At last Thursday’s Democratic presidential primary debate, one particular image seemed to capture viewers’ attention. On the left end of the stage, there was John Hickenlooper — a successful and popular two-term governor of a swing state who managed to win during otherwise difficult elections for Democrats — flanked by self-help author Marianne Williamson and tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang. Only Hickenlooper had anything close to what we’d consider conventional qualifications for the presidency, but there he was, in no better position than the others.
Perhaps more notable was who wasn’t on the stage. Montana Governor Steve Bullock and Rep. Seth Moulton, for example, both failed to make the DNC’s polling or fundraising thresholds and were therefore forced to sit out the debate. Many in the politics and political science spheres found this whole arrangement to be an embarrassment for the Democratic Party. A stronger party, they argued, would never let someone like Williamson on the stage. And it would never let Bullock, a red-state governor, get nixed by arbitrary thresholds.
The DNC’s rules — setting transparent standards for polling support and fundraising levels, and ramping those thresholds up as the year progresses — reflect a party that is worried about having too many presidential candidates but also concerned with the appearance of bias (especially given its scandals with the Bernie Sanders campaign in 2016). Bending the rules to either include an omitted candidate or exclude one who qualified would make it appear that the party is meddling in the election process. (Never mind that parties have always sought to control their nomination processes.)
Could this have gone another way? Could the party have exerted a stronger hand in shaping the candidates field? And if it could, should it?
Most likely, a candidacy like Marianne Williamson’s is going nowhere. She’s currently polling at 1% and has basically no support from within the party. And while she did take up space on the debate stage that could have instead gone to a more conventional candidate, it’s not as if that person was likely to go anywhere either.
Had the DNC intervened and told her she was simply not permitted to grace the stage with her presence, she might well have sued (which excluded candidates have done in the past) or her supporters could have protested or organized a sit-in. This could have been an ugly echo of some of the voices raised by supporters of Bernie Sanders four years ago that undermined Hillary Clinton’s nomination.
Could the party have exerted a stronger hand in shaping the candidates field? And if it could, should it?
Which scenario is actually better for the Democratic Party in the long run? Arguably, the first one is safer — let the unconventional candidate embarrass him or herself and withdraw. On the other hand, as Bloomberg’s Jonathan Bernstein notes, look at Republican primary debates from the past few cycles. In 2012, Republican contender Michele Bachmann called the leader of Iran a “genocidal maniac,” and Herman Cain proposed abolishing progressive taxation. Four years later, Ben Carson tried to explain why his experience as a surgeon would make him a good president, while publicly yearning for the days when people defended each other from bear attacks and administered truth serum to suspected terrorists.
These unconventional candidates didn’t just attract attention on the debate stage, they parlayed that attention into political support, and briefly became frontrunners. Most famously, Donald Trump was just the sort of unconventional candidate whom a stronger party might not have let on the stage, but who engaged in bombastic behavior at debates to garner attention and used that attention to gain support and, ultimately, the nomination.
The events of 2019–20 may prove me wrong, but it’s my impression that the Democratic Party is not quite so vulnerable to the charms of outsiders. Letting unconventional candidates on stage doesn’t seem to dramatically increase the risk of one of them becoming the Democratic nominee. Outsider nominees, at least over the past few years, have largely been a Republican phenomenon.
There’s another angle here that warrants some attention. Those candidates that are seen as unconventional and undeserving of a place on a presidential debate stage — Williamson, Yang, Bachmann, Cain, Carson, etc. — tend to be women or people of color. (Trump is a very notable exception.) The traditional paths one takes to the presidency, usually by running for congressional or state offices, have not always been very welcome to such people, due to the biases of both party leaders and, sometimes, voters. Meanwhile, the ones who deserved a place but were denied one — Moulton, Bullock, etc. — tend to be white men.
This is obviously a sensitive area for the parties, especially the increasingly diverse Democratic coalition. There are undoubtedly risks involved in making the party appear more open to unconventional candidates, as the Republicans demonstrated in 2016. But there are risks to exerting tighter control over the process as well.