10152018What's Hot:

Debates emerge as 2020 Democratic primary flash point

An empty stage is shown before a January 2016 Democratic presidential primary debate in South Carolina. That night there was plenty of room on the stage for the major candidates, but what will it look like in 2020? | Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Elections

With the first debate coming as early as spring 2019, candidates are already sweating over how to make sure they’re on the stage.

The first Democratic presidential debate is still months away, but the sprawling field of prospective contenders is beginning to grasp a crushing reality: Any candidate who fails to make the cut for the first debate stage is likely to see their candidacy implode.

The kickoff debate could come as early as spring or summer 2019 — and the prospect of it is already accelerating the timetable for Democrats to raise money, hire staff and raise their profiles beyond an asterisk in national and early-state polls.

Story Continued Below

The reason? Any candidate who fails to qualify for the debate is likely doomed.

“By the early spring at the latest you’ll be seeing debates, and I think probably in the first quarter of 2019,” David Axelrod, a top adviser to former President Barack Obama, said on his podcast recently. “I think the sense of urgency among Democrats, and the sense of possibility among potential candidates is such that you’re going to see that.”

While the formats and timing remain unsettled, Democratic National Committee officials have already begun early-stage talks with television networks about 2020 primary debates. And the specter of the first debate — where it would be difficult for many candidates to meet a polling threshold for entry — weighs heavily on a field that could feature more than 20 candidates.

Just as in the 2016 GOP primary, when the number of candidates was too large to assemble on one stage, many Democrats fear 2020 primary debate organizers will replicate the use of an “undercard” debate in 2016, though no formatting has been settled yet. Second-tier debates in 2016 were widely seen as a sideshow for also-rans.

“The first stage gets the primetime hour, the second group gets the 11 o’clock hour and you’re competing with Jimmy Kimmel or Stephen Colbert,” said former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, who briefly ran for president in 2008 and called the traditional debate process “ridiculous.” “Good luck with that.”

In 2016, only one Republican candidate in a 17-candidate field — Carly Fiorina — managed to rise from the undercard to the main stage, before ultimately fizzling. The fates of Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, Rick Santorum were all but sealed before they took their position at what was derisively called the “kiddie table.”

“There’s no question,” said Mike Gravel, the former Alaska senator and 2008 presidential candidate who participated in the early 2007 debates before being squeezed out. “You’ve got to have a certain degree of legitimacy, and that is anointed by the media, and they make their mind up who is going to be the front-runners, and they concentrate on them.”

Today, only a handful of potential Democratic candidates, including former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), appear to have sufficient name recognition to guarantee access to a main debate stage if national polls are used as a benchmark. Many potential candidates, including the only major declared candidate, Rep. John Delaney, are not even included in national polls.

Delaney, like some other candidates expected to pursue state-specific strategies, are banking on debate organizers considering polling in early primary states, as they previously have in some years, or on other criteria for qualifying.

“Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have a lot of name recognition nationwide,” said Terry Lierman, a former Maryland Democratic Party chairman who is now co-chairman of Delaney’s presidential campaign. “But if you combine the importance of name recognition in the early states like Iowa and New Hampshire … it’s a lot easier to campaign just in a few states than in 50 states.”

Cory Booker speaks in Iowa.

As to the first debate, Lierman said, “It’s just important to be there … Who watched the second one [in 2016]? Just political reporters.”

Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, was among pollsters who argued in 2015 that national public opinion polls should not be used as a qualification for participating in debates.

The use of polls that year, he said, resulted in “some candidates trying to create some noise about their campaign to try to run up their numbers early to make it into the debate … which was certainly just a play for the polls.”

If the same criteria is used in 2020, he said, “You could have a situation where you end up with decimal points … determining who should debate.”

He added, “It’s just a mess.”

Still, one feature of the Republican debates in 2016 stands out starkly for Democrats plotting their own campaigns: President Donald Trump held his position on the main stage — and benefited from it — from the first debate, despite his lack of government experience.

For Democrats preparing for 2020, said Andrew Feldman, a Democratic strategist in Washington, the significance of early debates next year “goes back to striking an emotional chord and getting attention in the media.”

“You can’t run for president and not be willing to talk about Donald Trump or talk about Russia,” he said. “Right now the media is so saturated you have to find a way to break through. And that’s what [Kamala] Harris and [Cory] Booker and some others have figured out, is they need to use their positions in the media, so they can strike an emotional chord with voters.”

In a post on Medium late last year, DNC Chairman Tom Perez included debate scheduling as one of several issues he said the party would address in its effort to repair intra-party rifts that flared during the 2016 presidential primary.

A protester outside the Supreme Court

To ensure impartiality, he said, “we will decide the debate schedule in advance, instead of negotiating it after all our candidates have entered the race.”

But even before the midterm elections, Democrats have begun floating a number of potential alternative formats to 2016. Vilsack said “the media should be thinking right now” about more substantive debate formulas, arguing that putting 10 candidates on one stage would only emphasize the power of celebrity over substance. He suggested a series of 10 one-on-one debates, instead.

Lincoln Chafee, the former Rhode Island governor and senator who ran a longshot campaign for president in 2016, suggested in an email that Democrats should wait until after the first primaries — in 2020 — to hold their first debate. He said “the criteria should give priority to candidates’ experience at actually getting elected to office.”

James Carville, the former Bill Clinton strategist, warned Democrats against putting 10 candidates on a single stage, as Republicans did in 2016.

“You just can’t do it,” he said. “What it does is it encourages the sort of Trumps of the world to make grimaces and faces and interrupt people, s— that people are not looking for.”

But Carville predicted Democratic voters would also resist a tiered debate structure, believing it unfairly disadvantages some candidates. Instead, he suggested dividing the debate stage into two debates, but randomizing who participates in which one by drawing lots.

In the current political climate — and with significant candidates in each event — voters might tune in for both.

“I think it’s an opportunity for the party … I think there’s a lot of really talented people there, and they’ve got good stories and are good communicators,” Carville said. “I hope the public looks at them and says, God, there are three or four people there that they like.”

This article tagged under:

Missing out on the latest scoops? Sign up for POLITICO Playbook and get the latest news, every morning — in your inbox.

Source: Politics, Policy, Political News Top Stories

comments powered by HyperComments

More on the topic