On Monday morning, CNN announced the rules for who will qualify for its first Democratic presidential debate on October 13 — and the network is rolling out the red carpet in hopes that Vice President Joe Biden will show up.
The criteria are quite simple. Essentially, all you have to do is hit an average of 1 percent support in three national polls from CNN's approved list of organizations, which Biden has already done. After that, you just have to say you'll declare your candidacy to the FEC by Wednesday, October 14 — the day after the debate.
This is quite unlike the rules CNN set for its Republican presidential debate earlier this month. In addition to reaching a poll threshold, candidates had to officially file with the FEC and say they were running three weeks before the debate. They also had to have a paid campaign aide working in at least two of the four early voting states (Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada). And they had to have visited two of those states at least once.
Those Republican rules were designed to keep many candidates in the large field offstage. But CNN's starkly different Democratic rules have seemingly been deliberately designed in hopes of coaxing one potential candidate in particular — Biden — onstage. Since he's uncertain about a run, the rules give him as much time as possible to make up his mind. (They certainly aren't designed to help Larry Lessig, a late-declaring candidate who hasn't met the poll threshold, and currently would not qualify.)
Under these criteria, theoretically, if Biden is sitting around on the afternoon of debate day, he could make a spur-of-the-moment decision that he wants to jump in the race, jet off to the event in Las Vegas, and say he'll handle his paperwork later.
A late campaign announcement by Vice President Biden would, of course, rock the political world — and, not coincidentally, the spectacle of Biden unexpectedly taking on Hillary Clinton onstage would be fantastic for CNN's ratings.
Cable news networks haven't been particularly transparent or consistent in their debate qualifying rules
It seems reasonable for CNN to set its rules in this way. If Biden does jump into the race before October 13, it would seem a shame to keep such an important candidate off the stage because he had missed a deadline days earlier. (Then again, if CNN had set its deadline well in advance rather than waiting until today, it would be Biden's own fault if that happened.)
But the disparity between CNN's own Republican and Democratic qualifying rules is just the latest to raise some uncomfortable questions about the role of ratings-hungry cable networks in these increasingly important debates. Indeed, neither Fox News nor CNN has yet managed to lay out clear qualifying rules for a debate well in advance and stick to them.
For the first Republican presidential debate, Fox News said in advance that it would use the last five national polls to determine who qualified for its primetime segment. But for months, the network was deliberately vague about which polling organizations it would consider, how it would use rounding, and how it would handle a tie — refusing to answer questions about any of these matters.
In the end, this opaqueness didn't end up mattering — every methodology that fit Fox's standards would have resulted in the same lineup of primetime candidates. But if there were more of a mix in late poll results, then theoretically Fox News could have cherry-picked among them to help candidates it preferred make the cut — either for ideological reasons, or just because they'd make for better TV.
At first, CNN's rules for its Republican debate earlier this month seemed to be a model of transparency in comparison. But as the debate grew closer, it became more and more apparent that those rules would exclude Carly Fiorina — who had gotten a small bump in some national polls since the first debate — from the primetime stage. So CNN decided to change its rules just two weeks beforehand, in a way that would help Fiorina get in. Again, there was a logical rationale here, since there were fewer national polls than CNN had expected after that first debate.
But it's undeniable that Fiorina and CNN both ended up benefiting hugely from that decision. CNN got a new face who'd proven she could make good TV, and a sole woman onstage among the men. Fiorina got exposure to 23 million primetime viewers, and ended up having a face-to-face confrontation with Donald Trump over his sexist remarks about her that went viral. And her impressive-looking (though factually challenged) performance overall powered her rise to third place in national polls.
CNN's rather late announcement of these Democratic debate rules is just the latest in this pattern. Once again, there's a lack of transparency. The debate is only 15 days away, and the qualifying rules are just being announced now. Once again, the rules seem to be designed to benefit one person in particular — in a way that just so happens to seem likely to boost ratings.
Both cable news networks and the parties have their biases
The next Republican debate, to be hosted by CNBC, is only a month away. The qualifying rules haven't been announced yet, and that's set off "a wave of anxiety" among campaigns, according to a great report by Politico's Alex Isenstadt and Hadas Gold.
It would be nice for democracy for CNBC to stop monkeying around and set some clear rules as soon as possible. The larger issue, though, is that the political parties themselves have essentially outsourced a crucial aspect of the political process to for-profit cable channels.
One potential alternative is for the party committees to lay out some standards years in advance. Though the parties certainly have their own incentives to mess with the process, if they hammer out criteria before it’s foreseeable who exactly will run and who will be advantaged by which potential set of rules, the process could be fairer. At the very least, it wouldn't be fiddled with at the last minute by cable networks trying to help certain candidates for their own reasons.