A better way to run those packed Democratic debates

John Delaney was one of the hopefuls crowded onto the stage for those oversubscribed Democratic debates last year, when the number of major presidential candidates topped out at 27. Or it might have been 29. At the point of peak candidate, networks ran back-to-back debates with 10 participants each and viewers wondered who were all these people trying to say something snappy and break out of the crowd.

Delaney, a former three-term Congressman from Maryland, joined the latest episode of the Yahoo Finance Electionomics podcast, and we asked him if there’s a better way to run those debates. Yes, he said. “If you are or were a Democratic governor, if you are a sitting Democratic Senator or sitting Democratic member of Congress or you’re the mayor of a city with more than a million people, you should be in the debates,” he says. “People who have never done any public service, if they get a certain percentage, they should be in the debates.”

The Democratic National Committee sets the rules for who can participate in debates. For the 2020 cycle, the DNC generally required candidates to meet certain thresholds for small-donor donations and polling, with the criteria getting stricter for each debate. But that produced criticism from several directions. Some people thought the debates were free-for-alls giving too much publicity to dead-end candidates. Others thought the criteria were too strict, especially as they began to exclude minority participants.

Delaney highlights Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, who could have been a compelling presidential candidate but never hit the donor threshold for inclusion in a debate. Bullock is a popular second-term Democratic governor in a traditionally Republican state, which proves he can appeal to swing voters and some conservatives. That’s one way for Democrats to beat Trump in November.

Democratic presidential candidate Montana Gov. Steve Bullock walks through a hallway at the Statehouse, Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019, in Concord, N.H. after filing to be placed on the New Hampshire primary ballot. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

“The fact that Steve Bullock, a sitting, two-term Democratic governor who had won a Trump state was not allowed in the debates because he didn’t get 135,000 individual donors is just malpractice,” Delaney says. “I’m not against the bigger stages. I just think we’ve got to make sure that people who have some track record of success in the Democratic party have an opportunity to have their voices heard.”

Delaney thinks the Republicans had a good model in 2016, when as many as 17 candidates competed for debate airtime in the early stages of the campaign. News networks aired main debates in prime time, featuring up to 11 candidates who hit polling thresholds. On seven occasions there was also a “secondary” debate earlier in the day, until the field winnowed to 7 candidates or fewer competing in a single debate. “I think the Republicans actually did it better in 2016,” he says. “If you were polling well you were on the main stage and if you weren’t, you were on the secondary stage.”

Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman. Confidential tip line: [email protected]Encrypted communication available. Click here to get Rick’s stories by email.

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