The Democratic National Committee is undergoing a series of internal and external discussions on how to handle primary debates during the 2020 presidential election, according to sources familiar with the conversations.
The sources say the discussions — which have been taking place for several months and are being led by interim DNC CEO Mary Beth Cahill and a small group of party officials — include how early in the cycle the debates should begin as well as how many debates the party should have, two main sticking points from the 2016 cycle.
DNC officials are also faced with how to handle the number of expected candidates and their criteria for being included in the debates. Some believe as many as 30 Democrats may run for president in 2020.
The officials are looking at how the Republican National Committee handled the 17 primary candidates who ran for that nomination in 2016, according to sources familiar with the conversations.
“I don’t think anything is off the table at this point,” said one Democrat who has been involved in the talks.
Democrats are trying to avoid a repeat of 2016, when Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Hill’s 12:30 Report: Milley apologizes for church photo-op Harris grapples with defund the police movement amid veep talk Biden courts younger voters — who have been a weakness MORE (I-Vt.) and former Gov. Martin O’Malley accused the DNC of tipping the scales in favor of Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWhite House accuses Biden of pushing ‘conspiracy theories’ with Trump election claim Biden courts younger voters — who have been a weakness Trayvon Martin’s mother Sybrina Fulton qualifies to run for county commissioner in Florida MORE with a limited primary debate schedule. O’Malley went as far as calling the system “rigged” after the DNC scheduled only four debates before early primary states voted.
“I think it’s safe to say they don’t want that happening again and this time it’s so much worse because of all the people expected to run,” said one source familiar with the discussions. “So they’re trying to be proactive by getting out ahead of the problem. How do you best handle two dozen plus people? I think they’re trying to figure that out.”
A DNC spokesperson would not comment on the discussions.
People involved in the talks said party officials have a keen understanding of the importance of getting the debates right, since they will set the tone for candidates and their campaigns.
DNC Chair Tom PerezThomas Edward PerezClinton’s top five vice presidential picks Government social programs: Triumph of hope over evidence Labor’s ‘wasteful spending and mismanagement” at Workers’ Comp MORE last year spoke of the importance of scheduling the debates even before candidates announce their White House bids, arguing this would set up an impartial process.
“To ensure that no candidate participating in our presidential nominating process gains any unfair advantage, real or perceived, during our primary season, we will decide the debate schedule in advance, instead of negotiating it after all our candidates have entered the race,” Perez wrote in a post on Medium last November.
The DNC is facing some urgency in its task given the possibility that non-political organizations unaffiliated with the DNC will host their own forums for candidates. That could further complicate the sanctioned Democratic debates.
“It’s going to be a pretty unconventional election cycle,” one source said. “I think that only adds pressure to what many have seen as an outdated party.”
“And if they do create a two-tier system, I think there are going to be a lot of unhappy candidates.”
The two-tier system created by the RNC left some Republicans, including former New York Gov. George Pataki, Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamHillicon Valley: Biden calls on Facebook to change political speech rules | Dems demand hearings after Georgia election chaos | Microsoft stops selling facial recognition tech to police OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Joint Chiefs chairman says he regrets participating in Trump photo-op | GOP senators back Joint Chiefs chairman who voiced regret over Trump photo-op | Senate panel approves 0B defense policy bill GOP senators back Joint Chiefs chairman who voiced regret over Trump photo-op MORE (S.C.) and former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, taking part in a junior varsity debate of sorts that was a preliminary for the main event reserved for candidates with higher poll numbers.
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Those GOP debates ended up being television blockbusters, largely because of the rise of President TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote Warren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases Esper orders ‘After Action Review’ of National Guard’s role in protests MORE.
Carly Fiorina was the only GOP candidate to climb her way up to the main debate but other candidates including former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Jindal weren’t as lucky and their candidacies later failed.
“It’s a big problem,” said Celinda Lake, the prominent Democratic pollster. “For one thing it incentivizes things Democrats don’t believe in. It favors the financing candidates, people who have run before, and strong progressives so it’s an interesting situation.
“And where do you cut off the tier? Do you rely on national polling or state polling to decide?” she added.
Mo Elleithee, a Democratic strategist and a former DNC communications adviser, agreed that “striking the right balance is important.”
Democrats need to have “enough debates that it keeps the Democratic message front and center,” he said.
Still, at the same time, “if you do too many it keeps the candidates off the rail and that creates a barrier particularly on the early states which are reliant on retail politics.”
Rather than speed up the cycle, Lake recommended slowing it down and not having many debates early on.
“Later is better because it affords candidates the opportunity to present themselves,” she said. “Having so many candidates is fantastic. It communicates change, and you have a Democrat for everyone. But it needs time to sort it. I think a year from now it will sort out. It will have to sort out.”