019.

Each poll’s candidate support question must have been conducted by reading or presenting a list of Democratic presidential primary candidates to respondents, according to the DNC. Poll questions using an open-ended or unaided question to gauge presidential primary support will not count. Each polling result must be the top-line number listed in the original public release from the approved sponsoring organization/institution, whether or not it is a rounded or weighted number.

“The DNC also said they and their media partners are reserving the right to add a Nevada-specific poll sponsor to their list of approved organizations in the near future,” CBS reported.

And even if all candidates qualified, only 20 could be on stage because the DNC set that number as a cap.

Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight weighed in on the DNC’s stricter rules, making predictions about which candidates will survive.

“This is an important change, one that could serve to quickly winnow the field from 22 candidates to a dozen or fewer,” Silver wrote. “Of course, candidates can still run their campaigns even if they can’t debate … but it will deprive them of a lot of oxygen.”

Silver noted that none of the candidates have yet qualified for the third debate because the polls required won’t be released until June 28, but:

However, we can make some good guesses about who’s likely to make it. Five candidates — Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg, and Beto O’Rourke — already had at least 130,000 unique donors as of their first-quarter fundraising reports. Joe Biden had almost 97,000 donors in his first 24 hours, so it’s safe to assume he’ll hit 130,000 soon if he hasn’t already. (The Biden campaign did not respond to a request for an updated donor count.) 

Andrew Yang said on Wednesday that he had only about 20,000 more donors to go, which should also be no problem.

Silver also noted that only eight candidates — Biden, Sanders, Warren, Harris, Buttigieg, O’Rourke, Amy Klobuchar and Cory Booker — have polled consistently at two percent or higher.

So given the data, Silver predicted six Democrats are “almost certain” to be on debate stages: Biden, Sanders, Warren, Harris, Buttigieg, and O’Rourke.

Klobuchar and Booker are both “probable,” Silver reported, and Yang and Castro are “toss-ups.”

The remaining candidates fall under the “toss up at least,” “leaning against” and “lots of work to do” categories.

Silver’s analysis includes what he thinks these stricter debate requirements will mean in the long run.

“The change helps the sorts of candidates that the DNC probably likes,” Silver wrote.

Tom Perez, chairman of the DNC, defended the stricter debate requirements.

“We’ve said this all along, that in the fall we’re going to raise the threshold because that’s what we always do. You have to demonstrate that you’re making progress. And 2% is hardly a high bar in my judgment,” Perez said on Saturday on CNN. “You can’t win the presidency in the modern era if you can’t build relationships with the grassroots.”

“Perez said the DNC spoke to ‘a ton of people’ for input before adopting its debate rules,” USA Today reported.

“What we’ve set up … is a structure where we want to give everyone a fair shake to communicate their vision to the American people,” Perez said. “The proof is in the pudding. Candidates have done a very good job in the aggregate of reaching the grassroots, and I think that’s going to help us as a party in the long run.”

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