Politics

Inside the DNC’s Two-Year Mission to Fix the Presidential Debates

Democratic Party organizers have an enormous field of candidates to wrangle, and the ghosts of 2016 are haunting their every move.

Next month will mark three years since a Russian email hack humiliated and forced out then-Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz in the middle of a presidential election. Now, as the DNC seeks to find a nominee to challenge President Donald Trump, the party is again facing criticism as it attempts to referee the largest field of primary contenders in its history. Ahead of the DNC’s first 2020 presidential debates on June 26 and 27 in Miami, the campaign of Montana Governor Steve Bullock is accusing party officials of “a secret rule change” that could block him from the stage, while another governor, Jay Inslee of Washington, is condemning the committee for its refusal to hold a debate devoted to climate change. Other Democratic hopefuls are grumbling about debate qualification rules that, they say, are forcing them to spend money unwisely just to secure a crucial opportunity to make their case to voters.

Those complaints are likely to grow louder, at least from some quarters, over the next two days as the committee announces which 20 of the 23 official candidates will take the stage for the initial debates, which will be televised live on NBC, MSNBC, and Telemundo over the course of two consecutive nights for the first time.

“The DNC is damned if they do and damned if they don’t,” said a veteran Democratic strategist, who spoke anonymously to avoid alienating a committee that doles out substantial sums in consulting contracts.

This year, to qualify for the first primary debate under rules developed by the DNC, candidates must either reach 1 percent support in three separate national or early-state polls, or obtain contributions from at least 65,000 individual donors, with 200 each from at least 20 different states. If more than 20 candidates reach either threshold, those that achieve both will get an advantage in a tiebreaker. The DNC announced the rules in February in an effort to give campaigns plenty of time to prepare, but the long lead time has not stopped a backlash from building as candidates have realized they might be shut out of the first contests.

Two of the candidates struggling to secure their debate spots, Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado and former Representative John Delaney of Maryland, have criticized the donor threshold as “arbitrary,” suggesting the party is overly enamored with incentivizing grassroots fundraising that is forcing campaigns to buy advertising solely to juice up their donor count.

In 2016, the DNC apologized to Senator Bernie Sanders and his supporters after the emails allegedly hacked by Russian intelligence officers revealed that high-ranking committee leaders were biased in favor of Hillary Clinton, the eventual nominee.

[Read: As Bernie Sanders leans into socialism, his rivals laugh]

This time around, however, the DNC isn’t apologizing to anyone.

“If you want to be president of the United States, you have to develop a proficiency at grassroots fundraising. That’s the only way we win,” DNC Chairman Tom Perez said in an emailed statement, defending the most contentious of the rules the committee developed for the debates.

The 2016 experience has informed every step of the committee’s planning ahead of 2020, as it seeks to avoid any perception that it is putting its thumb on the electoral scale. “Not only do they have to navigate the crowded field of as many as two dozen candidates, but they have to navigate an ingrained conspiracy about the last election,” the Democratic strategist told me.

In interviews over the last several days, senior DNC staffers described an intense, two-year process to draft a debate schedule that could accommodate a field of unprecedented size while also correcting for errors that both the DNC and the Republican National Committee made during the 2016 primaries. For the most part, these aides and advisers spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal party deliberations.

The planning began shortly after Perez, a former labor secretary in the Obama administration, was elected DNC chairman in early 2017. (Among those he beat: South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who now has his sights set on a somewhat bigger job.) The committee held between 80 and 100 meetings to discuss the 2020 presidential debates, according to one estimate. They consulted with former candidates and their top advisers, and researched party debate schedules and qualifying thresholds going back four decades.

Perez announced late last year that there would be 12 DNC-sanctioned debates over a period of about a year—twice as many as the committee initially planned for in 2016. The committee also prioritized securing prime-time TV slots on weeknights after the DNC faced criticism for a sleepier schedule in 2016 that favored the frontrunner Clinton and relegated two of the six debates to Saturdays. “Whether it’s real or perceived, the impact of the debate schedule in 2016 is something we know bothered a lot of people,” one senior DNC aide involved with the debate planning told me. “One of the goals all along was to maximize the number of eyes on each debate.”

The DNC also wanted to avoid a repeat of the RNC’s widely mocked debates from the last campaign, in which 16 candidates were initially split into two tiers based on polling averages. The lower-tier candidates faced off earlier the same evening in groupings derided as “the kids’s table” or “JV” debates. To avoid this, the DNC says it will ensure an even split of candidates polling above and below 2 percent on each of the two nights later this month.

[Read: The Democratic clown car rolls into Iowa]

By far the DNC’s biggest challenge, however, was its goal to come up with an alternate path into the debates other than hitting 1 percent in at least three polls. The committee considered proposals for a straightforward fundraising threshold—a minimum amount raised, in other words—but determined it wasn’t feasible. Some Democrats also suggested that candidates demonstrate their viability with a minimum number of paid field staff in early primary states. Instead, the committee settled on a donor threshold as a way to encourage candidates to do what the DNC and evangelists of grassroots fundraising believed the eventual nominee would need to do anyway: raise at least half of his or her campaign funds from small-dollar donors to compete with Trump.

“They’re going to need the resources to take on Trump, and I think small-donor donations are key to doing that,” Erin Hill, executive director of Act Blue, the progressive online fundraising hub that is working with each of the campaigns trying to meet the DNC debate threshold, told me. “But also they want to be running campaigns that are resonating with the grassroots and will be strong and also excite the grassroots. So having the grassroots be the center of this, I think, makes sense.”

While people may associate grassroots fundraising with Sanders’s frequent reminders that his average donation (at one time) in 2016 was just $27, the all-time champion in small-dollar contributions is Trump, with $239 million in donations under $200 that year—a factoid that Perez and others at the DNC are quick to point out.

[Read: Democrats nod at impeachment in passing]

The committee arrived at the 65,000 number—which jumps to 130,000 for the third and fourth debates in the fall—after consulting with Act Blue about trends in online fundraising, as well as scouring FEC reports of previous presidential, statewide, and high-profile congressional campaigns. The DNC also added a geographic requirement, using a decades-old law governing the all-but-abandoned public matching-funds program for presidential elections as a model.

“We wanted to make sure that the threshold for grassroots fundraising was not a lay-up, but also not a half-court shot,” Perez said in the email.

As the senior DNC aide put it, the threshold was designed to require a candidate to first build a serious campaign infrastructure—“not a huge juggernaut, but a campaign that’s doing real work and that has a grassroots following of some sort that might not be reflected in a national polling result or even a state polling result.”

Hill, while noting that the 65,000 number was the DNC’s alone, said the threshold “was definitely doable by a wide swath of candidates, but it also means that candidates have to put in the work to be able to hit those numbers and really prioritize their small-dollar communities.”

In practice, both the polling and donor thresholds have proven achievable to plenty of candidates—but not the ones that either the DNC or political pundits might have predicted. Candidates with no political experience, like the entrepreneur Andrew Yang and the author Marianne Williamson, might make it to the debate stage, while sitting U.S. senators like Bennet and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, and governors like Bullock are on the bubble.

The result over the last several weeks has been a mad rush for donors, as candidates have purchased pricey digital ads simply to get contributions of even a single dollar—a tactic that they have complained is a poor use of money and one that will continue once the threshold rises to 130,000 donors for the fall debates.

“It was more about who’s last into the car than a real test of the field,” the veteran Democratic strategist told me. “The donor threshold is well-intentioned to reflect grassroots support. In reality, it’s easier to game and may end up biased toward campaigns that spend inefficiently instead of candidates with profiles, with records, and who can win.”

From the DNC’s perspective, Yang and Williamson’s strength at the expense of more  traditionally credentialed candidates is merely a reflection of politics in the age of Donald Trump. “Really this is where we are now in American politics,” a senior DNC adviser told me, citing Trump’s 2016 success. “We’re in another world, and we have to accept that the American people are open to all kinds of candidates. And we have to give them the forum so that they get to see those candidates standing together and then make a decision.”

Heading into 2020, the DNC finds itself is in a slightly more sympathetic position than it did during the last presidential campaign, as operatives and even some of the longer-shot candidates recognize the inherent difficulty of trying to give an enormous field of candidates a platform while simultaneously helping that field shrink down to a manageable size. “I don’t have any problems with the DNC,” Representative Eric Swalwell of California, another candidate on the debate bubble, told me. “All of us want to see this field start to winnow so we can distinguish ourselves, and our hope is we stay in the field as it does that.”

With less than two weeks until the first debate, the DNC has no regrets about its threshold—at least not yet. “Everybody got a pretty fair shot here. I’d say a very fair shot,”  the senior aide told me. “It’s hard for me to see how we could have set it any lower than this.”




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