(CNN)Earlier this week, with virtually no advance notice, the Democratic National Committee, released its criteria for how the 23(!) candidates running for the party’s presidential nomination can qualify for a spot on the stage for the third party-sanctioned debate in September.
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To claim a lectern, the candidate must clear both of these hurdles:1) 2% support in four national or early voting state polls2) 130,000 unique donors to their campaign, including 400 unique donors from at least 20 statesThose requirements are a MAJOR increase from the DNC’s initial qualification standard for its first two debates — in June on NBC and MSNBC and in July on CNN. To qualify for those two debates, a candidate needed 1% support in 3 national or early state polls OR 65,000 individual donors, including 200 from 20 different states.Read MoreTo date, 19 candidates have met one of those two requirements. (There are 20 total spots available; 10 lecterns for each night.) There has been some grumbling from the candidates on the outside looking in about what they believe to be arbitrary measures of success being put in place by the DNC.”I think it’s random and inaccurate, but it’s their choice,” New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who is in the first debate although on the bubble, told CNN recently of the requirements. “They’re the DNC, so I’ll follow the rules that are given and I’ll have to play by the rules. … I don’t think it’s a measure of success. I don’t think it’s a measure of electability.”She’s not wrong! The very nature of setting certain standards that must be met is inherently subjective — particularly in the context of determining viability in a presidential campaign, a notoriously volatile thing.But you can understand the logic behind the DNC’s first set of debate rules. It’s logistically impossible to fit two dozen candidates on a single stage, or even a single stage on two different nights. You need some sort of rules on where to draw the line or else you run the risk of giving someone who is solely saying they are running for president without actually raising money or building support the same standing that serious candidates who are doing all of those things have.What the DNC is prioritizing in their debate rules is also a reflection of what their base wants — and the experience of the 2016 campaign. You’ll remember that the DNC came in for heavy criticism last election for putting its thumb on the scale for Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary fight. (The release of hacked DNC emails on WikiLeaks made plain where the DNC’s loyalties lie.)Mindful of how the committee is perceived, the DNC’s debate rules lean heavily toward candidates with large, grassroots donor bases. These are rules, in short, that Sanders and his ilk like. And that’s not by accident.The problem with doubling the requirements — 130,000 donors, 2% in four early state or national polls — is that the DNC is, quite literally, doubling down on this philosophy of small-dollar grassroots donations mattering more than anything else when it comes to determining viability and electability. And that name ID — because that is all that is really being measured in polling this far out from any actual votes and without any candidate running any substantial flights of TV ads — is a secondary useful measure of viability and electability.There’s no doubt that what Sanders proved in 2016 is that a broad-based, small-dollar, online fundraising machine can be very effective. But Clinton won the primary using a far more top-down, big-donor fundraising approach. And for all of the credit given to Barack Obama for inspiring small-dollar donors, the last Democratic president leaned heavily into courting major donors as well.Consider this argument: Total money raised — or even cash left on hand — is a better marker of viability and electability at this point than simply the raw number of individual donors you have.Or this one: The number of paid staffers you have on the ground in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina is a superior measurement of your potential to be the nominee than whether you are at 2% in four polls.The point here is that the DNC isn’t wrong for establishing criteria by which candidates can qualify for debates. These are precious opportunities to push your message (and yourself) in front of a large, national audience. Nor is the DNC wrong for upping the ante in terms of how you qualify for the debates as we get further into the process — and closer to actual votes.The issue is that by doubling down on individual donors and poll standing as the markers for viability and success, the DNC is making very clear how it thinks the party will select its best nominee. Which is the committee’s right. It just might be wrong.