Publication / DecodeDC/ Scripps
October 12, 2015
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Is the DNC playing preferential politics?

There’s no undercard event Tuesday at the first Democratic debate, so that means one candidate won’t get any airtime on the Las Vegas stage.

Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard University law professor with a unique policy agenda that centers on passing one piece of legislation to end the influence of money in Washington, announced his candidacy in September and in a month raised $1 million. Still, Democratic National Committee rules stipulate that candidates must poll above 1 percent in three separate polls, and Lessig missed the mark.

The weaning out of candidates for debates is nothing new. Some may argue it’s a good thing — we all saw what happens when 10 GOP candidates are allowed on stage at one time.

But Lessig’s situation is especially interesting. He argues that his polling numbers would be as good as the three trailing candidates — former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb and Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee — if only more questionnaires included his name.

In an article Lessig wrote for Politico, he explained:

“Of the last 10 major polls, only three mentioned my candidacy. One poll recently put me at 1 percent (for comparison, candidates O’Malley, Webb and Chafee, who will each get a podium at the debates, are all currently polling at 0.7 percent or less, according to Real Clear Politics). Were I actually included on every poll, I would easily make the debates.”

The reason he wasn’t included in more polls, Lessig says, is because the DNC has yet to formally welcome him into the party. Pollsters take cues from the DNC, so no recognition means no mention in polls – and no mention in polls means no way to meet the criteria for the debate. A Catch-22, as he describes it.

According to Lessig, this strategy by the DNC deploys “the oldest method available for marginalizing campaigns they don’t like: keeping me out of the Democratic presidential debates.”

And for the growing number of populist leaning voters and others unenthusiastic about establishment candidates such as Hillary Clinton, the absence of Lessig, who’s been described as “the biggest radical at work in America today,” strikes a nerve. While another Democratic candidate, Bernie Sanders, could arguably be placed in the populist category for his similar views on campaign finance reform, Lessig would add another voice to the movement.

Since Lessig’s article, and the subsequent release of the debate line-up by CNN, Twitter erupted with negative comments about Lessig’s absence.

Many questioned how Webb and Chaffee, who have so far raised less money than Lessig, were considered more serious candidates. According to the most recent FEC data, both Chafee and Webb have significantly less campaign funds in their coffers. Webb in particular has announced no dollar amount in funding so far. The latest quarter numbers for all candidates are due Oct. 15.

Still, as John Sides, a political science professor at the George Washington University, explained, “The main role of party leaders – both inside and outside formal party organizations – is to try to coordinate on a consensus candidate and then use whatever resources are at their disposal to help that candidate.”

And while the DNC controls how many debates it has and the timing, something candidates such as O’Malley have claimed may hurt them, “candidates need far more than a good debate to actually win the nomination,” Sides said.

While the debate would be a great stage for Lessig’s platform and probably increase his poll numbers, his chances of actually winning the Democratic nomination would remain the same, and Sides puts those chances at “tiny.”