Pre-Power Rankings Thoughts on Debate Thresholds and Early State Polls

Tomorrow will be my first Democratic Power Rankings of 2020, but before I get to them, something must be addressed — something  that impacts those rankings and is getting a lot of attention from mid-tier candidates.

Two factors have combined to potentially keep the January 14 Des Moines, Iowa debate to just five candidates:

  1. The DNC’s increasingly stringent debate qualifications, which now say debate-hopefuls need 225,000 donors and either four DNC-approved polls of five percent in early state and/or national polling or two polls of seven percent in early state polling.
  2. The recent dearth of DNC-approved polls, particularly in the early states, of which we haven’t seen any since the last debate on December 19 and only one in the last six weeks. The last DNC-approved Iowa poll, for example, was on November 13, and the last New Hampshire poll finished three days before that.

The result: with so few polling opportunities and the polling window for debate qualifying ending this Friday, only five candidates have qualified for the Des Moines stage:

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Remaining candidates have zero qualify polls and far too few donors.

These factors have drawn ire from those on the outside looking in. Tom Steyer, Cory Booker, and especially Andrew Yang have complained about the recent lack of polling. They note that their campaigns focus a lot of energy on early states, which aren’t getting polled, and they highlight the lack of recency in polls, which they claim would be on their side with recent momentum. (Somehow, all mid-tier candidates are apparently surging at once.) The DNC has consequently felt a lot of heat from these candidates’ supporters and others, with some pushing conspiracy theories about party elites choosing winners and losers.

PPFA has some thoughts on all this, best shared in a post of their own than combined into a bloated Power Rankings tomorrow. Those thoughts are:

1. There must be debate qualifying thresholds. Over 300 people filed paperwork with the FEC to run for the Democratic nomination. That is not a joke. Letting them all debate for eight months seems like a non-starter. Would we have 30 days of ten debaters then start the cycle over again each month? “Well, no,” you say, “We’d draw the line somewhere.” But where? Where is the neat drop-off from one tier of worthy candidates to the next?

2. The question therefore is: what should those thresholds be. The DNC announced they would consider the number of donors a campaign earns and polling performances. They announced those categories early in the process. Their thresholds started extremely low and slowly increased over time, allowing lesser known candidates to qualify for debates early, get their name out there, and become more popular as people got to know them. All fair and reasonable.

3. The DNC also announced which pollsters were acceptable. This is also important. Allowing any survey would leave open the possibility of manipulation. Michael Bloomberg or Tom Steyer, for example, could commission polls. So could Democratic enemies who want to put their fingers on the scale. The 15 reputable pollsters chosen by the DNC had solid records, and those pollsters were made public from the beginning and haven’t changed.

4. To qualify for the first two debates, candidates could qualify through a threshold of 65,000 donors OR earning just one percent in three polls since January 1. If a candidate can’t qualify with that criteria, I don’t know what to tell you. Every real candidate had a chance to get their ideas and name out there.

5. A record 20 candidates qualified for those debates, which each had to be split up over two nights. That was rough — too many candidates, not enough speaking time, too much diffused attention. The DNC then slowly raised thresholds for the third and fourth debates, where one could qualify with 130,000 donors or a whopping two percent across four polls. The party then had 10 then 11 candidates on stage for those two debates.

6. That was still seen as a lot! Of course, candidates who no longer qualified for the debates (Bennet, Bullock, Williamson, Delaney) complained about not making them. Meanwhile, candidates in the debate were complaining they weren’t getting enough speaking time. Andrew Yang, for example, is always short on speaking time, mostly due to polling outside of the top four combined with his lack of experience rudely interjecting. His case for more inclusion, however, would perpetuate his problem. Somehow, we’ve always seemed to have not enough candidates and too many candidates all at once.

7. The fifth debate raised the polling threshold to just three percent across four polls, which ten candidates met. At this point, candidates complaining about not being included had as many as five chances to sell themselves to the American people through a debate — to say nothing of all the televised town halls and other appearances they were making in early states. If they couldn’t hit three percent in four polls, is that really the DNC’s fault?

8. The sixth debate raised the polling threshold to four percent across four polls. Seven candidates qualified (winnowing!), including Yang and Steyer, who had yet another chance to gain more traction.

9. It’s undeniably disappointing that no early state polls have been conducted recently. My draft of tomorrow’s Power Rankings certainly misses them. That being said, all the national polling data we have has not shown much difference over the last month. It’s unlikely anyone is surging and we don’t know it.

10. Why so few polls? Two primary reasons, I’d say. One is the holiday season. In fact, in my sixth debate review, I worried about this problem in advance, warning, “For the other borderline viable candidates, it’s the polls that are a problem, particularly with Christmas week coming up, a time when few polls are conducted. There’s a chance we head into the week of January 5 with few changes to the above chart, and then there’s only five days to pick up the requisite polls.” Nailed it.

11. The other problem is the biggest political story of the the last month — impeachment. Polling firms have conducted plenty of surveys about President Trump, his conduct, and whether he should be impeached and/or removed. That leaves little time and money to poll the electorate about the primary.

12. In either case, I don’t see how the DNC should be held responsible, and calls for it to change the rules at this point seem misguided. Polling companies should sooner be pressured to conduct more surveys.

13. It’s also clear I feel candidates have had plenty of chances to make their case. If they’re not hitting five percent after six to twelve months of campaigning and the prior debates, that’s on them and that’s on the voters. An oft used counterargument is that Democratic presidents Carter, Clinton, and Obama were late chargers who came out of nowhere, but these are misleading examples.

  • Carter and Clinton’s eras did not see primaries hit full swing so long before a vote is cast. In Carter’s 1976 run, for example, there wasn’t even a debate — the first of just three — until February of the election year. In Clinton’s 1992 campaign, only in December of ’91 did they start holding debates. Many candidates declared much later in those days, and, importantly, there were far fewer serious candidates dividing the pie. With fewer people to pass on one’s rise, it was therefore easier to climb into contention.
  • Obama’s 2008 campaign may have been down to Hillary Clinton by double-digits a month before Iowa, but he was also in second place — at 20% plus — for much of 2007 and in the top three nationally and all early states as soon as he declared. No candidate out of the top five was remotely close to missing this upcoming debate, to say nothing of the top three. Aggrieved candidates are not making apples-to-apples comparisons. Imagine that. Political campaigns that aren’t honest. Now I’ve seen everything.

14. Ultimately, considering the size of the field and length of the primary, the slow, incremental ratcheting up of debate thresholds seems pretty reasonable. Anyone who criticizes it should propose an alternative. These alternatives usually fall short in some way. I often hear that the DNC “should let the voters decide.” That’s basically what donor and polling thresholds are, while, I’ll say it again, eliminating thresholds means 300 candidates. Allowing organizations other than the DNC — say, media outlets — to determine who qualifies seems no fairer and opens the process up to shenanigans. Just going with a donor threshold would have an even more detrimental effect on campaigns spending inordinate cash on securing one-dollar donations. It’s not an easy problem to solve.

15. Some have turned this into a diversity issue, since a field once heralded as the most diverse in history has now turned suspiciously white. Cory Booker and Julian Castro have been making that case, and they used Kamala Harris’s withdrawal from the race as evidence. Of course, what they fail to mention was that Harris actually qualified for the sixth debate before she dropped out, and she would have qualified for the seventh. Regardless, the problem here is more systemic than DNC-enforced debate qualifying thresholds. Why aren’t voters supporting those minority candidates? Why should Iowa and New Hampshire, incredibly white states, still have out-sized authority over picking nominees? These are better questions than “How can the DNC ensure minority candidates make the debate stage?” That smacks of suggesting a race quota, which I’m sure would be more controversial than the current dilemma.

16. All considered, it’s lamentable that we had this polling dry spell, but holding the DNC or its thresholds responsible feels like misguided anger. I’d sooner blame the pollsters for their frugality, the candidates for their inability to grow support, or the voters for not supporting your preferred candidate.

But hey, in this month of the NFL playoffs (RIP Patriots), always remember: everyone thinks the refs have it out for them.

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