The Democrats' Innovative Primary Format Relies Largely on Chance

The Democrats' new randomized debate plan is a gold mine for campaign researchers.
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Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton walk off stage during a break in a primary debate on March 6th, 2016, in Flint, Michigan.

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton walk off stage during a break in a primary debate on March 6th, 2016, in Flint, Michigan. Many Democratic voters and activists thought the party leadership was rigging the election against Sanders.

Last week, Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez released the party's plans for a modified presidential primary debate schedule for the 2020 cycle, wherein debates become two-day events, with candidates randomly sorted into day one or day two. Though the announcement received relatively little fanfare, the implications here are enormous: Perhaps more so than with previous presidential primary rules, this debate format (which begins in June of 2019) introduces an element of chance that will likely winnow the field of candidates significantly.

It's obvious that Democrats are trying to avoid the scenario their Republican peers faced in the 2016 primary—a very large field of candidates, each with access to substantial sums of money, and no practical or legitimate way for the party to cull the field before voting began. In such an environment, with party elites split across many candidates, a wealthy and well-known candidate, even one with very weak commitments to the party and to democracy, can dominate the nomination process.

The DNC's two-day debate plan is substantially different from the Republican approach in 2015–16, which divided up the large candidate pool into under-card and prime-time debates based on their standing in public opinion polls. The under-card debates received far fewer viewers, which likely hurt participating candidates and contributed to the demise of their campaigns. But since those candidates were already lacking in support, they likely would have been among the first to drop out anyway.

The random selection in the Democratic debates is, in this sense, far fairer. Candidates participating on the second night of a debate may well get less attention than those participating on the first night, and this may hurt their campaigns. But if this is truly an unbiased process, on which the candidates can agree before lots are drawn, it has the potential to play a filtering role in a way that party members find legitimate. And those candidates have just as good a chance of ending up in the first night for the next debate.

There are a few aspects of this process that warrant some attention here. For one, it shows an even stronger party role in organizing primary debates. Formal party involvement in primary debates only goes back a few cycles; they used to be generated by media organizations or by arrangements among the candidates themselves.

Second, it demonstrates an effort by a party to learn from previous election cycles. The Republican Party helped mold the primary debates of 2016—fewer debates than in 2008 and 2012, more conservative moderators—to overcome some of the problems they saw in the 2008 and 2012 cycles. Similarly, Democrats are responding here to one of the major problems their party dealt with in the 2016 nomination cycle: Many Democratic voters and activists thought the party leadership was in favor of Hillary Clinton and was rigging events against Bernie Sanders, creating a legitimacy crisis for the party's main decisions. The element of chance in 2020 is an attempt by the party to impose some structure, while at the same time providing the appearance of impartiality.

Third, it provides a great opportunity for political scientists, many of whom suspect that getting less attention in a debate (whether because it's on a second night or it's an early under-card event) is harmful to a candidacy, resulting in lower poll ratings and poorer fundraising takes. It's hard to prove this, however, since, up until now, getting less attention in a debate has been highly correlated with other campaign weaknesses. The Democrats' new randomized debate plan is a gold mine for campaign researchers.

More information about this system will be revealed in the next month or so as the party rolls out its specific rules. Right now, it's looking like a pretty fascinating area for party development.

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