It’s Time For Democrats To Severely Limit Access To The Debate Stage

The time for coddling the candidates polling below 5% is over.

The deadline to qualify for the next Democratic debate in October is fast approaching, and Democrats are already debating the criteria for the debates in November, December, and January:

As Democratic presidential candidates barrel into the fall, they are still waiting for the party to write the rules for the most important events of the campaign.

The candidates are bracing for another round of strict new debate criteria from the Democratic National Committee, which has already halved the list of candidates making the debate stage and could once again shrink it drastically within weeks.

Ten candidates participated in September’s DNC debate and 11 have qualified for the October edition, but the DNC has yet to spell out the thresholds it will use to ration debate participation in November and December with time running short. Even small changes in the criteria could have far-reaching effects: When the DNC set its thresholds at 65,000 donors or 1 percent in polls earlier this year, 20 candidates made the stage.

But merely increasing the polling threshold to 2 percent in four DNC-approved surveys, and doubling the donor threshold, capped the September debate at one night. Even a modest increase for November could spell the end of several campaigns that are just hanging on to the debate stage, and while we know the criteria are likely to keep going up, no one knows exactly how it will affect the 2020 field. And in a nationalized presidential election, the debates have proven to be the most important opportunity for candidates to introduce themselves to large audiences and try to change the direction of their campaigns.

“My only complaint with the DNC’s process is that they haven’t announced what the heck is going on for the November debates yet,” Democratic candidate Andrew Yang told POLITICO, asking whether any reporters knew what the new thresholds would be.

Yang has made every debate so far and is confident of meeting future criteria, and he said “the DNC’s thresholds to make the debates have been incredibly helpful, because then you just know what to aim for.”

Yang is right that the Democratic National Committee should make the criteria for the November and December debates clear as soon as possible. These will be some of the final debates before the voting starts in February 2020 and will likely be the ones that get the most attention from voters in the early primary states. That being said, I would also argue that because of this the criteria for these debates should be far more stringent than they have been so far.

To qualify for the June and July debates, for example, candidates had to hit at least 1% in a series of pre-identified polls and demonstrate that they have gotten donations of at least $1.00 from roughly 65,000 individual donors. For the third and fourth debates, those criteria were doubled to provide that the candidates must his 2% in the respective polls and get donations from roughly 130,000 voters. For the subsequent debates coming in November, December, and January, the criteria ought to be even more stringent. Personally, I’d draw the line at 5% in the polls and minimum of 250,000 cumulative individual donors. This would likely mean that the debates will be limited to Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, and Pete Buttigieg. Some may call that unfair given the fact that nobody has voted yet but, let’s face it, if you’re still polling below 5% three months before the Iowa Caucuses the odds that you’re going to be a contender for the nomination are about as good as the odds that the New York Jets are going to win the AFC East this season.

FILED UNDER: Bernie Sanders, Campaign 2020, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg, Politicians, US Politics,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Sleeping Dog says:

    I was going to suggest a 10% polling threshold, but your 5/250 hurdle winnows the field nicely. Now more of the back markers need to drop out.

  2. Teve says:

    Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, and Pete Buttigieg.

    I’m fine with that lineup.

  3. charon says:

    An opposing view from Matt Yglesias:

    Democrats are stuck in a doom loop of premature polling
    The case for looking beyond the top three candidates.

  4. gVOR08 says:

    @charon: Yeah. I kind of feel like the desire to cut the field early is a version of the Pundit’s Fallacy A term coined by Yglesias.

  5. David S. says:

    Yang has done what I wanted him to do on the national stage: make UBI something that people would talk about and give consideration to, without framing it as some kind of far-left horror story.

    As far as I’m concerned, he’s done his job and can go away. I’d be tentatively okay with it if he chose to endorse someone, but I don’t think there’s a good option for that on the field, so I’d rather he die a hero than live long enough to become a villain.

  6. Gustopher says:

    I’m not sure narrowing the field this early is really a good thing. I mean, I want Andrew Yang gone as much as the next guy, but still…

    Is it better to have the field narrowed by media attention three months before the voting, or to have the field narrowed by a voters in a few unrepresentative early primary or caucus states?

    Neither seems particularly good, but the latter gives more candidates more time to make their case, and doesn’t otherwise seem worse given that those states are going to have an outsized influence either way.

  7. Gustopher says:

    Rather than restricting access via higher polling requirements, if they put the stage at the top of a steep hill, so the 70 year olds couldn’t get there easily, I would be ok with that.

    A gauntlet of Old Country Buffet, Ice Cream and TVs showing Matlock would also be fine.

    If Biden scales a significant, steep hill with an ice cream cone in his hand, and isn’t winded, I’m willing to say that he has the vigor to be president. Same with Bernie and Elizabeth.

    (I think Warren could totally do it)

  8. Michael Cain says:


    Rather than restricting access via higher polling requirements, if they put the stage at the top of a steep hill, so the 70 year olds couldn’t get there easily, I would be ok with that.

    Harris seems to be fading away — the e-mail pleas for money I get from her campaign sound increasingly desperate — and I believe at some point people will realize that Mayor Pete’s accomplishment is being mayor of a city of 103,000 — a city that wouldn’t make the top ten cities here in Colorado, and not the top 50 in California. So the choice seems to be between three old white people from the northeast urban corridor. I’m peculiar enough to believe in the jinx on Democrats from the NE urban corridor — none of them have won since 1960.

  9. Moosebreath says:

    @Michael Cain:

    “So the choice seems to be between three old white people from the northeast urban corridor.”

    While I believe a person not from the Northeast would be more electable (which is why Klobuchar started off as my first choice), Warren only has lived in the NE Corridor since she became a Professor at Penn Law School in 1987 when she was 38, and was born in Oklahoma. Biden was born in a not-particularly NE Corridor part of Pennsylvania, Scranton (while it is only about 2 hours drive from both NYC and Philly, it is definitely coal country, to the extent that the most advertised attraction is a tour of an out-of-service coal mine).

  10. Teve says:

    @michael cain–What if the Democrat was born in Oklahoma?

  11. Michael Cain says:


    Interesting questions. When my friend the anthropologist and my friend the political scientist and I discuss this, the question always comes down to something along the lines of “How does it play in the suburbs of state X?” There, Biden is running as the very long-time Senator from Delaware and VP (ie, DC). Bernie is the mad Social Democrat from Vermont (and DC). Hillary Clinton was the Senator from New York and long-time DC insider. Kerry was what he always had been. Gore had to run as a VP and long-time Senator (DC insider), not a good ol’ boy from Tennessee.

    If Warren is the nominee, she’s running for President as an Ivy League professor and Senator from Massachusetts — she’ll get no credit for her time in Oklahoma or Texas.

    This doesn’t seem to apply so much on the Republican side. Eg, Mitt Romney won state-wide races in both Massachusetts and Utah without a consistent identity being attached to him.

  12. R.Dave says:

    @Michael Cain:

    When my friend the anthropologist and my friend the political scientist and I discuss this…

    I swear I thought you were setting up a joke here!

  13. R.Dave says:

    @charon: I found that very persuasive, charon. Thanks for linking!

  14. al Ameda says:

    I think the problem is that we haven’t had a vote (a caucus or an election) yet, and that tends to winnow out the 1%-ers.

    I’ve actually enjoyed the contributions of Klobuchar, Buttigieg, and Yang, so I’ll be sorry to see any of those 3 excused from the stage.

  15. charon says:


    I think Yglesias point is good as a generalization, but it presents problems in 2020 with two highly flawed frontrunners (Biden, Sanders) and the implicit need to find an “anyone but those two” to coalesce around.

    Here is the latest from Uncle Joe:

    Another day, another Paleolithic Biden moment.

    A young woman is asking him a serious, critical question.

    He grabs her hands. Why?

    As she persists, he pats them patronizingly and says “Thank you for admiring me so much.”

    This is a man from another time.

    Some discussion at LGM:

    A climate activist is trying to get answers to legitimate questions about why Biden’s climate advisors seem so cozy with the fossil fuel industry, and whether those relationships help explain Biden’s self-described “middle ground” stance on climate change.

    When (not) answering her questions, Biden clasps both of her hands for several seconds, before patting one of them, and sarcastically (?) remarking to her “thank you for admiring me so much” while walking away.

    Some people will semi-rationalize this with a sigh — good ‘ol Grandpa Joe is just a man from the 1950s, and doesn’t understand the world has changed. (Indeed Time editor Anand Giridharadas takes this tack in his tweet circulating the video, although he does say he considers the behavior unacceptable).

    But Biden keeps doing it anyway, because he’s a stubborn old man who doesn’t like to be questioned, especially by his social inferiors.

    This is a creepy dominance ritual by a man who is well aware of what he’s doing. The idea that Democratic voters would choose this man, of all people, to run against Donald Trump is truly one of the bizarre possibilities of this very bizarre time.

  16. charon says:


    That was an attractive young woman, BTW, so this from the LGM comments thread:

    This. We have a literal rapist in the White House, so in comparison, creepy Uncle Joe’s behavior seems quaint. It’s the old man in the assisted living facility making crude passes at nurses young enough to be his granddaughters.

    None of which excuses Joe’s creepy behavior. It’s unacceptable, period. And we can do much better than having him as the nominee.