A Candidate Without a Podium is a Dead Candidate Talking
So the Democratic Debate is set for Houston on Sept. 12. Ten candidates will take the stage, having reached the threshold metrics devised by the Democratic National Committee. To gain a podium, candidates had to have a minimum number of donors and show themselves to have a pulse in three national polls.
This might be great for the Twitter generation of political activists -- but call me old fashioned, because I prefer the good old days.
What do I mean?
First of all, the idea that Democrats are holding nationally televised debates so far out of the first caucus and primary is ludicrous. I just do not believe any voter received any real window into any of the candidates during the first two debate segments. All we really saw was their ability to launch a well-rehearsed one liner or a soundbite-tested position. It is no different than the 80 scrubs who attend each NFL training camp, even though half of them never have a real opportunity to show themselves because the die has been cast. They are there just to be props and punching bags.
But more importantly, the Democratic National Committee has outsourced the candidate filtering process from the voters to hard core activists who pay attention from Day One.
There used to be traditional retail in Iowa and New Hampshire as the first tests for presidential contenders. Candidates were forced to showcase themselves one-on-one to voters as well as small groups. They were given the opportunity to test out messaging and perspective without the glare of phones and television cameras recording every word.
That has changed.
The Iowa caucus was a filter designed to determine the intensity of support for a candidate. Participating in a caucus is a true commitment for voters because it involves planning and dedication of an entire evening. But it also presents the opportunity for compromise and strategy when your preferred candidate does not meet a threshold and you have to announce your second choice. Iowa is also a measure of the ability of a campaign to organize and execute. Iowa might not be tailor made for Joe Biden, but as we know, it worked for Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders.
New Hampshire has always been the closest thing to romance for political operatives. The old joke was that when a reporter asked a New Hampshire voter for their preference in a multi- person field, the answer was always “undecided” because they had not met everyone yet. And that is the beauty and the challenge of New Hampshire. Not many votes are needed to win or stay in the hunt, but most of those votes are earned on the basis of personal contact.
I am not saying the same thing will not happen in these states and others when it is their turn, but I do believe something has been lost by the virtual elimination of candidates from the race due to their absence on the debate stage. The metric created a bias against the late entrants, such as Governor Bullock and Senator Bennett. It favored the candidates with the most national name recognition going in and worked against those starting from scratch.
Michael Bennett wrote a scathing memo to the DNC attacking the process. Though I agree with him, it was probably not his place to do it because he knew the rules going in. My guess is that Iowans might take to Bullock if he had a fair shot and that Bennett could play well in Manchester, NH. But without a place on the stage, voters are being told the pre-selection has taken place and a candidate without a podium is a dead candidate talking.
My hope is the slick DNC vetting process will not result in the nomination of the wrong candidate. Five dollar donations from a couple hundred thousand activists are not what necessarily makes a winner in November. To defeat Donald Trump, I believe candidates have to navigate the rubric of the primary process. We have been shortchanged by only 10 candidates on the stage in Houston.
I long for the day of the lonely withdrawal press conference from the weary and broke candidate the day after a primary or the euphoric election night speech from the long shot whose plodding and hard work put them in the game. Let’s hope we still have some of that magic.