We don’t know yet who will be the proverbial winner of Thursday night’s Democratic debate, but it’s already clear who the loser is: the American voter, who is being deprived of the chance to hear sufficiently from the most diverse field of presidential candidates in history.
Only one of the five remaining presidential contenders who are people of color, Andrew Yang, will be on stage in Los Angeles. This is despite the fact that Tom Perez, the Democratic National Committee chair, said after last year’s historic midterms that "representation matters.” To give meaning to the phrase, especially at this stage in the campaign and with no clear front-runner, the DNC should be taking seriously candidates who reflect the diversity of the American electorate and giving all 15 Democratic presidential candidates an opportunity to debate on television.
That won’t happen unless the DNC changes strict thresholds that mandate candidates must hit 4 percent in four polls — or 6 percent in two early-voting-state polls — and have at least 200,000 unique donors. Perez should welcome calls from his own party’s presidential contenders to change these requirements for debate eligibility.
In a letter to the DNC, Senator Cory Booker, who did not make the cut for this debate, said, “Candidates who have proven both their viability and their commitment to the Democratic Party are being prematurely cut out of the nominating contest before many voters have even tuned in — much less made their decision about whom to support.” Booker’s letter was signed by eight of his fellow candidates — former vice president Joe Biden, Senators Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Amy Klobuchar, former HUD secretary Julián Castro, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, and businessman Tom Steyer.
“The DNC will not change the threshold for any one candidate and will not revert to two consecutive nights with more than a dozen candidates,” DNC spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa said in a statement. “Our qualification criteria is extremely low and reflects where we are in the race.”
In a historically large field of Democratic candidates, there’s an urgency to be seen and heard. That’s easy for media darlings whose every move and utterance garners airtime or for billionaire contenders who can spend freely on an endless stream of expensive television ads.
For the rest of the candidates, the debates offer their best shot. Castro didn’t qualify for his second consecutive debate and, like Booker, is in danger of missing the January and February debates. Still, at least they’ve made it into several debates, unlike lower-profile candidates such as Senator Michael Bennet, a moderate Colorado Democrat whose continued presence in the race has been largely overlooked. The strict qualifying criteria for the debates in this way weeds out ideological diversity in the party as well as racial diversity. It also rewards supernovas who may burn bright at first but flame out rather than slow, steadily rising stars.
The natural attrition of presidential campaigns will continue to whittle down the field; until then, voters deserve to hear from every candidate running and to stand their proposals up against each other. Yes, the debate format invites more heat than light as well as attention-grabbing punchlines, and tilts more toward candidates already commanding the lion’s share of attention. But voters can make more informed choices with direct information about candidates’ proposals and explanations about past policies, and by seeing the divergence in their stands on vital issues.
Since Booker is lagging in the polls, his call for a late-game rule change that could return him to the debate stage may appear self-serving. Perhaps it is. Yet it’s also an opportunity for the DNC to live up to its self-congratulatory ideals of inclusion. After the 2018 elections sent a record number of women and people of color to the House, Perez said, “When the people we entrust with political power reflect the great diversity of the people they represent, we are stronger as a nation.” The same can be said about the candidates we bother to listen to in the race for the White House.