The Democratic presidential campaign has taken a sharp turn as more than half of the candidates find themselves excluded from the next debate on Sept. 12, including Colorado’s senior U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet.
From Lincoln-Douglas to JFK-Nixon and beyond, presidential debates have been the oxygen that fuels primary and general election campaigns.
With more than 15 million viewers on average tuning in to the current Democratic debates, this is as true now as ever.
Unfortunately, the Democratic National Committee’s decision to limit candidate eligibility for the upcoming debate, based on number of donors and current standing in the polls, has fundamentally changed the trajectory of the selection process to the detriment of Colorado, the interior West and the Democratic Party.
There is a better way.
Let’s start first with the objective of the DNC in establishing these criteria: To ensure that only credible candidates make it to the debate stage. That’s a valid objective. But this is where the national party went awry and made several mistakes.
First, they picked the wrong measures to determine viability of candidacy. In evaluation, we have a saying that you “get what you measure.”
The party has established a minimum of 130,000 unique donors to qualify for the next debate. The number of donors can be a reflection of social media celebrity (see Marianne Williamson), single-issue politics (see Andrew Yang) or personal wealth to effectively buy those donors (see Tom Steyer).
Second, the party has attached disproportionate weight to a chronically unreliable predictor of the eventual nominee in Democratic presidential campaigns, early political polling. Relying on a snapshot of polls now to rule out manifestly credible candidates (such as a senior U.S. senator from Colorado or two-term governor of Montana) this far ahead of the first caucus or primary makes no sense.
At a 2% threshold, guess who likely would not have qualified for these debates at the same juncture in their presidential campaigns? Jimmy Carter, who was at 1% in the polls in the summer of 1975 and Bill Clinton, who was at 1.7% in the polls in the summer of 1991.
To carry this over to sports, imagine if five months before the draft in 2000, the NFL had effectively excluded Tom Brady from consideration because he was not in the “top 150” players. Or if the powers-that-be shut down Michael Jordan’s career in its infancy because he didn’t make his high school varsity basketball team. In gambling, there is a reason why the sportsbook doesn’t lock permanently into the “initial line.”
Third, with their criteria to make the debate stage, the national party has inexplicably tilted the playing field against governors, who historically have been among their strongest presidential candidates.
U.S. senators begin with a wider net of donors because they have been voting on legislative issues of relevance to special interest groups across the country.
So indisputably they have an advantage, particularly in the early stages of the campaign we’re at now, getting to 130,000 donors. Governors, in contrast, have been occupied with executive functions such as economic development, healthcare, and public safety and responding to crises, experience that can be predictive of success as president.
Fourth, the DNC’s debate threshold requirements give a big early advantage to the “coastal” politicians, who typically have enjoyed more frequent access to national media.
This has ill-served governors and senators from the South, Midwest and interior West (the regions from which every successful Democratic candidate for president has come in the past 60 years).
These are the elected leaders who have demonstrated success in securing votes from purple states that mirror the national electorate. While these “between the coasts” credentials have proved to be a valuable springboard to national office, their campaigns usually take considerably more time to percolate.
So what would be a more enduring and meaningful measure of credibility?
To begin with, candidates who have been elected to and demonstrated service as a governor or U.S. senator, the second-highest tier of elected positions in our nation after president, should meet the viability threshold. This should be a pathway to the debates.
Additional criteria can be applied to other, non-traditional candidates. But don’t impose across-the-board requirements that effectively exclude every governor in the race and many U.S. senators based largely on geography.
With their well-intended but Washington-centric approach, the Democratic National Committee has thrown a potentially self-defeating early roadblock in front of some of their most promising candidates and discounted the political currency of candidates from states like Colorado.
Shepard Nevel is CEO of a health technology company, and was senior policy adviser to the presidential campaign of former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper. The views expressed here are solely his own.