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Saving future Democratic debates

With two weeks remaining to qualify for the third Democratic presidential debate, nine candidates have made the cut: Former vice president Joe Biden, former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sens. Cory Booker (N.J.), Kamala D. Harris (Calif.), Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.).

With massive amounts to spend on advertising, billionaire Tom Steyer will succeed in reaching the debate stage, as well, if he can get at least one more approved poll in which he scores at least 2 percent among respondents. (FiveThirtyEight noted: “It doesn’t hurt that Steyer has a huge organizing advantage — he can draw on the more than 8 million email addresses amassed by Need to Impeach, an anti-Trump group Steyer founded, not to mention additional contacts from NextGen, another Steyer organization.”) Montana Gov. Steve Bullock is complaining that Steyer is buying his way into the debate. “Tom Steyer spent nearly $10 million to buy his way onto the debate stage,” Bullock tweeted. “But no matter what the [Democratic National Committee] says, money doesn’t vote. People do.” He’s absolutely right.

The other candidate with a strong chance to reach the stage in Houston in September is former housing and urban development secretary Julián Castro, who also needs one more approved poll with a 2 percent or better result. (Both Castro and Steyer have met the other requirement of 130,000 unique donors.) Unless a whole bunch of donors and polls come in, we’ll say goodbye (for now) to New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) and Michael F. Bennet (Col.), Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii), Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, Marianne Williamson and the rest.

A few things are worth highlighting.

First, the combination of certain moderator choices, low qualifying thresholds and the refusal to have a “kiddie” table of less-popular candidates has made the first two debates disjointed, hypercombative and unenlightening. If you don’t put the top contenders on the stage together, you really don’t get a sense of their relative abilities. You put 10 candidates on the stage to be egged on by media moderators, and you have constant squabbling and interruptions. If both Steyer and Castro qualify for September’s debate, we’ll have two rounds in that debate, as well — presumably with 11 total candidates. However well-meaning, Democrats should acknowledge that the DNC messed up in how these events were set up.

Second, more candidates may make the October debate with additional time to qualify by either polls or donors. That gives zero incentive for the ones who don’t make it in September to get out of the race, thereby putting off for yet another debate the “thinning” that the Democratic herd desperately needs. It will also raise the chances of a two-night debate, in which — yet again — the top contenders won’t be together on the same stage.

Third, whether they exit the race in September or October, the nonqualifying candidates really do need to get out, if for no other reason than to shrink the stage and help voters focus on the viable candidates. Moreover, Democrats back home in Colorado are pleading with for Hickenlooper to run for Senate instead. A recent Public Policy Polling survey has him trouncing incumbent Republican Cory Gardner 51 percent to 38 percent.

Fourth, if the DNC is going to keep the floodgates open for October, it makes it even more critical for those same gates to be slammed shut come November and December. That gives viable candidates time before the Feb. 3 Iowa Caucuses to scoop up donors, staff and support. That could mean the difference between getting some delegates (given the 15 percent threshold for receiving them) and getting none.

Finally, if the poll qualification went up to just 3 percent for November, there’s a good chance the field would shrink at least to seven (Biden, Sanders, Warren, Klobuchar, Buttigieg, Harris and Booker), or eight if O’Rourke can finally put it together. If O’Rourke doesn’t make the cut, those calling for him to return to Texas to run against Sen. John Cornyn, as has the Houston Chronicle’s editorial board, would have a powerful argument that it’s time for O’Rourke to move on. (“So Beto, if you’re listening: Come home. Drop out of the race for president and come back to Texas to run for senator. The chances of winning the race you’re in now are vanishingly small,” the Chronicle pleaded. “And Texas needs you.”)

In sum, voters are overwhelmed and underinformed at this point, having watched a blur of candidates bickering with each other over four nights during the past two months. The DNC should be helping to retire the hopeless candidates, route some of them into winnable Senate races, and give the party the most effective process for picking the presidential nominee, as well as maximizing its chances of winning back control of the Senate.

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