Wednesday, May 10, 2023

The National Parties and the Sanctioning of Presidential Primary Debates

Invisible Primary: Visible -- Thoughts on the invisible primary and links to the goings on of the moment as 2024 approaches...

First, over at FHQ Plus...
  • Efforts are under way during the final week of the 2023 General Assembly to resurrect the presidential primary in Missouri for 2024. All the details at FHQ Plus.
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In Invisible Primary: Visible today...
It was not necessarily hidden yesterday, but the news that the Republican National Committee (RNC) was floating tentative debate criteria for the first presidential debate this coming August quickly got shunted to the side in the wake of civil trial decisions and upcoming New Hampshire town halls. But the basic outlines of a debate qualifications regime from the RNC offered a glimpse into the continually evolving role the national parties play and have played in sanctioning primary debates over the last several cycles. 

After all, it was not that long ago that debates had already started at this point in earlier cycles. Democrats debated during the first week in May in 2003. Republicans did the same in 2007 and also held a debate with a truncated group of candidates during the first week in May 2011. However, it was that cycle, the 2012 cycle, that served as the straw that broke the camel's back. In all, there were 20 Republican presidential primary debates that cycle, highlighted by two debates from New Hampshire on successive days in January 2012 before the primary in the Granite state. There were a lot of debates and both during and after the general election of 2012, the sense was that all of that exposure had not necessarily helped the party's cause. That sentiment was borne out in the party's Growth and Opportunity Project report -- the so-called Autopsy. It cited the need for national party oversight of the debates process; that state parties, competing with one another for candidate attention, were partnering with media outlets to schedule debates. In turn, that led to a proliferation of the forums.  

The result was that the RNC empaneled a standing committee devoted to the sanctioning of presidential primary debates for the 2016 cycle. And that committee cut down on the number of sanctioned debates, prohibited candidates from participating in any unsanctioned debates and further scrutinized media partners for those debates. But because so many candidates threw their hats in the ring in 2015, the standing committee that cycle also had to wrestle with the various formats to present all of those candidates. The size of the field demanded some qualifications but also balancing that against the need to at the very least appear inclusive to any and all candidates with demonstrated support in public opinion polls. The initial solution was to hold two debates, a main event for candidates with 3 percent or more support in polls and an undercard for those under that threshold. 

Fast forward to the 2020 cycle and it was the Democratic Party that was faced with similar issues. Like Republicans four years earlier, the Democratic National Committee (DNC)  had a wide open nomination race that attracted a slew of candidates. And like their Republican counterparts, the party was coming off a general election defeat in the previous and dealing with complaints about the debate process during the primaries that cycle. While the Democratic nomination race was open in 2016, there was a prohibitive favorite and the incentives to develop a structure similar to what the RNC had devised were not as apparent. However, seeking to avoid a repeat in 2020, the DNC adopted a debates qualifying strategy similar to but modified from the 2016 RNC process. 

The innovation the DNC added for the 2020 cycle was to tweak the qualifications. Not only did the party initially set a polling threshold that candidates had to hit (an average of at least one percent in DNC-approved surveys), but to further, or more clearly, demonstrate widespread support, candidates also had to have at least 65,000 individual donors across at least 20 states (minimum 200 donors from each). However, the supply of candidates, even at those thresholds, was still sufficiently large enough to force two debates. Yet, rather than an undercard and a main event series of debates on the same night, the DNC instead split the debates across two nights and randomly selected participants from the entire qualified pool. 

Just as was the case for Republicans in 2016, the Democratic Party in 2019-20 had to devise a system aimed at a moving target. In both cases, the parties felt compelled to set minimum qualifying standards for debates, but did not want to set them so high as to prevent candidates with some support (and some likelihood of catching on with the voting public in the future) from participating. For better or worse, everyone having a shot in the process is a notion that both parties have nurtured throughout the post-reform era. And that dovetails nicely with primary scheduling as well. Both parties like what the Growth and Opportunity Project report in 2013 called the "on-ramp" to the heart of primary season (basically a lead up to Super Tuesday). The idea of the little guy being able to compete in and do the sort of grassroots-building retail politics in small states that can potentially lead to primary wins (and maybe the nomination) is an ideal that is part of the fabric of the process in both parties. 

Moreover, it is also something that is layered into the proposed RNC debate qualification rules for 2024 that are now making the rounds. Initially, those levels would be set quite low, just one percent support in polls and 40,000 unique donors. Left unanswered at this stage is whether the RNC, like the DNC in 2019-20, will approve the polls that determine qualification or if a candidate's donor base has to be dispersed across a set minimum of states. It also goes without saying that those barriers to debate entry are lower than what the DNC utilized just four years ago. 

And there is a reason for that. The field is different. In many ways the 2024 Republican field is akin to the 2016 Democratic field in that there is a clear frontrunner -- a former president, no less -- who has had some impact on the number of prospective candidates willing to enter. Now, clearly the field looks poised to grow in the coming weeks, so there will likely be supply for a robust debate, but perhaps not enough to require a second debate (on the same or subsequent night). Very simply, Trump is gobbling up too large a share of support (at this point) for the number of qualifying candidates to create a need for a second debate, undercard or otherwise.

But that is the moving target with which the national parties have to contend. They not only have to balance the need to be inclusive to candidates with some measure of support, but they also weigh thresholds that to create a robust debate without opening up the floodgates. Yet, this is a role the national parties have taken on in recent cycles when it took on the responsibility of sanctioning presidential primary debates in the first place. But first thing first, the RNC has to formalize the debate qualifications for 2024.

DeSantis quick hits: 
  • In the endorsement primary, DeSantis picked up another congressional endorsement from Rep. Bob Good (R-VA), someone Never Back Down (the DeSantis-aligned super PAC) founder Ken Cuccinelli called "one of the 'first five' that got us great rules in the House..." Good was in fact one of the McCarthy holdouts in the January speaker election. And as an aside, that group has been fairly active in the endorsement primary. Of the 20 who, on one speaker vote or another, opposed McCarthy, 11 have endorsed in the presidential race. Eight of those are behind Trump with two more counted as DeSantis supporters. Nikki Haley rolled out a Rep. Ralph Norman (R-SC) endorsement on launch day. 
  • Never Back Down also won the support of former Trump adviser, Steve Cortes. Together, the staff primary and endorsement primary continue to offer evidence of an erosion of Trump support, but only to a point. As always, the former president in 2023 is behind the pace he set as an incumbent in 2019 but well ahead of where he was in 2015. 
  • In a signal of what may soon be coming in terms of a presidential run, the Florida governor also on Tuesday decoupled from Friends of DeSantis. It is a move that is likely a precursor to freeing up the money in the committee for use in a presidential bid. 

Viewed through one lens, it is curious that Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) would call on President Biden to break the DNC rules for 2024 and file to be on the New Hampshire primary ballot even if, as expected, the state goes rogue and holds a primary too early next year. If Khanna is behind the president, as he suggests he is, then why not call on New Hampshire Democrats to come up with an alternative to selecting delegates through a rogue primary? However, viewed through a 2028 lens, the reason may become more apparent. Khanna is not wrong that the Biden-driven calendar rules changes may hurt the president in New Hampshire in the general election, but the question is whether the damage has already been done or if it will take the president not being on the ballot (in a largely uncompetitive race) to fully push enough New Hampshire supporters away. FHQ is dubious. Clearly, Khanna is betting that New Hampshire will be there (early) in 2028, and that is no sure thing

On this date... 1988, Vice President George H.W. Bush and Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis both handily won the Nebraska and West Virginia primaries. 2016, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders won the West Virginia primary. Trump also won in Nebraska. [Democrats in the Cornhusker state had caucused earlier in the year. Delegates were allocated based on that contest despite there being a beauty contest primary in Nebraska.]


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