The Debates Broke the Primary

Rules intended to bring order out of chaos had the unintended effect of penalizing candidates with experience governing and winning elections.

Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, and Bernie Sanders
Brian Snyder / Reuters

With one caucus and one primary complete, Democratic insiders are worried. The number of Democratic candidates is working to President Trump’s advantage, Senator Dianne Feinstein told Politico. A recent Wall Street Journal headline read: “Moderate Democrats Stress Over Crowded Center Lane.”

The party establishment’s fear is that by splitting the support of moderates, the other candidates will allow self-described democratic socialist Senator Bernie Sanders to secure the party’s nomination with only a minority of the votes cast.

But the problem is not too many candidates left in the race but, rather, too few. By creating a deeply flawed set of rules around who could join the presidential debates, the Democratic National Committee created a nominating process that began winnowing the field months before the first ballot was cast.

The escalating set of entry requirements for taking the stage buoyed candidates who already were widely known or who could energize fiercely committed online activists (who are unrepresentative of both the general electorate and the Democratic primary electorate), at the expense of those with experience governing and winning elections.

Ever since the birth of the modern presidential nominating process, in 1972, in which most delegates were chosen via primaries and caucuses and not by party bosses, there has been an important period called—in the words of the journalist Arthur Hadley—the “invisible primary.” This was the period between the last ballot in one general election and the first ballot in the first primary of the next. During this time, candidates travel the country trying to win the support of party leaders, single-issue organizations, activists, potential staff members, interest groups, community leaders, donors, and elected officials—that is, the party.

This invisible primary was clearly visible only to those most involved in Democratic Party politics. Over the years, and especially as Democrats repeatedly lost national elections in the 1980s, some complained that this put an emphasis on candidates who could court the more liberal parts of the party. Study after study has shown that those most active in Democratic Party politics hold views to the left of the party’s rank and file (and that similarly, the GOP’s primary voters are to the right of the Republican Party’s rank and file).

Nevertheless, the success of some candidates in generating support among those most active in party politics sent a powerful signal to voters about their viability in the general election. As the political scientists Marty Cohen, Dan Karol, Hans Noe, and John Zaller have argued, the party was unusually effective from 1980 onward in preventing non-establishment candidates from winning—including Ted Kennedy, Jesse Jackson, and Howard Dean. These candidates weren’t forbidden from running; in fact, they all ran spirited races. But the party exercised real influence over the selection of a nominee, even though it had no official role until the Iowa caucus.

One might think that Democratic Party leaders, watching Republicans standing by as Donald Trump—a onetime Democrat whose positions and values were at odds with those long articulated by the GOP—won the nomination with less than 45 percent of the vote, would have seen the importance of this role. Yet instead of bolstering its safeguards against a non-establishment candidate seizing the nomination, the DNC instead chose to change the rules in a way that put greater power into the hands of online activists.

Like most rules reforms, these changes were intended to solve one problem, and ended up creating another. The DNC was attempting to bring some order to a season of debates and forums that seemed overrun with both events and candidates. It instituted two qualifying criteria: polling performance and online fundraising. By choosing these two measures (and not, say, endorsements from labor unions and elected officials), party officials put a premium on candidates’ name recognition, and their ability to appeal to online activists.

The need to clear a polling threshold advantaged those who had run before (Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders), political celebrities (Elizabeth Warren), and those with unlimited bank accounts (Tom Steyer). The fundraising requirements theoretically gave the people more of a voice. The problem is that those who are most engaged online are hardly representative of the people or even of people who are Democratic primary voters.

According to a survey conducted by Third Way, 73 percent of Democratic primary voters do not post on Twitter at all. Just 12 percent of Democratic primary voters post on Twitter daily, but these Twitterati are younger, whiter, and more male than the rest of the party. They’re also “ten points more liberal than primary voters as a whole and a whopping 24 points more likely to call themselves Democratic Socialists.” Another study of the Democratic electorate, by the nonpartisan Hidden Tribes project, backs this up, finding that Democrats who post content online are more likely to have a college degree, be white, and be more liberal than the rest of the party. Only 11 percent of online Democrats are African American compared to 24 percent of Democrats in the real world.

Democratic small-dollar donors have always held views to the left of the party as a whole, but as with everything else, the move online has supercharged this tendency. Yet thanks to the DNC debate rules, campaigns needed to fundraise online in order to garner support from enough of these donors to qualify for the debates (at least 130,000 to be included in the third one). And taking positions far to the left of mainstream liberal orthodoxy, such as getting rid of private health insurance, embracing reparations for slavery, and decriminalizing unauthorized immigration, can drive viral moments—and a deluge of digital donors.

Thus, as the debates unfolded, the rapidly contracting field took as its victims not gadfly candidates like Andrew Yang or Tom Steyer, but three accomplished governors (Steve Bullock, Jay Inslee, and John Hickenlooper), two popular female U.S. senators (Kirsten Gillibrand and Kamala Harris), the most prominent Latino in the race (Julián Castro), and perennially rising Democratic star Senator Cory Booker. The new rules muted the real-life party, and gave an outsize voice to a cadre of virtual activists.

This is why Democrats now find themselves in a bind. A Booker, Harris, or Bullock might have received a second look from Democratic voters looking for an alternative to Sanders, but those candidates have already been forced from the race.

Instead, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar have enjoyed increased support, showing that it’s not impossible to succeed without already enjoying a national profile or taking extreme positions. That they’ve done so well, despite the DNC’s new rules, makes their accomplishments even more impressive.

However, they are exceptions that prove the rule.

Ultimately, the DNC debate rules had the unintentional consequence of creating a nominating system that took power away from the party and gave it to the Twitterverse. As a result, the problem this election season isn’t too many choices for voters; it’s that they never got a chance to choose at all.