Last Friday, the Democratic National Committee announced the line-ups for next week's two presidential primary debates. Their efforts to appear neutral—setting transparent requirements to qualify, randomizing which candidates would appear which night—ended up producing alleged winners and losers, as pretty much always happens when a party organization plays a role in a contest.
Party attempts to appear unbiased, historically, have had a self-defeating nature to them. Political scientist Julia Azari and I have been working on a project for a while now about the development of democracy within political parties and the increasing expectation that party leadership is supposed to be a neutral arbiter. Arguments about party decisions needing to be democratic go back at least to the 1924 Democratic presidential nomination, when Secretary of the Treasury William Gibbs McAdoo ran in a dozen presidential primaries, came up short of the nomination, and excoriated the party for preventing him from fulfilling "the mandate of the people." Hillary Clinton used similar sentiments when her expected nomination in 2008 didn't materialize. And, of course, Bernie Sanders embraced the language of internal party democracy in 2016. Even when it was clear his nomination wasn't going to happen, he said that calls for him to leave the race were "outrageously undemocratic."
Concerns about party neutrality show up in debates as well. Any decision to host a primary debate necessarily requires a decision about who should and should not be invited, particularly when there's such a large field of candidates. When media organizations and interest groups were in charge of primary debates, they sometimes received protests or even lawsuits for excluding candidates. Parties are increasingly taking over these debates and attempting to establish clear and transparent guidelines for participation, but those have also been met with pushback.
The latest example comes from the DNC's ongoing effort to shape the 2020 presidential field through some of the most detailed primary debate rules we've ever seen. The DNC set a relatively low bar for participation in the June debates—1 percent support in a range of polls, or financial support from at least 65,000 donors—and 20 of the 23 candidates managed to qualify for it. One of the excluded candidates, Montana Governor Steve Bullock, ran this ad after the debate field was set, in which a Bullock supporter calls the party's decision "horseshit."
The imagery in the ad packs a wallop. The speaker is an older, rural white man, sitting on the tailgate of his pick-up truck with his dog reading a local newspaper. After his artful dismissal of the DNC's decision, he says, "You don't need to be from Montana to know that anybody who wins by four, the same election [Donald] Trump wins by 20, is doing something right here." He then shakes his head and encourages the viewer to donate to Bullock.
The argument he's making, of course, is that the DNC has made a mistake by excluding someone who connects well with rural white voters and can even win some Trump voters. The logical extension of this is that the DNC has gone with rules that favored its more diverse and liberal pool of candidates. (Indeed, Bullock and Representative Seth Moulton [D–Massachusetts], another excluded candidate, are among the more conservative white Democratic presidential candidates in the field. The third excluded candidate is Wayne Messam, the African-American mayor of Miramar, Florida.) In other words, Bullock's ad insinuates that, by not taking a side, the DNC has taken a side.
The DNC also faces criticism as the result of its semi-randomized sorting procedures for determining which candidates would face each other on which of the two debate nights next week. Through luck of the draw, the first night is Senator Elizabeth Warren paired with nine candidates mostly polling in the low single digits; the other heavy hitters—Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg—are slated for the second night.
There's no clear consensus on whether this helps or hurts Warren. Some suggest that there will be less interest in her night's debate and it will draw a smaller audience and less attention to her campaign. However, the potential audience for a primary debate in June of an odd-numbered year is already a pretty rarified group. Chances are that there won't be enormous differences in viewership across the two nights.
Others argue the party has given her an easy field to stand out in. As the candidate in her debate with the most polling support, she'll be the target of most of the others as well as a lot of moderator questions, and she'll have plenty of opportunities to shine. It's never easy to stand out in a 10-candidate debate, but she'll be best positioned to do that.
In other words, there is criticism for the party for producing a line-up that either cuts a rising contender short just as she was beginning to connect, or boosts the prospects for her in the race. The party again faces allegations of illegitimate tinkering even while trying to be transparent and neutral.
The humorous irony of this whole situation is that the idea that party organizations are supposed to be neutral is a relatively new one that runs counter to the history of political parties. Parties exist to make decisions, especially when it comes to interrogating the relative strengths and weaknesses of candidates for high office. Yet we're in an era where even DNC staffers complaining about a candidate in personal emails is considered evidence of party malfeasance or even conspiracy.
This situation seems unlikely to resolve itself any time soon. As the DNC's rules for candidate qualifications in subsequent debates ratchet up, undoubtedly more candidates will be excluded, and some of those will choose to excoriate the party for its choices. The party will continue to be damned for shaping the field or damned for letting it shape itself.