Tulsi Gabbard is on the verge of being excluded from the next Democratic presidential debate on the basis of criteria that appear increasingly absurd...
Take, for instance, her poll standing in New Hampshire, which currently places Gabbard at 3.3% support, according to the RealClearPolitics average as of Aug. 20. One might suspect that such a figure would merit inclusion in the upcoming debates -- especially considering she’s ahead of several candidates who have already been granted entry, including Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke, and Andrew Yang.
But the Democratic National Committee has decreed that the polls constituting this average are not sufficiently “qualifying.”
What makes a poll “qualifying” in the eyes of the DNC? The answer is conspicuously inscrutable. Months ago, party chieftains issued a list of “approved sponsoring organizations/institutions” for polls that satisfy their criteria for debate admittance. Not appearing on that list is the Boston Globe, which sponsored a Suffolk University poll published Aug. 6 that placed Gabbard at 3%. The DNC had proclaimed that for admittance to the September and October debates, candidates must secure polling results of 2% or more in four separate “approved” polls -- but a poll sponsored by the newspaper with the largest circulation in New Hampshire (the Globe recently surpassed the New Hampshire Union Leader there) does not count, per this cockamamie criteria. There has not been an officially qualifying poll in New Hampshire, Gabbard’s best state, in over a month.
The absurdity mounts.
A South Carolina poll published Aug. 14 by the Post and Courier placed Gabbard at 2%. One might have again vainly assumed that the newspaper with the largest circulation in a critical early primary state would be an “approved” sponsor per the dictates of the DNC, but it is not. Curious.
Gabbard has polled at 2% or more in two polls sponsored by the two largest newspapers in two early primary states, but the DNC -- through its mysteriously incoherent selection process -- has determined that these surveys do not count toward her debate eligibility. Without these exclusions, Gabbard would have already qualified. She has polled at 2% or more in two polls officially deemed “qualifying,” and surpassed the 130,000 donor threshold on Aug. 2. While the latter metric would seem more indicative of “grassroots support” -- a formerly obscure Hawaii congresswoman has managed to secure more than 160,000 individual contributions from all 50 states, according to the latest figures from her campaign -- the DNC has declared that it will prioritize polling over donors. In polls with a sample size of just a few hundred people, this means excluding candidates based on what can literally amount to rounding errors: A poll that places a candidate at 1.4% could be considered non-qualifying, but a poll that places a candidate at 1.5% is considered qualifying. Pinning such massive decisions for the trajectory of a campaign on insignificant fractional differences seems wildly arbitrary.
Take also Gabbard’s performance in polls conducted by YouGov. One such poll published July 21, sponsored by CBS, placed Gabbard at 2% in New Hampshire and therefore counts toward her qualifying total. But Gabbard has polled at 2% or more in five additional YouGov polls -- except those polls are sponsored by The Economist, not CBS. Needless to say, The Economist is not a “sponsoring organization,” per the whims of the DNC. It may be one of the most vaunted news organizations in the world, and YouGov may be a “qualified” polling firm in other contexts, but the DNC has chosen to exclude The Economist’s results for reasons that appear less and less defensible.
Then there’s the larger issue of how exactly the DNC is gauging grassroots enthusiasm, which was ostensibly supposed to be the principle governing the debate-qualifying process in the first place. Gabbard was the most Googled candidate twice in a row after each previous debate, which at a minimum should indicate that there is substantial interest in her campaign. It’s an imperfect metric -- Google searches and other online criteria could be subject to manipulation -- but then again, the other metrics are also noticeably imperfect. There is no reason why the DNC could not incorporate a range of factors in determining which candidates voters are entitled to hear from on a national stage. For what it’s worth, she also tends to generate anomalously large interest on YouTube and social media, having gained the second-most Twitter followers of any candidate after the most recent debate in July. Again, these are imperfect metrics, but the entire debate-qualifying process is based on imperfect metrics.
Gabbard has a unique foreign-policy-centric message that is distinct from every other candidate, and she has managed to convert a shoestring campaign operation into a sizable public profile. (She is currently in Indonesia on a two-week National Guard training mission, therefore missing a crucial juncture of the campaign.) Other candidates poised for exclusion might also have a reasonable claim to entry -- Marianne Williamson passed the 130,000 donor threshold this week -- but the most egregious case is clearly Gabbard.
If only out of self-interest, the DNC might want to ponder whether alienating her supporters is a tactically wise move, considering how deeply suspicious many already are of the DNC’s behind-the-scenes role -- memories of a “rigged” primary in 2016 are still fresh.
In its December 2018 “framework” for the debates, the DNC declared: “Given the fluid nature of the presidential nominating process, the DNC will continuously assess the state of the race and make adjustments to this process as appropriate.”
Now would likely be an “appropriate” time for such a reassessment.