Cut From the Debate? It Doesn’t Mean a Candidate Can’t Matter

The Democratic National Committee is soon expected to announce the 20 candidates who qualified for the party’s first presidential debates. One candidate seems likely to come especially close but fall short: Steve Bullock, the governor of Montana.

Mr. Bullock is set to miss the cut — along with Seth Moulton, Wayne Messam and Mike Gravel — in part because he failed to reach 1 percent of the vote in three qualifying national or early state polls. He fell just one poll short, including in his last chance to qualify, a Monmouth poll of Nevada released on Wednesday.

Even that understates just how close he came. He might have qualified had he received the support of one more person in the Monmouth poll — or even if the one respondent who did support him had received more weight in the poll.

Even one additional poll respondent could have made the difference for Governor Bullock. CreditChristopher Smith for The New York Times

Yet Mr. Bullock’s low support in the polls doesn’t preclude the possibility that he’ll play a meaningful role in the race. His exclusion illustrates the challenge of using polls at this early stage to make sense of the race, let alone to decide whom to include in a debate.

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 you could name, of course, but it would be wrong to say the early polls are “meaningless.”

You might think, then, that the early polls would be a useful tool for deciding who should make the first debates June 26-27 and who should not. But this is a subtly different and more difficult task. 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 candidates have gone on to emerge as serious contenders after starting with around 1 percent 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 percent 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.

Mr. Clinton averaged just 1.5 percent of the vote in the early polls in the 1992 cycle. Jimmy Carter, who held 0.75 percent 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 percent of the vote in early polls of a far smaller field. Jon Huntsman, who finished third in New Hampshire in 2012, averaged 0.7 percent.

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

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 J. 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 nonetheless averaged a mere 2 percent in the early polls conducted before he entered the race.

Mr. Bullock, though, is no celebrity. He starts with low name recognition, so unlike a well-known candidate with 1 or 2 percent 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, Mr. 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 fund-raising.

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

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

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

Despite his late entry and his small state, Mr. Bullock came even closer to qualifying than it looks. He actually appeared to qualify for the debate, but the D.N.C. 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).

In the Monmouth poll in Nevada that proved decisive, Mr. 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.

Mr. 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.

Of course, I (and almost certainly you) also fell just one highly weighted respondent short of reaching 1 percent of the vote in the Nevada poll, so it is not a high bar.

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.

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