“I’m not chomping at the bit to hear Eric Swalwell tell me why he should be president” – An Anonymous Friend
Since the moment Donald Trump was declared the President Elect in 2016, Democrats have been chomping at the bit to start the 2020 Presidential election. This prologue to the election is finally approaching something of a turning point—the first round of Democratic Party presidential primary debates. With 24 significant candidates (per Ballotpedia) these debates have long promised to be a logistical nightmare and the DNC’s plan have elicited criticism from a variety of quarters. Unlike most things the DNC does however, I actually agree with their strategy regarding the debates.
The DNC has capped the debates at 10 people per stage with a maximum of two stages to be televised on June 26th and 27th. The criteria for getting in is based on a combination of polling and unique donors, with the top tier candidates (those with over a two percent polling average) spread evenly across the two nights to prevent one from being a “kid’s table” that no-one watches. The random draw for who will be in which debate takes place today.
The most common argument against this structure seems to be that the DNC is reproducing the issues with the RNC’s debates which allowed Trump to rise to the nomination through a divided field. By allowing the top 20 candidates semi-equal time, the DNC is putting popular high profile elected officials on equal footing with unknown mayors and representatives, not to mention people who have never held elected office. It is hard to argue that everyone on the stage provides something of equal value to the democratic primary or politics in general, and the longer the field is divided the easier it will be for a factional candidate to win. It follows, people (*cough* Nate Silver *cough*) argue, that the DNC should make it harder to qualify for these debates.
This argument often revolves around the lessons learned during the 2016 Republican Primary: a wide field invites chaos, and chaos produced an unpopular victor. This is an important lesson, but fixating on the Republicans in 2016 overlooks another set of debate debacles: the DNC’s “rigged” debates which led many Sanders supporters to accuse the DNC of pro-Clinton bias. By leaving the first debates wide open to what seems like almost anyone with a pulse the DNC is trying to rebuild some of that lost trust through proof positive they aren’t tipping the scale. And, like it or not, the more animosity there is to the Democratic Party from the base the harder it will be to win elections.
But there is another, stronger, in defense of the DNC’s rules: this is a democratic process. By making it easy to qualify, and allowing little known candidates a chance to stand next to high profile candidates who will attract viewers, the DNC is helping voters meet the majority of candidates. The debates are the best chance for otherwise unknowns to get their names and platforms out to the public. As Buttigieg’s polling bump and Beto’s continued slump demonstrate there is no guarantee that potential voters already know which candidates they want. Rather than presumptively restricting the first debate it ought to be crazy free form messes with altogether too many candidates. Candidates will be able to do little more than introduce themselves and that’s ok because that’s what they should be doing six months before the first primary. To have a good primary, and a successful democratic winnowing process, candidates need first to be known by the voting public.
I would feel differently if this were the third, fourth, or only debate. But it isn’t. The DNC has already announced more restrictive criteria for the 3rd Presidential debate in early September and assuredly the 4th debate will be even more restrictive. Like it or not, even though this campaign has been on the minds of political junkies for years, for the majority of democratic primary voters it won’t have started in earnest until the first, or maybe second, debate. We are still in the prologue of a long story and the first chapter ought to be a place for introductions, not conclusions.