Mellman: Debating Michael Bloomberg

Mellman: Debating Michael Bloomberg
© Greg Nash

Whether you love former New York City Mayor Michael BloombergMichael Rubens BloombergGiuliani: Bloomberg 'jeopardized' stop and frisk by 'overusing it' Bloomberg calls on Trump to implement firearm background checks The Hill's Campaign Report: Gloves off in South Carolina MORE or hate him, if he meets the current qualification criteria, you should want him on the Democratic debate stage.

Yes, the rules are changing mid-game.

But everyone knew the rules would change. They’ve already been altered several times. The Democratic National Committee made clear from the outset that one of the rules is that the rules can be changed.

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Presumably that’s because the goal of having candidates run this particular gantlet is giving voters information they can use to make a thoughtful choice.

A dozen or two candidates debating each other cannot accomplish that objective. It’s a disservice to primary voters.

Few can keep track of who said, or did, what.

In the 1950s, Harvard psychologist George MillerGeorge MillerMellman: Debating Michael Bloomberg To support today's students, Congress must strengthen oversight of colleges Pelosi names new chief of staff MORE famously found the limits of working memory were “seven, plus or minus two.” Which is to say, most people can only keep track of somewhere between five and nine chunks of information. Most of us aren’t Rain Man. Twenty, or even 10, candidates talking away for two or three hours overwhelms our brains.

So, achieving the goal requires reducing the number of candidates.

The rules eliminate from the stage those with no realistic chance of winning, leaving a more manageable number of candidates, with reasonable odds, for voters to sift through.

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A candidate could qualify for the first two debates either by getting at least 1 percent in the polls or by having at least 65,000 donors across the country.

For the third debate, the polling criteria were stiffened, while the “or” changed to an “and.” Candidates had to garner at least 2 percent in four polls and register 130,000 donors.

These qualification thresholds changed again several times for subsequent debates.

By historical standards, the polling criteria were de minimis. Everyone who eventually won a nomination was far above the polling threshold for each debate at a similar point in time.

Now, for the ninth debate, the polling thresholds were raised again — a candidate needs to reach 10 percent support in four polls or have won at least one delegate — and the donor threshold was dropped.

At the time the new rules were announced, and even today, Bloomberg has not met the polling threshold. So, critics are complaining the rules were changed for his benefit, even though he hasn’t met the qualification criteria.

He might yet do so, but that’s the point.

If he’s at, or above, 10 percent nationally, he’s a serious candidate.

Billionaire Tom SteyerTom Fahr SteyerBiden looks to shore up lead in S.C. The Hill's Campaign Report: Gloves off in South Carolina There's only one candidate for Democrats in Puerto Rico MORE also hasn’t met the polling criteria. He did meet the earlier fundraising threshold by spending millions of his own to get tiny donations. Did that really measure his mettle as a candidate in any meaningful way?

From voters’ point of view, the goal should be to gather the serious contenders at the same time, in the same place, under the same conditions, to facilitate meaningful comparisons.

One might believe it’s wrong for Bloomberg to spend his way into contention. If enough Democrats agree, he’ll lose.

But long before Citizens United, the Supreme Court ruled that limitations on spending one’s own money to campaign violate the First Amendment and are thus unconstitutional.

We’re free to bewail and bemoan that decision, but it’s been the law of the land for over 40 years.

As long as the former New York mayor can spend his way to name recognition and, potentially, to support from voters, shouldn’t he have to compete, literally, on the same stage as everyone else?

Those objecting to his presence should ask themselves whether they would really rather have Bloomberg come to be known only through his scripted TV ads.

In truth, it would behoove the rest of the candidates, and the electorate, to see how he stacks up standing next to the others. Whether that will help Bloomberg or hurt him, no one can know.

But that’s leveling the playing field, not tilting it.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic Leaders for over 20 years, as president of the American Association of Political Consultants, and is president of Democratic Majority for Israel.