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Do Democrats follow the rules? 


In the lead-up to the Democratic debate in Detroit, remember that rules matter—except when they don’t. Even when they do, it’s hard to predict how.

The same applies to presidential nomination politics more generally, especially this cycle, which pairs a healthy dose of Democratic rule changes with the lingering uncertainty of the Trump-era presidency. In 2020 all bets are off.

Democrats love rules, and they write them to absolve sins of the past as much as to set the course forward. Look no further than the debates. Sure, the 2016 GOP “kids’ table” image is hard to shake: the debate featuring candidates who didn’t make the cut for the main event later that night.

But in effect the Democrats did something very similar in this year’s first debate, even though the party established transparent, dual paths to the debate stage – enough unique donors or a minimal degree of poll traction – allowing for an inclusive standard for candidates.

Miami, however, demonstrated that landing a podium spot isn’t enough for a role in the story line. The Harris/Biden matchup on night two, the product of a random process, along with some moderator and production discretion, relegated the others to roles as supporting actors, even extras. 

This is not to say that the Democratic National Committee rules don’t matter. Chalk up Rep. Eric Swalwell’s (CA-15) withdrawal, at least in part, to difficulty securing a spot on the Detroit stage. And what else could inspire a new-to-the-field billionaire, willing to drop his own fortune, to beg for a buck?  

But Democrats don’t just write rules, they tweak them as well: Let’s make it a lot harder to get into the third debate, because we’ve probably pushed inclusiveness too far. To get on the debate stage in September, candidates will need to cross both fundraising and polling thresholds, with each significantly higher than in the first two debates: 130,000 rather than 65,000 unique donors and two percent in four polls, rather than one percent in three polls.

The Democratic Party has specialized in rules over the past half-century, starting down the path in the heat of the 1968 national convention, which was wracked by unrest of activists protesting the Vietnam war and the party’s approach to it. Even before the convention ended, the Democrats moved toward amends by setting up a reform commission, yet still disregarded the activists on the Chicago streets and in the convention hall. 

That reform gesture had bite four years down the road, when new rules opened up the nomination process and stripped power from party insiders, making the primaries and caucuses more meaningful events. But it produced a nominee who lost resoundingly. 

Sen. George McGovern’s 1972 general election landslide loss to President Nixon is more complicated than just a nomination rules fail, yet it sheds light on the very real possibility that rules come with unintended consequence. 

In a few cycles after 1972, Democrats backpedaled on inclusiveness, introducing a new route for party-insider influence, embodied in super-delegates, unpledged national convention delegate awarded automatically to elected and party officials. From 1984 through 2016, the party finely tuned the number of super-delegates, ranging from as few as 14 percent to as many as 20 percent, trying to settle on a sweet spot. The 2020 rules rein in the potential power, not by limiting their number, but by restricting their role to the scenario under which no candidate is nominated in the first round.

Other rules changes will mark the next nomination as well. All eyes will be on California after moving its June primary to March in 2020. The nation’s largest state, with significant diversity, is making a bid to exert stronger influence on the nomination process than in the past. It might work; it might not.

California’s home-state senator Kamala Harris is faring better in state polls than before the first debate, but she remains neck-in-neck with Biden. What’s more, like all Democratic primaries, California distributes delegates proportionally—another legacy of the post-1968 reform era. The math implies that no single candidate will likely clean up, moderating the state’s influence. At the same time, given the competitive standing at primary time, an influx of even a portion of the state’s delegates could be decisive for a particular candidate.

Despite routine concerns about the over-sized role Iowa plays in the nomination process, the state has also captured national attention. There, campaigns are scrambling to make sense of what’s billed as the most significant rules change in decades: the introduction of a virtual caucus option, giving activists the chance to participate by phone in one of six virtual caucuses or in the traditional in-person precinct event. The intent is to make the caucuses more accessible, though this change could also be a strategic opportunity for campaigns to dispatch supporters where their effect will be greatest.

Changing the rules is a natural reaction to an electoral loss, and the memory of 2016 weighs heavily on Democrats. This cycle is awash in change, especially the kind implemented by the parties themselves.

Uncertainty about the impact of rules, a standard feature of nomination politics, won’t stop Democrats from writing and re-writing them, even though ultimately they’ll be up against an opponent who doesn’t play by the rules and to whom rules seem not to apply. But it should give the rest us pause in trying to predict what will happen in the Democratic contest, not to mention in November 2020.

Barbara Trish is a professor of political science and director of the Rosenfield Program at Grinnell College. 

Tags Democratic debates Democratic National Committee Detroit Eric Swalwell Joe Biden Joe Biden United States presidential candidates United States presidential nominating conventions

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