Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez speaks to a crowd at a DNC event in Atlanta on Thursday. (Dustin Chambers/Getty Images)
Opinion writer

Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez is getting grief for the rules limiting participants in the party debates to 20. In September, when the second debate round will be held, the candidates need to show 2 percent support in designated polling.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock says he shouldn’t be penalized for finishing the legislative session back home, which forced a late entry.

CBS News interviewed Perez, who defended the DNC’s system:

"If you can't run an effective grassroots campaign in the year 2020, in today's era, you're not going to be able to win the presidency," Perez said. "And what our dual threshold has done is to give additional opportunity to the candidates."

“What we wanted to do was make sure that we had multiple opportunities where they could present their vision to the American people. And then, as it happens in every primary cycle, you’ve got to demonstrate progress, and that’s what September is about,” Perez continued. He also noted that an individual donor could donate $1, and that grassroots support is more important than a dollar measure.

Calling the criteria “arbitrary” is meaningless. There has to be a cutoff somewhere. Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) opines, “I don’t think they should be winnowing the field.” Actually, that is precisely what the DNC should do — the earlier, the better.

In point of fact, there is a fleet of candidates who practically never register above 1 percent. The party is indulging these candidates by setting a very low threshold of 1 percent. However, the purpose of debates is to help voters make a choice, and they cannot do so if 10 people per debate get only a few minutes each to make their case.

Narrowing the field sooner rather than later also benefits the rest of the field, particularly those not at the top. It’s the midlevel candidates (e.g. Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke, Pete Buttigieg) who suffer when there is a mob on stage. Get the field down to five to six candidates, and they might have a chance to knock off former vice president Joe Biden or pass Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

In the same vein, those middle-tier candidates could use staff, donors and volunteers who are now divided up among 24 candidates. Perhaps all of those resources will flow to the front-runner, but I rather doubt it. The voters supporting lesser-known candidates are asking for fresh faces; if the 1 percenters vanish, there is a strong likelihood, they’ll look to the 2-to-7 percenters. If you used the RealClearPolitics national average and applied the 2 percent rule, you’d get down to one debate with seven candidates — a normal field.

There is another reason to narrow the field before the early contests: the 15 percent rule. No delegates are awarded in primaries or caucuses this cycle to candidates who get less than 15 percent of the vote. Take New Hampshire, for example, and you’d have (both according to the RCP national average and the RCP New Hampshire average) only two candidates who get delegates — Biden and Sanders. If you want other candidates to have a real chance, you want to lower the number of candidates in the race in order to (theoretically) raise the number of candidates who can win delegates.

Candidates with virtually no support might run for a variety of reasons — entertainment value, increasing name recognition for subsequent races, championing a single issue. They have every right to do so, but they shouldn’t expect the party to subsidize them forever by giving them prime-time exposure in debates. To be blunt, a lot of the people in the race have no business being there. The party has every right, in fact an obligation, to help narrow the field to those who are at least plausible contenders.

Read more:

Paul Waldman: How the huge Democratic field is weighing the candidates down

Richard Cohen: Who are all these Democratic presidential candidates?

Jennifer Rubin: How Democratic candidates can stand out from the field

George F. Will: How the Democratic field is winnowing itself

Ronald A. Klain: A crowded road to 2020 will yield the best Democrat