After resisting calls to amend its rules to give more candidates the opportunity to appear on its debate stages, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) has announced it will relax its debate criteria after all.
Previously, the DNC required candidates reach a certain threshold in polling and receive contributions from a certain number of individual campaign donors to receive a debate invitation.
Friday, it was announced candidates will no longer need to meet any donor requirements. Instead, to qualify for February 19’s debate in Las Vegas, Nevada, candidates must either: hit 10 percent in four qualifying national polls, 12 percent in two Nevada or South Carolina polls taken by a qualifying pollster, or earn at least one delegate in either Iowa or New Hampshire.
The new rules would seem to benefit former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has refused to accept any donations at all — and who recently received 10 percent support in a national Fox News poll on the strength of a massive nationwide television ad buy. He is not campaigning in any of the first four primary or caucus states, and would have until February 18th to meet the polling requirement for the Nevada debate.
The fact that it is Bloomberg who appears to have the most to gain from the changes has kicked off fresh criticisms that the party seems to be favoring certain candidates over others.
Sen. Bernie Sanders’s campaign had this very complaint in 2016, when it argued the party rigged the primary process in favor of Hillary Clinton. And his campaign was quick to renew its criticism following the rules change.
“To now change the rules in the middle of the game to accommodate Mike Bloomberg, who is trying to buy his way into the Democratic nomination, is wrong,” Jeff Weaver, a senior adviser to Sanders, told the New York Times. “That’s the definition of a rigged system.”
Entrepreneur Andrew Yang — who has advocated for relaxing the requirements before, albeit to encourage diversity on the debate stage — made and even more pointed critique.
Yang accused the party of not only tailoring the debate criteria to include the billionaire, but suggested Bloomberg has tried to avoid the scrutiny debates can bring. “The truth is I don’t think Mike particularly wants to debate,” he said in a tweet late Friday.
The truth is I don’t think Mike particularly wants to debate. He could easily have gotten himself onto the stage with the donor requirements.
— Andrew Yang (@AndrewYang) February 1, 2020
Sen. Elizabeth Warren responded to the rule change by highlighting her campaign’s focus on fighting corruption and inequality.
“The DNC didn’t change the rules to ensure good, diverse candidates could remain on the debate stage,” she tweeted. “They shouldn’t change the rules to let a billionaire on. Billionaires shouldn’t be allowed to play by different rules—on the debate stage, in our democracy, or in our government.”
The DNC didn’t change the rules to ensure good, diverse candidates could remain on the debate stage. They shouldn’t change the rules to let a billionaire on. Billionaires shouldn’t be allowed to play by different rules—on the debate stage, in our democracy, or in our government.
— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) January 31, 2020
And former Vice President Joe Biden expressed confusion and consternation about the new rules, quipping that Bloomberg isn’t campaigning in the state, which would seem to make any potential appearance on the debate stage useless — at least in the short term.
Biden reacts to DNC rule change that means Bloomberg could make the Feb. 19 debate in Nevada – straight to the point:
“HE’S NOT EVEN ON THE BALLOT IN NEVADA!” his face in this close up lmao pic.twitter.com/rcbweViLWM
— Emily Larsen (@emilyelarsen) February 1, 2020
Candidates have asked for rule changes before, to no avail
As Warren’s statement alluded to, the DNC’s debate rules have been criticized before. Nine candidates protested the DNC rules in a letter to party leadership in December, complaining that the requirements were unfairly hurting candidates of color like Sen. Cory Booker and former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro, both of whom have now ended their candidacies.
At the time, the party required candidates to receive at least 4 percent support in four DNC-approved polls, and have at least 200,000 individual campaign donors.
Castro, Booker, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, and former Gov. Deval Patrick failed to meet those requirements, making Yang the only nonwhite candidate onstage during December’s debate. In the letter, candidates asked the DNC to consider holding them to one of the two requirements, either the required polling or the individual donor threshold, but not both, opening the stage to more candidates.
But party officials declined to make the changes.
“The DNC will not change the threshold for any one candidate and will not revert back to two consecutive nights with more than a dozen candidates. Our qualification criteria is extremely low and reflects where we are in the race,” the DNC said in a December statement to Politico.
Yang and his supporters kept pressure on the DNC following that debate, asking it to commission more polls, arguing that having more data could open new paths to the stage for diverse candidates. Again, the DNC refused, and January’s debate was the first to feature no candidates of color.
Party officials have argued that the fact the field has gone from being the most diverse in history to being mostly white is not their fault. DNC chairman Tom Perez suggested in December that candidates should simply work harder to impress voters, for instance.
“I’m not doing the polling,” Perez told the New York Times. “I’m a huge fan of Cory Booker. I think the world of him. I worked with him dating back to when he was mayor. And if voters are disappointed that he hasn’t qualified, then when they answer the phone, they need to express their preference for Cory Booker.”
Perez did tell the Times he would be open to tweaking the requirements ahead of the debates in February, March, and April. But now that they have been changed, most of his party’s candidates still aren’t happy.
They argue that the fact the new requirements seem to favor Bloomberg, a man who has spent more than $188 million of his roughly $60 billion fortune on his campaign, is unfair and that the rules now reward using financial might to affect the results.
Obviously money is needed in every campaign — Sanders’s recent rising fortunes in the polls have been attributed by some to his spending $50 million in the fourth quarter of 2019. But those funds were raised by donors — no other candidate is as independently wealthy as Bloomberg, not even billionaire Tom Steyer. This has many campaigns now arguing that if the DNC wanted to change the rules, it should have done so in a manner that didn’t appear to help a campaign that has the advantage of having a nearly unlimited budget.
And it also appears to have at least one cash-strapped former campaign lamenting the fact the old rules required its leaders to scrap ideas for voter persuasion investments in order to buy email lists. All candidates have used the lists — and other costly methods, like buying Facebook ads — to raise the money needed to meet the old donor requirements.
When progressive strategist Tim Tagaris asked how the new rule would have changed things for Booker or Castro, members of Booker’s campaign chimed in, with former deputy campaign director Jenna Lowenstein recalling the trade-offs required when the DNC raised its individual donor threshold from 65,000 to 130,000.
“Oh, do you mean the day I literally Control+A+ Deleted a plan for a whole entire early game, early state persuasion strategy and used the money to buy email addresses instead? I don’t remember it. Blacked it out,” she tweeted.
Oh, do you mean the day I literally Control+A+ Deleted a plan for a whole entire early game, early state persuasion strategy and used the money to buy email addresses instead? I don’t remember it. Blacked it out.
— Jenna Lowenstein (@just_jenna) January 31, 2020
As Seth Masket has explained for Vox, the detailed rules around the debates were an effort by the DNC to avoid criticisms it faced in 2016 about favoring one candidate over another. Instead, they have inspired a fresh slate of concerns. Unlike in 2016, when critiques focused on superdelegates, this debate is more about the party’s identity and what it stands for. And that is a conversation likely to continue well past the next debates.