While there have always been occasional vanity presidential campaigns, in the past couple of elections the number of people running for the White House with seemingly no chance of success has increased dramatically. The fault for this probably lies with Barack Obama, who despite having been a mere state senator four years before, ran for president in 2008 and won. His success led many other politicians to ask, “Why not me?”

Obama, however, was possessed of talents your average politician only believes he has. But something else happened: Potential candidates realized that unless you do something to truly embarrass yourself, there isn’t much to lose by running.

At worst, you’ll become far better known and more influential than you were as some backbench member of Congress; you’ll have a chance to spread your ideas; and you never know what might happen. You probably won’t win, but it’s always possible that the voting public will come to appreciate your razor-sharp mind and luminous charisma, and the next thing you know you’re the party’s nominee.

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Yet most of the Democrats running for the White House this year are probably coming to realize that it’s not going to work out for them. So what should they do about it?

This question is causing some tension within the party, as David Siders of Politico reports:

In Iowa, some prominent Democrats are privately urging struggling campaigns to stay in the contest even if they cannot qualify for the debates, incredulous that metrics imposed by national Democratic Party officials could stamp out lesser contenders — a perceived infringement on what is traditionally the first caucus state’s job.
Meanwhile, Democrats raising money for down-ticket candidates are complaining that the presidential candidates’ imperative to raise money to meet debate thresholds is drawing attention away from congressional and state house contests — and perverting the Democratic Party’s messaging overall.

As a general rule, one shouldn’t listen too closely to Iowa party activists, because they’re often drunk on their own power over the process and will protect it at any cost. But in this case they may have a point.

Not because it ought to be Iowa’s job and no one else’s to winnow the field, but because voters benefit from having more candidates with different things to say. A large field allows, now and then, for issues to be brought up that might not get as much attention otherwise, and gives voters the chance to consider a variety of perspectives. And apart from the possibility of crowding out contributions to down-ballot races (which I’m skeptical about), what’s the harm?

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That’s not how the party sees it, however, and it’s the one in charge of the process. The party would prefer that it gets a presumed nominee as quickly as possible, and it hates having a free-for-all it can’t control.

The best tool the party has to force candidates from the race is the debates, so while it wants a healthy exchange of ideas, it also wants to shut out as many candidates as possible, knowing that could mean they close up shop once they realize they won’t meet the requirements for the next one (as of now, 11 candidates have qualified for the debates in three weeks).

Which, if you’re one of the candidates not polling very well, seems absurdly unfair. This is particularly true if you’re someone with solid credentials on paper who hasn’t managed to attract much attention, like Montana Gov. Steve Bullock.

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The fact that the Democratic National Committee uses poll numbers along with the number of contributors each campaign has amassed also strikes many as unreasonable. Even now polls seem largely a reflection of name recognition; it’s probably not a coincidence that the three leading candidates are the ones who had national profiles before the race began.

But what’s the alternative? We can’t let absolutely everybody participate in the debates, or it would be a madhouse. In 2016, for instance, you may have thought that the Democratic primary race was between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, but there were 28 people on the Democratic primary ballot in New Hampshire; all that’s required there is that you fill out a form and pay a $1,000 fee. I’m pretty sure one or two of them ran on a platform of surrendering Earth to the benevolent slime monsters of Planet Zergnorpx.

So you have to draw a line somewhere. Despite the problems with the way the DNC has chosen to do it, I haven’t heard any better ideas.

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As for the candidates stuck in the low single digits, they should campaign as long as they want. As long as they think they have something to say and can find someone to listen, there’s no reason to drop out. And yes, not getting in the debates makes it much harder to win, but the thresholds have been low enough that if they were really setting voters on fire, they would have made it into the debates by now. As for the voters, they certainly can’t say they haven’t had the opportunity to give plenty of candidates a thorough going-over.

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