Lower-tier Dems in for CNN debate

Greg Nash

The criteria for the first Democratic presidential debate set the bar so low that every major candidate will get in.

Joining in the Oct. 13 debate alongside poll leaders Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonTrump may pose problem for Ryan in Speaker vote Clinton views SCOTUS as a tool for her agenda — not for law and justice Gingrich: 'I’d be a little bit cautious’ accepting Clinton’s won MORE and Bernie SandersBernie SandersWikiLeaks: Advisers were nervous about Clinton touting her support for Israel Sanders presses drug company to explain price hike for leukemia drug Get me out of the two-party system or give me death MORE are three candidates who barely register in national polls. They are former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley. Chafee has registered no more than 1 percent support in four of 16 polls and zero in the rest of those that CNN is currently considering to determine candidate participation. Webb and O’Malley, meanwhile, have both only reached a high of 3 percent support in any poll since August.

While Clinton showed 42 percent support and Sanders had 35 percent in an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll over the weekend, Webb received 1 percent support; O’Malley and Chafee got zero, meaning they received less than 1 percent support.

“[The Democratic National Committee has] to give them their time,” said Aaron Kall, University of Michigan’s director of debate, of the three lowest-polling candidates.

The Democratic Party has already faced significant criticism, mainly from O’Malley, over its debate schedule. He’s accused the Democratic National Committee (DNC) of effectively rigging the schedule in favor of Clinton by limiting the voters’ exposure to other candidates.

“The last thing they’d want to do is get into another fight with the candidates about exclusions,” Kall said.

CNN confirmed Monday that any candidate who has averaged 1 percent in at least three credible polls released between Aug. 1 and Oct. 10 would be able to participate in the Las Vegas debate.

Because most recent polls have included Vice President Biden and found him with double-digit support, he has already qualified for next month’s CNN debate if he decides to jump in the race.

With that main hurdle past, Biden wouldn’t even have to file official paperwork by the debate. CNN’s criteria said that a simple public declaration would suffice.

For Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst with the
University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, keeping the door open for Biden is a no-brainer.

With CNN receiving massive viewership of its GOP debate thanks in part to the draw of Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump may pose problem for Ryan in Speaker vote Clinton views SCOTUS as a tool for her agenda — not for law and justice Gingrich: 'I’d be a little bit cautious’ accepting Clinton’s won MORE, a Biden-Clinton showdown on top of the inclusion of Sanders would certainly up excitement.

The network’s worst-case scenario: Biden announcing but not qualifying because of a technicality.

“There’s no question the media wants Biden to run; from the drama standpoint, having Biden and Clinton go at it really raises the bar,” Skelley said.

“It’s a realization that if Biden says he’s in, given where he’s polling, he’s really in.”

The networks had received criticism about the GOP debates, even directly from some candidates, questioning the wisdom of using polling to winnow the field in the first place. So instead of opening itself up to another round of criticism, the network has avoided it all together.

DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz announced in August that Democratic debates would include polling from the “six weeks prior to the debate.” Chafee hadn’t registered in enough polls over that span, but CNN’s debate criteria uses polling dating back to Aug. 1, allowing Chafee to qualify.

Having a first debate so late in the primary season is a stark departure from recent history, as the 2008 Democratic debates started in April 2007. But it’s not completely unprecedented — the party’s first debate of the 1992 cycle was in November 1991.

It’s unlikely that the inclusion of the entire field will make too much of a difference to the front-runners.

While lower-polling candidates will likely have the time to get their messages out, most expect the majority of the debate to focus on Clinton and Sanders — and Biden, if he runs — considering much of the focus of the past two Republican debates centered on the top candidates.

Webb, O’Malley and Chafee will instead be fighting for relevance in front of their largest audience of the campaign. All will look for their own Carly Fiorina moment, reminiscent of the former businesswoman’s stunning rise in the polls after she jumped into this month’s main-stage Republican debate and enjoyed a widely praised performance.

David Birdsell, a Baruch College political science professor and debate expert, told The Hill that while it’s a long shot, Webb has the “rhetorical skills” to surprise some.

“Webb is the only person in my view who has redeemed the notion of the State of the Union rebuttal,” he said of Webb’s 2007 speech.

“He actually responded extemporaneously to what [President George W.] Bush said. It was extremely fluent, coherent, well argued,” he said.

Skelley said that he thinks it’s unlikely that Webb or Chafee can use the debate stage to make a major run, as he sees Webb as too conservative for Democratic primary voters and noted that Chafee hasn’t won elected office as a Democrat — having switched parties twice from Republican to independent to Democrat. 

“If Biden doesn’t get in, I can see O’Malley getting somewhere,” Skelley said.

“If he has a really good debate performance, maybe people search him out as a potential alternative to Clinton. You could imagine him having a moment.”

Regardless of whether they seize that moment, the inclusion does set up the potential for dynamics that could complicate the debate.

“To some degree, the presence of the other three helps Clinton in the sense that there will be more focus on the other individuals,” Skelley continued.

Another potential issue for the front-runners is that with not much to lose, O’Malley, Webb or Chafee may jump on the attack. And if they do, that ire will likely be directed square at Clinton, and to a lesser extent, Sanders.

“Having candidates that don’t have anything to lose is potentially dangerous to front-runners,” Kall said.

“It only increases the chances of them trying to do a Hail Mary [pass] or land a zinger that can really hurt the leading candidates.”

Skelley agrees.

“On the campaign trail they’ve been a little reticent to overly criticize [Clinton],” Skelly said, “but they might if they realize this is their one shot.

“Sanders actually might benefit in that sense that if he is in a position where the three lower-tier guys are attacking Clinton,” he added.