New rules to qualify for the Democratic debates this fall are frustrating operatives and activists who see the criteria as an arbitrary and overly restrictive shift that could dramatically winnow the presidential field months before voting begins, pose an unfair limit to women and candidates of color, and force campaigns to spend more time wooing donors than talking to voters.
For the first two debates, slated for June and July, the Democratic National Committee has required candidates to either hit 65,000 unique donors or establish a 1% polling average. DNC officials said on Wednesday morning that they would double the qualification criteria for the third and fourth debates this fall — and require campaigns to hit both the donor and polling thresholds in order to make it to the stage.
The decision will threaten more than half of the Democratic field months before the nominating process begins in February, leaving some campaigns with no advance notice of new rules that will have an immediate effect on their strategy, time, and resources.
At this stage in the race, only about eight of the 23 candidates meet the new 2% polling requirement — a benchmark that puts a heightened emphasis on national and early-state polls that could differentiate candidates within a margin of error.
Even fewer have met the new fundraising requirement. The DNC is asking candidates to prove by Aug. 28, about two weeks before the Sept. 12 debate, that they have received contributions from 130,000 unique donors, including 400 individuals per state in at least 20 states.
The candidates most likely to meet both thresholds are Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg, and Beto O’Rourke. For other campaigns, despite warnings from the DNC that it would implement further restrictions on debate criteria if more than 20 candidates qualified for the first round of the debates, the new guidelines came as a startling shift in the rules, posing an existential threat to a large portion of the field.
The DNC announced the format for the Sept. 12 debate — which could be split into debates held on two consecutive nights if the field of qualifying candidates is large enough — at 6 a.m. in a press release. Operatives for multiple campaigns said on Wednesday that the DNC gave them no notice in advance — the DNC emailed each campaign the new requirements at 5:25 a.m., five minutes before Politico published a story on the changes. An adviser to one campaign told BuzzFeed News they heard about the requirements first through Politico.
The summer debates are expected to include as many as 20 candidates over two nights, with multiple women and people of color. The new move means that the most diverse field of Democratic candidates ever could be vastly less diverse by the end of the year — especially because the two white men who have been dominating the polls so far, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, came into the race with already high profiles and solid donor bases.
“White men have led in the polls, in the donors, and in the press,” said Jess Morales Rocketto, a Democratic operative and political director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. “Women and people of color will not make it to the main stage for debate,” she added, saying she’s concerned the requirements will force campaigns to spend money chasing donors instead of on organizers on the ground.
“We’re talking about a donor base not being activated outside of, really, predominantly white men,” said a senior adviser to Julián Castro’s campaign. “I think it requires a lot of creativity about how we activate a donor class that hasn’t been reached yet, and that is a challenge over the course of the summer, because there is a finite number of donors. There may not be 130,000 different donors outside of [those giving to] the people who already have campaign infrastructure.”
"The DNC has established debate qualification that are fair, transparent and appropriate for each phase of the primary season," Xochitl Hinojosa, the DNC communications director, said in a statement. "We are confident that the two sets of criteria we have announced thus far achieve those goals, and have been communicated to candidates months before each debate."
Late last year, Democratic Party chair Tom Perez laid out rules for the first round of debates, framing the “grassroots fundraising” requirement as part of an ongoing effort to respond to widely felt concerns about the fairness of the debates and nominating process in 2016.
During that primary, Hillary Clinton’s Democratic rivals, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley, both raised questions about the way the debate schedule benefited the frontrunner by limiting the process to six debates scheduled late in the primary. Months later, stolen emails from the Clinton campaign, released on WikiLeaks as part of the Russian cyberattack on the election, showed that early on in the campaign her senior aides sought to influence the debate process by minimizing the number of debates and pushing the schedule back “as late as possible.”
Perez, a former labor secretary who took the helm of the DNC more than two years ago, has said that his “North Star principle” on the 2020 debate process “is to give people a fair shake.”
Still, six months into the race, candidates without a built-up donor base from previous presidential or Senate runs are now in a particularly tough spot to secure contributions.
“One thing people are really missing in this conversation is that there is not an unlimited pool of donors,” said Morales Rocketto. “At best, you’re talking about all Democratic primary voters. But we are over 6 months away from the first voters voting so you’re actually talking about a much smaller pool than that.”
Former member of Congress John Delaney, who has been polling at about 1% or below, wrote a letter to Perez on Wednesday to ask how the party came to its decision to increase the fall limits and whom they consulted in that process.
“Are you prioritizing certain candidates — or attributes of certain candidates — in formulation of the criteria,” Delaney wrote in a series of six questions to Perez. “Please disclose your rationale as to why the number of donors is a better standard than polling or other standards.”
A Delaney spokesperson said the campaign had not heard back from the DNC as of Wednesday afternoon.
Other candidates, including those campaigning competitively behind the leading batch of contenders, have expressed private and public dissatisfaction with the DNC rules. Earlier this month, in an interview with CNN, Kirsten Gillibrand described the 65,000-donor threshold for the first debate as “an odd measurable.”
Gillibrand, in her 10th year as a US senator from New York, has yet to say she’s hit the benchmark.
“Like, why do you make that your measurable as opposed to have you won elections before and have you ever run statewide before and how many votes have you gotten before and have you passed legislation and are you effective in your job?” Gillibrand asked.
Morales Rocketto said she doesn’t think the DNC is anti-diversity — “far from it, Perez and co are probably the most pro-diversity, equity and inclusion DNC ever,” she said — but added that the entire political system has always been geared against candidates of color and women.
This story has been updated to reflect comment from the DNC and to note emails the DNC sent out Wednesday morning.