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Jonathan Bernstein

Can the DNC Control the 2020 Race?

Strict new debate rules may push some candidates out. But the potential for unintended consequences is high.

Taking charge?

Taking charge?

Photographer: Saul Loeb/AFP

As expected, the Democratic National Committee is raising the threshold for participating in its third round of presidential debates, to be held this fall. For the first two rounds, in June and July, candidates need to get only 1% of the vote in three different polls or collect donations from 65,000 people. To qualify for the next round, they’ll now need to reach 2% in four polls and win donations from 130,000 individuals in at least 20 states.

The most important thing about these guidelines is that they exist at all. In the past, nomination debates were mostly decentralized. The sponsors – whether media outlets, interest groups or universities – were free to invite any candidates they wanted. Now, the national party organizations are seizing control and setting the rules. In this cycle, the DNC established standards for the early debates that encouraged candidates to formally enter the race; now they’re tightening the rules to help winnow the field.

Parties have always tried to encourage some candidates to run and others to quit, of course. What’s interesting here (as Seth Masket points out) is that the formal party is taking control by imposing seemingly objective standards, rather than through active networking. If this strategy is successful, it could boost the DNC’s influence with the broader party. But it’s not clear that it will work as planned. For one thing, we don’t even know whether candidates who fail to make the cut in the first round – with 20 spots available to 24 or so candidates – will drop out.

Where does this leave us for September? There’s no way to know how hard it will be for 20 or more candidates to find 130,000 donors. And that effort is more about data collection than “fundraising” in any event. As for the polling threshold, one of the key questions will be how many polls wind up being conducted. In each one, a lot of candidates who are supported by about 1% of the party will still manage to reach 2% just by chance, so the more polls, the more candidates will qualify. Much will also depend on how pollsters push undecided voters, how the lists of candidates are presented, and so on – which is one reason why pollsters don’t like having their products used in this way. It’s possible that these targets could even end up making it easier for marginal candidates to qualify, since they’ll know exactly what they need to achieve. The party’s actions here seem to me to invite the possibility of unintended consequences.

One other thing to add. If this kind of winnowing really works, it will likely increase the importance of the national party at the expense of the early-voting states (Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina). Polls from those states will still “count” along side national polls. But the donor requirement is national, and thus will tend to favor big states.

All in all, I think it’s healthy for parties to fight for control over their procedures like this. But whether the Democrats have settled on a useful set of rules is still very much up in the air.

1. Must-read from Rachel Bitecofer at Mischiefs of Faction on why candidate fields have grown so large. I disagree with some, but a very good discussion of the issue.

2. Interesting item from Jennifer Victor on Trump and the Republicans. One I’m going to think about for a while.

3. Kristi Govella at the Monkey Cage on Trump’s Japan trip.

4. Rick Hasen on special counsel Robert Mueller’s statement and what it said to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

5. My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Timothy L. O'Brien on Mueller’s statement and White House spin.

6. Jonathan Chait on Mueller and Attorney General William Barr.

7. Benjamin Wittes on Mueller and Congress. Excellent critique of what the House is doing wrong and solid suggestions for the path forward.

8. Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux and Laura Bronner on Democrats and religion.

9. And Ed Kilgore on partisanship.

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