to 20 debaters. Only three members of the presidential field were “winnowed.” The hapless three are Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana, Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, and Wayne Messam, the mayor of Miramar, Fla. (I have never heard of Messam or, for that matter, of Miramar).
Here’s who made the cut:
Sen. Michael Bennet
Sen. Cory Booker
Mayor Pete Buttigieg
Mayor Bill de Blasio
former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand
Sen. Kamala Harris
former Gov. John Hickenlooper
Gov. Jay Inslee
Sen. Amy Klobuchar
former Rep. Beto O’Rourke
Rep. Tim Ryan
Sen. Bernie Sanders
Rep. Eric Swalwell
Sen. Elizabeth Warren
Marianne Williamson (a self-help author and spiritual adviser)
Andrew Yang (a tech executive)
It’s clear from this list that the test for making it is lax. To qualify a candidate needed only to have at least 1 percent support in three national or early-primary-state polls or to receive donations from at least 65,000 unique donors, including at least 200 individual donors in at least 20 states.
The lax test is a response to criticism that the DNC stacked the deck against outsiders four years ago. It will take two separate debates to accommodate this many candidates, but fair enough.
What’s strange, though, is the decision to assign the qualifying candidates to debates based on a random draw. In 2016, the Republicans used a far more sensible approach. They assigned the top half of the field, as determined by polling, to a prime time debate and the bottom half to a preliminary one.
This enabled voters to see all of the true contenders go head-to-head. It also enabled the true contenders to be exposed to a larger number of voters than they would have been in a diluted debate field.
As I discussed here, it’s instructive to compare the lower tier Republicans from 2016 with the lower tier Dems in this cycle. Participants in the GOP’s preliminary debates included one of the most prominent members of the Senate (Lindsey Graham), a former two-term Senator and leading contender for the 2012 nomination (Rick Santorum), the former governor of New York (George Pataki), the former governor of Texas (Rick Perry), and the governor of Louisiana (Bobby Jindal).
In 2020, the second tier of Democrat debaters includes an obscure former congressman from Maryland (John Delaney), several relatively obscure current members of the House, and a “spiritual adviser.”
By declining to shunt these candidates off to a debate few will watch, the Democrats risk coming across as than fully serious. And if the non-entities hold their own with the name candidates, the entire field may come across as pygmies.