The Democratic National Committee (DNC) announced their intention early in the 2020 election cycle to arrange an extensive debate including up to 20 candidates on the main stage. They looked to do better than the 2016 Republican debates, which split its 16 candidates onto 2 stages, a main stage and a secondary stage often referred to as the “kiddy table.” Instead, Democrats will split 20 of their candidates into two stages which, despite being by random draw, appear quite unequal, and will leave several candidates off of the stages entirely.
Democrats sent the message early that they want an equal platform for all, and that the DNC should not decide the nomination. The latter part is understandable, given the fiasco revealed by Wikileaks in 2016, but the former is impractical. Even if you give a 10-person field two hours to debate, and spend less than 20 minutes on commercials and questions, you’re only allowing an average of 10 minutes to each candidate. Of course, we all know they won’t get equal time anyways, so seven or eight of the candidates will stand idly by while Bernie, Biden, and others regurgitate talking points. Four candidates will be kept off the stages all together, and 10 candidates, including Elizabeth Warren (who polled second in a recent survey by the Economist), will not get to step onto the same stage as Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. Instead of intentionally creating a “kiddy table,” the Democrats’ random draw accidentally created one, and put a prime candidate at it.
This begs the question, though: If you’re not polling above 5%, do you even want to be on the main stage? You’re not going to get many answers in, and any attempt to get more camera time will come across as desperate and weak. You won’t get to explain any new ideas, as opening statements will be kept short and questions will be softballs about why you agree with everyone else. The traditional wisdom is that you do want a chance to go up against the heavyweights, but that’s mostly because more people will be watching. In a field that is still relatively open, and in a cycle with record Democrat enthusiasm, is that really a concern?
Let’s look at the actual draw. The first night, Wednesday, will include top tier candidate Elizabeth Warren, the former young gun Beto O’Rourke (who has seen a steady decline in poll numbers since the emergence of Pete Buttigieg), underperforming Cory Booker (polling at 2.3% on average), and then the rest: Julian Castro, Bill de Blasio, John Delaney, Tulsi Gabbard, Jay Inslee, Amy Klobuchar, and Tim Ryan. I only care to listen to about four people in that lineup. The rest shouldn’t even make a “kiddie table.”
Then, on Thursday night, former VP Joe Biden, top tier candidate Bernie Sanders, and second tier candidates Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg headline, with Andrew Yang, Kirsten Gillibrand, Michael Bennet, John Hickenlooper, Eric Swalwell, and Marianne Williamson also taking the stage. This also only includes four serious candidates, though Yang and Williamson have earned appearances as well.
If I could hand-pick the draw, ignoring the DNC’s stupid rules, the “kiddie table” would include Beto O’Rourke, Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, and Andrew Yang for sure, with paths to inclusion based on things like donor numbers or polling standards, but to not have the field exceed 10 people. The main stage would include Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, and Kamala Harris. To be clear, I despise every one of those five (if I could make the nomination between Andrew Yang, Tulsi Gabbard, and Mike Gravel, I would). But they are the only candidates polling above 5%, and historically that makes them the only candidates with a chance at the nomination. Other candidates have to earn their way into that field.
It has never been easier to spread your message as a politician. Social media has made marketing incredibly easy and effective. Political enthusiasm is so high that everyone who will be voting in a year is already watching. So if a candidate is still doing poorly, it’s very likely that they will continue to do poorly regardless of a debate result. The mindset of voting against candidates is sure to set in soon, and it won’t be long before Democrats are voting for or against Joe Biden anyways, so really, these debates are to decide who the anti-Joe will be. I’m quite confident that it will be Bernie or Warren, and everyone else is just running for the vice presidential nomination, and they know it. So let Biden, Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg, and Harris draw their lines in the sand and figure this nomination out so they can set a strategy for the general election.
Or don’t, and lose. Fine by me.
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