The Democratic Party’s plans for the upcoming presidential debates has stirred up some behind-the-scenes controversy.
One Democratic 2016 campaign adviser who spoke to Business Insider said they believe the Democratic National Committee’s debate schedule was “worked out” to benefit Hillary Clinton and hurt her opponents.
The adviser, who requested anonymity in order to speak frankly about the party’s campaign arm, suggested the DNC is hosting a small number of debates in an attempt to give Clinton’s more low profile rivals “less screen time.” They also suggested the relatively late schedule of the debates will make it harder for Clinton’s lesser known rivals to introduce themselves to voters.
“Six is less than a bare minimum,” the adviser said.
The DNC announced its debate plans on Tuesday. It will sanction six debates beginning in the fall. and will bar candidates who participate from entering debates sponsored by other groups. According to the adviser, at least one of Clinton’s opponents asked for there to be more than six debates.
“While a six sanctioned debate schedule is consistent with the precedent set by the DNC during the 2004 and 2008 cycles, this year the DNC will further manage the process by implementing an exclusivity requirement,” the statement announcing the debates explained. “Any candidate or debate sponsor wishing to participate in DNC debates, must agree to participate exclusively in the DNC-sanctioned process. Any violation would result in forfeiture of the ability to participate in the remainder of the debate process.”
The DNC’s statement described its plan as an effort to have “a reasonable number of impactful debates that give voters ample opportunity to see the candidates side-by-side, while remaining manageable for all of the candidates.” It said this fall was a good time to start the process because that is when “voters are truly beginning to pay attention.”
Having just six Democratic debates is a far cry from 2008 when there were over 20. However, the majority of the debates in that election were hosted by other organisations. The Republican National Committee is hosting more than six 2016 debates. It will sanction at least nine debates and may add up to three more. The RNC also has an exclusivity requirement for debate participants.
The adviser claimed the DNC “explicitly promised in negotiations that there would be no exclusivity clause.” They also alleged the DNC initially said there would be six debates when they began negotiating with the campaigns.
“Their starting point — presumably worked out with Clinton campaign — was six debates,” the adviser said. “Over the course of three months of negotiations, they never once budged from six debates, so the negotiations were all a grand act of kabuki theatre.”
When asked about the adviser’s allegations, DNC Communications director Mo Elleithee told Business Insider he would not comment on specific conversations the committee had with any of the campaigns. However, Elleithee confirmed there were candidates who wanted more than six debates.
“I’ve been doing debate negotiations at some level for nearly 20 years and I’ve never seen a cycle where some people didn’t want more and some people didn’t want fewer. The best you can hope for is to find the right balance,” Elleithee said. “Of course some people wanted more. … Everyone has different needs and you just try to figure out the right mix.”
Elleithee also defended the exclusivity requirement as an effort to keep the debate process “manageable.”
“The ultimate goal is to have a good number of debates that give the voters a chance to see the candidates side by side without the debate schedule overwhelming the process,” Elleithee said.
Clinton’s campaign declined to comment on this story. Spokespeople for the other two top tier Democratic candidates, former Virginia senator Jim Webb and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), did not respond to requests for comment. Lis Smith, a spokesperson for former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), who is expected to announce his campaign later this month, referred us to a statement she released after the debate announcement wherein she criticised the exclusivity requirement.
“If Governor O’Malley decides to run, we will expect a full, robust, and inclusive set of debates — both nationally and in early primary and caucus states. This has been customary in previous primary seasons. In a year as critical as 2016, exclusivity does no one any favours,” Smith said.
In his conversation with Business Insider, Elleithee pointed to the fact the RNC has also instituted an exclusivity requirement.
“The Republicans were having these same discussions on their side and the exclusivity thing is what they came up with,” Elleithee said. “Every now and then Republicans have decent ideas. This was one of them.”