Tuesday, January 8, 2019

#InvisiblePrimary: Visible -- On DNC Debate Requirements and Candidate Strategy

Thoughts on the invisible primary and links to the movements during the day that was...

Recently, the Democratic National Committee announced a series of basically monthly primary debates that will start in June 2019 and run into primary season in 2020.

Although the qualifications for participation were left undetermined for the time being, the announcement was not without some important rules-related revelations. Most inventive among them was the plan to deal with an expected slew of candidates, a number likely to extend beyond what one debate stage could accommodate. Rather than repeat the Republican undercard/main event debate method from 2016, the DNC demonstrated it had learned some lessons and opted instead to randomize the participants across a doubleheader in each of at least the first two planned debates.

And the announcement has prompted another attempt at examining the importance primary debates on the candidates' fortunes.

But as news of the DNC debates considerations emerged over the course of fall 2018, FHQ returned to a constant drumbeat: No matter what decisions the party makes with respect to debates rules, there will be winnowing implications for candidates, potential candidates and candidates who opt to pass on officially running.

Mostly that is in reaction to the possible qualifications thresholds. But it is not clear that the DNC decision to not finalize those plans at this point in time is not also having some impact on [potential] candidate decision making.

All there is now from the DNC is a rough idea of what may be included in the qualifications, but not the specifics of the thresholds. We know polling. We know some measure of "grassroots fundraising". But we do not know the level of either. Nor do we know the balance between the two. Does polling count for more? Fundraising? Are they evenly counted?

Those are a lot of questions to answer if one is a candidate trying to find one's way in an overly crowded field. Now look, facing uncertainty is nothing new to presidential nomination politics, but this particular bit of uncertainty may be enough to freeze some candidates and to do so consequentially.

Let me explain.

Some candidates -- mostly the big names -- are planning early 2019 announcements. Warren is exploring already. Harris is supposed to be moving quickly. Biden is expected to make a decision by the end of January. The list goes on.

However, other candidates are planning later announcements. It was Jay Inslee's "by April" line on his decision-making calculus that prompted this line of thought.1 The question is why? Why would someone watch other candidates -- bigger names, more likely frontrunner-types -- emerge/announce and begin/continue laying the groundwork of a run while another candidate, seemingly further down the food chain, bides his or her time?

Part of the answer could be built on the idea that most 2016 candidates waited until slightly later into 2015 before officially throwing their hats in the ring. It also could be a decision spurred by a desire, like states on the primary calendar, to carve out a spot where a smaller scale candidate can draw some attention. None of that is implausible.

Yet, let's game out a debate rules scenario here. If you are, say, Eric Swalwell, then you are probably seeking an advantageous announcement time some time in the first half of the year in order to maximize the splashiness of the event. Part of that splashiness -- the timing of it anyway -- is very likely intended to influence the polling part of the debates qualifications equation. And the later the decision falls, the closer it is to the first debate. Such a delay helps that part of getting into the debates, but potentially hurt the grassroots fundraising part of it that will be more likely to rely on an extended period of fundraising (often helped along by an earlier announcement).

And that does not count a situation where a candidate banks on one part of the two-pronged qualifications to find out the other is weighted more.

In the end, the DNC is already on record that the initial thresholds for participation will be quite low. But the specifics of those debate rules matter. A delay until likely March for those specifics matters. Bigger candidates can more easily gloss over those things, while they remain consequential hurdles to longer shot candidates. In other words, those rules can affect decision-making within those campaigns more than others. They create more uncertainty.

Elsewhere in the invisible primary...

1. From Seth Market, what we know about 2020 and what we don't from the lessons of 2016. This one's going to be worth flagging now and returning to later as the invisible primary progresses.

2. This seems destined to be a line of demarcation in some way, shape, or form in the Democratic nomination process. Some candidates will approach Wall Street. Others will not.

3. O'Rourke is going to hit the "pop-in" circuit in the coming weeks. You say pop-in, I say listening tour. ...or could anyway.

4. More on Warren's trip to Iowa over the backdrop of what some potential Democratic caucusgoers in the Hawkeye state are looking for heading into 2020.

5. Five state legislatures came online for the 2019 session on January 7. There is not a lot of primary movement promise there.

6. Delaney has hired more staff in Iowa.

7. After a bunch of trips to Iowa, Swalwell is now heading to the Palmetto state.

8. McAuliffe saying his 2020 decision-making calculus is unaffected by Biden's moves and McAuliffe actually being unaffected by Biden are two different things. More importantly, expect a decision from the former Virginia governor in the first quarter of 2019.

9. And now it's time for something completely different: How about those Clemson Tigers!

Has FHQ missed something you feel should be included? Drop us a line or a comment and we'll make room for it.

1 Of course, Inslee looks to be fairly well organized despite the plan to possibly announce later.

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