Based in Noblesville, Indiana, Curtis writes the syndicated humor column, Grammar Guy. His hilarious-yet-thoughtful book will be available in May 2020.

It’s time to winnow the field

It’s time to winnow the field

As a student of words and grammar, sometimes I let a word roll around in my head like a sommelier swishes wine in his mouth. For the record — swishing is the technical term for what wine aficionados do so that wine triggers all different types of tastebuds inside the mouth. Lately, I’ve heard the term “winnow” quite a bit. Political pundits have talked repeatedly about the winnowing of the Democratic presidential primary field.

We get the word winnow from the Old English “windwian,” which concerned removing the chaff from grain with an air current. From there, the term got used more broadly to mean the removal of anything unwanted. With (technically) 25 Democrats running in the presidential primary, the party hopes the field winnows quickly to rally around one candidate by the end of the primary season next year.

Eric Swalwell got winnowed out of the race after he unsuccessfully tried to make a big splash with a few clever (and clearly rehearsed) lines against former Vice President Joe Biden during the first round of debates. He couldn’t blow away the electorate, so he got blown away, like undesirable chaff that polls below 1 percent. He was reportedly chafed that likely Democratic primary voters didn’t get excited about his “pass the torch” line. 

Having 25 people running in the primary is kind of like the toothpaste aisle at a Wal-Mart Supercenter. Too many choices make me feel paralyzed to make a decision. What I want is an Aldi-like approach: give me your top three or four options to choose from, and I’ll gladly pick my favorite. It seems like everything else is just noise. Sorry, Marianne Williamson, but you’re not going to win, let alone reach the September threshold. Let the impending gust of wind winnow you onto a journey toward writing your next self-help book. 

More candidates will get winnowed as the third and fourth debates in September and October, respectively. Each presidential hopeful will have to meet at least a 2 percent threshold in four polls and receive donations from 130,000 unique donors, with 400 unique donors per state coming from at least 20 different states. This other term, “threshold,” brings us back to the medieval farm. “Thresh” comes from another Old English word which has to do with separating seeds from harvested plants by stomping on the plants with your feet. Later on, medieval farmers installed a plank of wood across the base of the doorway to prevent dirt and dust from blowing inside. These were the first thresholds, which still appear in many doorways today.

As we’ll see in the coming months, if the lower-tier candidates don’t “win now” in the polls, they’ll get winnowed. Because of this upping of the ante, don’t be surprised when the current polling bottom-feeders come out swinging during the next two nights of debates on CNN. Can they win? No? They’ll get winnowed. Don’t be surprised when only 10 Democratic hopefuls qualify for the third debate in September. Currently, six candidates (Biden, Buttigieg, Harris, O’Rourke, Sanders and Warren) have met the threshold for the next round. Can the likes of Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, and Julian Castro, who are only polling between 1 and 2 percent, join them?

Although I’m not a fan of candidates running if they don’t expect to win, there are some consolation prizes in this contest: appointments in a potential cabinet, a vice-presidential nomination, or even a lucrative talking head deal from MSNBC or CNN. But what I’m most concerned about is who will cross the threshold of the Oval Office in January of 2021.

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