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The Stakes 2020: The Democrats' Money Race

The DNC's individual donor rules to qualify for the next debate have created some absurd dynamics in the Democratic primary.

Posted on August 15, 2019, at 8:23 a.m. ET

This is an excerpt from The Stakes 2020, BuzzFeed News' newsletter about what really matters in the 2020 campaign. You can sign up here.

Some of the Democrats running for president, quietly, aren’t big fans of Barack Obama: They think he was too corporate, too neoliberal, too eager to compromise with Republicans. They can’t really talk about it much, though, for a simple reason: Well over 90% of Democrats in various polls say they love Obama and think he was a great president.

One Democrat, though, was willing to fight with Obama even when he was president. Sen. Elizabeth Warren knew what she wanted, knew how to exert political pressure to get it. In one memorable case, she forced Obama to simply forgive the debts of tens of thousands of students who’d gotten screwed by a for-profit university.

Molly Hensley-Clancy’s new story on this episode is genuinely revealing about why Warren has such staying power as a candidate, why she sometimes frustrated Obama and the people around him, and what kind of a president she might be.

Campaigning $1 at a Time

The Democratic National Committee wrote a set of arbitrary and experimental rules this year to make sure everyone knew that it would play fair among the zillion Democrats who would run for president.

But one of those rules — that you need 130,000 individual donors to qualify for the next debate in September — has at this point basically swallowed much of the primary and created some absurd dynamics.

1. Many Democrats are spending a good deal more than $1 to bring in each $1. Tom Steyer, for instance, seems to have spent nearly $3 million on Facebook alone for $130,000 in $1 bills. The whole thing, presidential candidate and Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet told us after his AM to DM interview yesterday, is a form of “money laundering.”

2. As people on Twitter debate whether Twitter really is America, the $1 goal has put additional value on the Twitter primary. What used to be a way to reach activists, reporters, and the most engaged — and often most progressive — Democrats is now also the way to keep the wheels on your campaign. That means tapping into clear streams of the social conversation — there’s this video ad of Julián Castro blaming Trump for the El Paso, Texas, shooting, for instance. Bennet is going for the resistance dollar bills with a new book of Russian pro-Trump memes. (I feel like I’m not doing it justice — it’s pretty good, definitely the best self-published meme anthology I’ve read in a while!)

3. The campaign for the debate stage has become an end in and of itself. “I’m not asking you to be all in for only me right now,” Cory Booker tweeted in one ask. (Sad!) Voters are focused on this layer of process too — including the lead singer of Third Eye Blind, who wrote, “Even if you haven’t chosen a candidate yet, I hope you’ll join me in donating to @JayInslee to keep the clearest voice in climate solutions in the next debate.”

The other half of getting on the stage is polling at 2% or better in at least four polls whose margin of error is more than 2%.

Is all this better than the unaccountable insiders who ran the process before? I’m not sure that’s clear yet.

Alex Wong / Getty Images

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