The procedure implemented last night was not, I would argue, ideal, though neither was it irrational. The 20 available candidates were partitioned into three groups we might label—CNN did not quite label them this way—likely candidates, long shots, and certifiable also-rans.
CNN did not provide its own linear ranking of all the debaters, though it did give a partial list in a posting about an hour before the TV drawing. In that story, “24 Democrats are running for president. Voters and donors like only five of them,” Harry Enten wrote that Biden had 25% support in CNN polling, Harris had 16%, both Sanders and Warren had 15%, and Buttigieg had 5%. Everyone else had 2% or less. In the likely candidates category, CNN, as one might expect, placed Biden, Harris, Sanders, and Warren. The long shots comprised Buttigieg, Booker, Yang Castro, Klobuchar, and O’Rourke. In the absence of actual numbers, it seems reasonable that Booker, Yang Castro, Klobuchar, and O’Rourke are running somewhat behind Buttigieg and somewhat ahead of the rest of the field, namely the certifiable also-rans.
Three drawings were held for each of the groups, in which the drawings assigned members of the category to either the Tuesday or Wednesday night debate. For maximum drama, the drawings were ordered from least likely to most likely candidates.
CNN assuredly was trying to avoid the obvious imbalance seen in the two debates run by NBC. (See “How the Upcoming Debates Could Have Been Better Designed” and “The Debate Lineup: An Apology and Further Thoughts.”) Whereas CNN’s procedure may not have been ideal, it did assure that there would not be a varsity and junior varsity debate. Each debate would include its share of likely, unlikely, and long-shot candidates. Combined with the fact that polls are imperfect descriptions of reality—Warren might really have been ahead of Harris, for example—I think CNN deserves credit for learning from experience and attempting to achieve actual fairness.
On the other hand, spending an hour of prime time on determining the debate lineups was surely unnecessary. Too much time was spent having a half dozen commentators remarking on what was going on. Moreover, the actual drawing was unnecessarily complicated.
Each drawing involved two boxes and two sets of tiles. The first set of tiles were labeled with names; the second set was labeled with dates. Each set was selected, shuffled, placed in its respective box, and, in turn, a candidate and a date were drawn. Multiple cameras, we were assured, guaranteed that there was no hanky panky. (I was surprised that the person who filled the boxes was the same person who drew from the boxes, but I really did not fear for any funny business.) My main complaint about this procedure is that the date tiles were completely unnecessary. Why did CNN not simply assign the first name drawn to the Tuesday debate, the second name drawn to the Wednesday debate, etc.? Apparently, the use of the two boxes was seen as more dramatic than the use of one.
A certain amount of explanation was required to make clear to the audience just what was going on. I became impatient after the first two sets of drawings. Rather than simply proceeding to the “third draw,” the commentators speculated about the pros and cons of various distributions of the final four candidates. The time could better have been spent analyzing the actual outcome of the third draw.
As for the outcome of the program, the lineups are decidedly reasonable. I was disappointed in the distribution of the top four candidates. If the procedure I outlined in “How the Upcoming Debates Could Have Been Better Designed” had been used, Biden would have been teamed with Warren or Sanders. Instead, Warren and Sanders, the third- and fourth-ranked candidates and the two top-tier candidates most like one another, are paired.
Well, the die is cast. Here are the assignments for the July 30 and July 21 debates:
WEDNESDAY NGHT DEBATERS TUESDAY NIGHT DEBATERS Joe Biden Steve Bullock Michael Bennet Pete Buttigieg Cory Booker John Delaney Julián Castro John Hickenlooper Bill de Blasio Amy Klobuchar Tulsi Gabbard Beto O’Rourke Kirsten Gillibrand Tim Ryan Kamala Harris Bernie Sanders Jay Inslee Elizabeth Warren Andrew Yang Marianne Williamson
UPDATE, 7/30/2019. In my original post, I interchanged the Tuesday and Wednesday lineups. They have now been corrected.