Hal Bidlack

Hal Bidlack

Hi, let me introduce myself — I’m the only Democrat not currently running for president, or at least sometimes it feels that way. I mean, Marianne Williamson? Really? Yet I’m not actually upset at the number, as the “problem” of too many candidates is self-correcting once the primaries start. But I do have a couple of questions about how candidates become “viable” and “mentioned” by what we in political science call “the Great Mentioner.” Poli Sci theory holds that once a candidate gets sufficient “mentions,” a candidate becomes worth talking about, and is seen as a “real” candidate. So, the goal is to get mentioned.

This presidential election, the Democrats have a series of candidate debates lined up, as per usual, but how one qualifies for the debates has long been a source of contention. In previous campaigns a candidate basically had to be popular enough in national polls to seem important. But this election they’ve added a new way to qualify — 65,000 unique donors of cash to the campaign. In addition, to avoid having a candidate (cough…de Blasio…cough) get the required number of donors from a single locale, say New York City, your 65,000 folks must be spread across at least part of the country, with at least 200 donors in 20 different states. 

This creates an interesting strategy to the “lower tier” candidates, who are not yet getting noticed nationally in polls — the “begging for money, any money,” strategy. Some candidates, like Joe Biden, are already well-known and are well over the 1 percent threshold. But others, like Colorado’s own Michael Bennet, despite being a bright guy with lots of ideas, is scrambling to hit 65K. John Hickenlooper has already qualified for the debate field. 

I can see where this new standard can be a good thing, but I’d like to proffer that there is one additional qualification for the debates that I’d like to see put in place; I call it “candidate bowl.” 

My idea draws from my own quixotic campaign for Congress back in 2008. I received a number of “issue tests” from organizations that were potential donors and/or supporters. These documents usually asked a series of questions on issues important to the particular group. A questionnaire from, say, airline pilots, might ask the candidates’ views on deregulation of the airlines. Advocates for reducing drunk driving might ask what the candidate thinks about mandatory sentences for DUI offenses. The one I got from the NRA had a very interesting built-in bias. As the NRA, I presume, wanted to be able to crow about a high percentage of candidates agreeing with them, they issued me an “A” grade based on my questionnaire. The actual questions, however, were clearly designed to drive a desired answer. One example was the NRA asking if I would oppose “unreasonable” gun laws. I said yes, but I suspect the NRA and I might differ a bit on where the line is for “unreasonable.”

Anyway, back to 2020. Simply put, I propose that the Democratic Party would issue questionnaires to each candidate on, say, 25 different key issues facing the nation in 2020. These questionnaires would need to be completed, and in a fair amount of detail, on the issues that divide and trouble Americans. These surveys with answers would then be posted on the internet for all to see, thus (I’d hope) creating an opportunity for a better-informed voter, which is exactly what the Founding Fathers said was essential to liberty. Colorado is better than many states in this area, but there is always room to improve.

No one can reasonably argue that all declared candidates should get into the debates. As it turns out, there are far more than the 22 or so “notable” candidates running on the Dem side. When you count everyone who has filed paperwork to run for president with the Federal Election Committee, you have 248 Democrats running and 92 Republicans. The Libertarians have fielded 27 presidential candidates, while the Green Party has 14. So clearly, some culling of the ranks is needed.

A core problem, I argue, is that the televised debates have become the standard by which a candidate is considered viable. If a candidate misses out on the debates, he or she is, well, finished. That’s why you are getting all those emails from Sen. Bennet and other folks, as they work toward the goal of 65k two weeks before the first debate in June – that’s right, the first debate is next month on the 26thand 27thin Miami.

I’d think that before anyone should qualify for the debates, he or she should also qualify as an intelligent and thoughtful candidate, at least in part via the mandatory issue questionnaire. That way, in future elections, we just might be able to make our choices with less regard for the Great Mentioner.

(Full disclosure, I am one of Senator Bennet’s 65,000 donors.)

Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.

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