In a field of 23 Democratic presidential candidates, Steve Bullock stands out. He is a popular Democratic governor in a state that voted for Donald Trump by 20 points. And on Thursday, after the Democratic National Committee clarified rules to qualify for the first 2020 debate next month, he learned that he will most likely not make the stage.
Bullock, the 53-year-old, two-term governor of Montana, accused the DNC of “trying to shape who’s going to be in this campaign,” with rules he described as arbitrary and limiting to the only candidate who won statewide in a state that voted for the president.
“That’s an important voice to be on that stage,” he said Thursday, speaking by phone from Helena, Montana, where he’s been able to push Democratic priorities like Medicaid expansion and campaign finance reform while remaining popular as the state’s chief executive. “If the DNC rules are trying to shape who’s going to be in this campaign against Donald Trump in 2020, when voters are still 250 days away from even expressing a preference, democracy suffers.”
The Democratic National Committee months ago set two ways for candidates to make it into the first debates in June: Hit at least 1% in three qualifying polls or get at least 65,000 unique donors, with a deadline of June 12 for both. But the DNC publicly clarified it had tweaked its rules, dropping a poll that would have helped Bullock get in.
A set of polls done by the Washington Post/ABC News, which asked voters to volunteer the name of their preferred candidates, will not be considered eligible to qualify campaigns for the debate stage, according to an article published Thursday morning in Politico. Bullock aides said they were relying on one of those polls to meet the DNC’s debate certification rules.
“When they announced the rule in Politico,” Bullock said, “that’s the first time that we knew for sure that we weren’t gonna be on the debate stage.”
DNC spokesperson Xochitl Hinojosa said that the DNC privately told Bullock’s campaign “several times beginning in March that this poll would not count because it was open-ended and not a traditional horserace question.” In the Post/ABC polls, respondents named any candidate of their choice, including picks such as Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, and Nancy Pelosi.
The DNC clarified the polling requirements for the first time publicly in Politico.
Bullock said he’ll still try to qualify for the first debate — by hitting 65,000 donors. He and Kirsten Gillibrand, the US senator from New York, are two big-name Democrats who have yet to reach the benchmark. Just hitting that donor threshold may not be enough to qualify at this point, with other candidates already reaching the polling minimums.
As Bullock sees it, his campaign has yet to reach that many donors only because he waited to jump in the race until after presiding over his state’s legislative session. In Montana, where he recently worked to expand Medicaid and pass an infrastructure bill in a majority-Republican state legislature, lawmakers meet in regular session for 90 days just once every two years.
“Yeah, I could have gotten in earlier, but I’m a governor. I have a job to do,” he said.
“The arbitrariness of that, when literally, I would not have health care for 100,000 Montanans if I had gotten in earlier.”
Bullock entered the race in mid-May. At that point four years ago, Hillary Clinton had only been in the race for one month. In the lead-up to the 1992 election, Bullock noted, Bill Clinton “didn’t even get in ’til October,” he said. “We are still 242 days away from voting!”
Late last year, Democratic Party chair Tom Perez laid out rules for the first round of debates, framing the requirements as part of an ongoing effort to allow a record number of candidates into the process while also responding to widely felt concerns about the fairness of the debate 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, all scheduled late in the primary.
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.” The first debates were designed to allow for up to 20 candidates over two nights.
In February, DNC officials outlined the debate criteria in more specific terms, listing ABC News and the Washington Post in a list of polling outlets that counted toward the requirements. Those guidelines, which are still listed on the DNC’s website, do not specify any required methodology, or rule out open-ended polls such as the Post/ABC survey that Bullock wants to use.
The DNC has tightened the qualifications for the next series of debates, requiring candidates to get at least 2% support in four qualifying polls and have at least 130,000 unique donors. That change will make it even more difficult for Bullock — and more than half of the current Democratic field — to get on the stage this fall, leaving operatives across the field frustrated by rules, they said, that will restrict the field months before the primary and force some candidates to spend more time and resources wooing donors than talking to voters.
“Before anyone votes? I think it’s unfortunate,” Bullock said.
Xochitl Hinojosa’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this post.