Out of debate, yet very much in contention

Even that understates just how close he came. He might have qualified had he received the support of one more person in that single poll.

Out of debate, yet very much in contention

(The Upshot): When the Democratic National Committee set the lineup on Thursday for the first presidential debates, Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana didn’t make the cut. He could have, had he done better in just one more poll.

Even that understates just how close he came. He might have qualified had he received the support of one more person in that single poll.

Bullock — along with Seth Moulton and Wayne Messam — had been trying to reach 1% of the vote in three qualifying national or early state polls, or to show they’d received donations from 65,000 people. They did neither.

Many candidates have gone on to emerge as serious contenders after starting with around 1% of the vote. These were mostly people who had low name recognition, but gained support after becoming better known in the early states or nationwide.

Paul Tsongas, who would win the New Hampshire primary in 1992, didn’t reach 1% in any early polls in 1991, though there were far fewer qualifying polls that year. He ultimately won five of the first 15 contests before falling behind Bill Clinton, who won the nomination.

Clinton averaged just 1.5% of the vote in the early polls in the 1992 cycle. Jimmy Carter, who held 0.75% in the early polls in the 1976 cycle, has the lowest early polling average for a winning candidate in the primary era.

Rick Santorum, who won Iowa in 2012 and finished behind only Mitt Romney for the nomination, averaged only 1.2% of the vote in early polls of a far smaller field. Jon Huntsman, who finished third in New Hampshire in 2012, averaged 0.7%.

There are other examples — enough, in fact, that a relatively unknown candidate at 1% of the vote could be thought to have a better chance at winning than a well-known candidate at 10%, like a Jeb Bush in 2015.

In general, early polls do a decent job of identifying the candidates likeliest to win the nomination. To take a simple example: Most candidates with steady and significant polling leads over the first six months in the year before the election go on to win the nomination. There are many exceptions, but it would be wrong to say the early polls are “meaningless.”

But this is a subtly different and easier task than deciding who should make the first debates and who should not. It’s one thing to know that a candidate who’s strong in the polls should be taken seriously; it’s something else entirely to know that one who is weak in the polls shouldn’t be taken seriously.

Many strong candidates weren’t even in the race at this stage, including the current president of the United States (he announced June 16 in 2015). Donald Trump would have qualified for the debate — he was included in several polls before he entered the race, and his celebrity was good for a couple of points in a few polls. He averaged 2% in the early polls conducted before he entered the race.

Bullock, though, is no celebrity. He starts with low name recognition, so unlike a well-known candidate with 1% or 2% support, he can hope that he’ll break out when given a moment in the spotlight.

He has some reasonable excuses for not having more name recognition.

He was the second-to-last candidate to enter the race (two days before Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York), so his failure to break out by the debate deadline might not necessarily reflect weakness as a candidate. He has not had a CNN town hall event, which several candidates have used to propel themselves higher in the polls. In fact, Bullock entered the race so late that many pollsters did not include him in qualifying polls, and he was also at a disadvantage in meeting the alternative debate entry criteria of fundraising.

He also hails from Montana, one of the least populous states in the country — a subtle but real disadvantage in the fight for 1% of the vote in the polls.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, for instance, is from Minnesota, worth 1.7% of the national population. If she has the support of one-third of Minnesotans, that alone could be enough for her to reach the 0.5% she would need to hit 1% in a national poll, since poll results are typically rounded up to the nearest whole number.

Montana, in contrast, is worth 0.3% of the national population. Even unanimous support from his home state would still leave Bullock short of 0.5%.

Despite his late entry and his small state, Bullock came even closer to qualifying than it looks. He actually appeared to qualify for the debate, but the DNC said one of his qualifying polls — an open-ended ABC News/Washington Post survey — wouldn’t make the cut.

It is not obvious why the poll wouldn’t count; you could argue that being named, from memory, in an open-ended survey is a stronger indicator of support than when a candidate is named after someone hears the candidate’s name. On Thursday, Bullock’s campaign unsuccessfully argued once again that the disqualified poll should be counted.

In the Monmouth poll in Nevada that proved decisive, released Wednesday, Bullock’s one respondent was given a below-average weight of 0.77, according to Patrick Murray of Monmouth University. Nearly all modern political polls adjust the value of responses in this way; individual respondents are given more or less weight to bring the demographic composition of the sample into alignment with the broader population. In general, an older white voter will have less weight than a younger and nonwhite one because older white voters tend to respond to surveys at higher rates.

Bullock would have qualified had his respondent had a weight of 1.83 or more, as some respondents did, or if a hypothetical second respondent had a weight of 1.06 or more — just slightly above average.

Indeed, the threshold was low enough that 20 candidates still met it. A person could have plausibly qualified for a Democratic debate by getting a handful of respondents — perhaps as few as three — out of tens of thousands of Democrats contacted in the approximately two dozen polls that qualified under the Democratic rules.

The Democratic debate threshold is almost comically low. And yet, even this low threshold is not assured to include every candidate who could matter in the race.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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