Lessig fights for second-tier status ahead of Dem debates

Lessig fights for second-tier status ahead of Dem debates
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Democratic presidential candidate Lawrence Lessig is getting his wish to be included in more polls — but that is shedding light on a more fundamental problem of support.  

Lessig has been included in three of the last five major national surveys of the Democratic field, but he has failed in any of them to register at least 1 percent support — the threshold to win a slot on the CNN debate stage later this month. 

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“I understand there needs to be a line, but the idea that I’m close to the line just seems a little bit crazy,” he told The Hill in an interview. 

The Harvard law professor and former tech advocate, who is running an unorthodox campaign focused almost solely on campaign finance, argues the recent polls came too late to capture the buzz around his entry last month, when he raised $ 1 million in 30 days. He says his campaign is stronger than other second-tier candidates who have made it to the debate stage — including Martin O’Malley, Lincoln Chaffee and Jim Webb. 

“I certainly agree there has to be some threshold,” he said, noting the countless casual candidates who have filed to run for president. “And I certainly think you should compare the campaign to any of these other campaigns. But look, of the 100 and some running, which one of them has raised a million bucks? Which one of them raised a million bucks in less than 30 days? Chaffee, O’Malley and Web didn’t even do that.”

Aside from polls, Lessig’s number of mentions on Facebook is near the bottom with 64,000 since Aug. 30. But that is still more than Web and Chafee. O’Malley had 190,000 mentions in that time. Lessig won't release his third-quarter fundraising numbers until Monday, but he said he largely avoided the fundraising focus after hitting the $1million mark.

CNN requires candidates to register at least 1 percent support in three national polls in the month and a half before the Oct. 13 debate.

Hampering Lessig’s efforts to get in the debate are having his name be included in polls and how a small sampling used in polls can have an impact on his standing.

For example, Lessig received .47 percent support in a USA Today/Suffolk poll released this week when two of the 430 likely Democratic voters who were surveyed picked his name among a list of seven candidates. That poll would have counted toward CNN’s tally if two more people picked his name. 

There is a certain level of randomness with margins that small. And other second-tier candidates have registered zero percent in many polls, meaning they had less than 1 percent support. But they have been included in every recent survey, allowing them to catch 1 percent here and 2 percent there, giving them enough of a cushion to qualify for the debate stage. 

“Everybody has their own standards, I wouldn't judge anybody for leaving him off,” said David Paleologos, who heads the Suffolk/USA Today poll. But he said universities tend “to be more inclusive” with their surveys. 

Lessig argues that if his name showed up in all nine surveys in the field since he entered the race, he would have met CNN’s threshold. And using a Donald Trump-like argument, he said CNN could be missing out if he is not on stage alongside Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.  

“If I were in the rating department of CNN, and asking what’s the thing that’s going to make the spark that makes it interesting for people to stay tuned to this debate, I would think that certainly having me on the stage would rank high in that,” he said.

Quinnipiac was another university that included Lessig in its polling. Tim Malloy, assistant director of polling there, said firms have always faced a challenge of “where to draw the line.” But he said if a candidate merits news coverage, the candidate probably also merits polling coverage.

“Our practice has been to put candidates like Lessig, who we are familiar enough with in one or two polls to see if they register at all,” he said. In the most recent Quinnipiac poll conducted Sept. 17-21, Lessig got no support.

Most news outlets would not discuss their decisions to leave Lessig out of their polling. It could have hinged on the Harvard professor’s late entry into the race or his unusual — and some would charge unserious — vow to pass a single legislative reform then resign, if he is elected president.

CNN declined to comment on its polling or on the debate criteria.

McClatchy has not polled the candidates recently, but it is among the list of 17 media organizations and polling firms that CNN counts as legitimate. Steve Thomma, McClatchy’s politics editor, said polls are meant to measure support, not create it. He pointed out there are more than 100 non-serious candidates who have registered paperwork with the Federal Election Commission. 

"Why aren't you asking about any of them?" he queried.