Opinion

Did DNC's lax debate rules let Republicans hijack the primary?

It might not be Democrats that want to make sure Andrew Yang and Tulsi Gabbard are heard

Despite being a Woman Card-carrying member of the Democratic Women's Leadership Forum and the recipient of roughly 8,000 email solicitations from Democratic political campaigns each day, I must admit to having little more than a professional interest in the outcome of the party's presidential nominating contest. Even there I am ambivalent about the actual news value of the whole process. There are scenarios under which it is possible for me to imagine President Trump losing, but Democrats themselves are doing their best to prevent any of these from taking place.

This is why I am not especially bothered by the fact that many candidates who have appeared in the last two rounds of debates should not have been there, including many of the most interesting ones. This is true for several reasons. One is simply that people like Andrew Yang, Tulsi Gabbard, and Marianne Williamson haven't got a ghost of a chance of receiving the Democratic nomination. They are only there on stage in the first place because the DNC dreamed up a ridiculously lax set of rules in order to fend off accusations of bias. (This does not mean that they can expect to enjoy such privileges as actually having their microphones turned on.)

The polling and fundraising requirements for the first two rounds of debates meant that, among other things, the nomination process was open to external interference. Never mind Russia. In the cases of Gabbard and Yang, much of the meager support they do receive seems to be coming from non-Democratic sources much closer to home. The debates are being hijacked by Republicans — and, well, if you take them at their word, readers of The Daily Stormer. "We got Tulsi in the debates," the website's founder wrote earlier this year. "I kind of didn't really want to do the whole big push on this site and have her linked to us if she was going to make it without us (both because I don't want the media attention and I doubt she wants to be considered a nazi [sic] candidate), but as it was clear she wasn't going to make it without us, I figured it didn't matter."

Not every non-Democrat who supports Gabbard is a white supremacist who wants to "make the Jews go nuts." Plenty of mainstream conservatives agree with her views on foreign policy, which, in any case, are more in line with the Trump administration than with the Democratic Party's establishment. One of the only figures in cable news who regularly gives her a fair hearing is Tucker Carlson on Fox. Charlie Kirk of Turning Points USA has praised her campaign. There are also, I suspect, more than a handful of social conservatives who, in addition to sharing her anti-war commitments, have convinced themselves that Gabbard's liberal about-face on issues such as abortion and gay marriage was insincere.

Meanwhile, Yang is as well known for the "Yang Gang," the army of former Trump supporters who trade memes of him wearing pink polo shirts on Reddit, as he is for his actual platform, which is as fascinating as it is varied. Despite receiving less speaking time than almost anyone who has appeared in either set of debates, Yang's fundraising is through the roof. Some of this can probably be attributed to the fact that his policy prescriptions — especially the "Freedom Dividend," which is what he is calling his plan for a $1,000 monthly basic income scheme — are actually interesting to some people who have seen him on television. On the strength of both polling numbers and fundraising he has already qualified for the third debate. But how many people actually plan to vote for him in upcoming primary elections?

When it comes to Williamson the issue is, in some sense, simpler. While a handful of reactionary Catholics like myself welcome her brand of Woodstockified Schillerian liberalism as an alternative to the ghastliness of everything her party has long stood for, I'm not sure we are in the majority here. I suspect that most of the coverage Williamson receives from right-of-center media — to say nothing of her victories in Drudge Report polls — has more to do with the fact that most conservatives regard her as a lunatic. Williamson is goofy; she criticizes everyone else on stage. What have they got to lose by boosting her profile, financially or otherwise? The same thing happens when GOP supporters in blue or purple states vote tactically for fringe candidates in Democratic primaries.

All of this helps to explain why financial support for these candidates for the most part does not overlap with giving money to any of the others in an election in which we have otherwise seen a great deal of hedging, even from small donors. More than 20 percent of people who have given money to Pete Buttigieg have also supported Kamala Harris, 23 percent of whose own supporters have also donated to Elizabeth Warren, whose contributors tend to overlap heavily with those of Bernie Sanders. Yang and Gabbard are absolute outliers. They do not seem to be anyone's second or third choice, and no one who supports either of them seems particularly interested in any of the other candidates.

This is how you turn a primary into a circus.

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