The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democrats narrow presidential debate rules days before deadline to qualify

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D) announces his presidential candidacy on May 14 at Helena High School in Helena, Mont.
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D) announces his presidential candidacy on May 14 at Helena High School in Helena, Mont. (Thom Bridge/Independent Record/AP)

The Democratic Party announced Thursday that it would exclude specific polls from the qualification criteria for the first Democratic presidential debate in June, a change in the official rules that could exclude Montana Gov. Steve Bullock.

The requirements raise yet more controversy for a debate process that Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez once described as “open and transparent” but which has since fallen under intense criticism.

Lesser-known candidates have said the rules are distorting the race by heightening the importance of certain campaign tactics and benefiting certain candidates, with one campaign adviser even threatening to organize rival unsanctioned debates this fall if too many candidates are excluded from the official proceedings. Some party members have also complained about being shut out of the process, which has been overseen by Perez, to qualify for events that are expected to be the highest-profile campaign gatherings yet.

“This secret rule change affects only one candidate,” wrote Bullock campaign manager Jenn Ridder in a memo to reporters Thursday. “That means the DNC is singling out the only Democrat who won a Trump state, and potentially blocking him from the debate stage.”

Perez announced in February a set of rules for the June and July debates with two possible thresholds for qualifying: receiving at least 1 percent support in three different polls conducted by 18 media outlets in 2019 or receiving donations from 65,000 donors. At the time, the DNC was seeking to allay accusations that the party’s 2016 debate process had been tilted to benefit Hillary Clinton over Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.).

The initial debate rules did not limit the types of polls that could be used to qualify, and they included polls by The Washington Post and ABC News, which had already conducted January polling in which respondents volunteered which candidate they support rather than choosing from a list of candidates.

But the DNC publicly announced Thursday that such open-ended polls will not count to meet the debate threshold, since voters can include non-candidates in their responses. As a result, Bullock cannot use a Post-ABC poll from January, in which he scored 1 percent, as his third qualifying poll.

“We notified the Bullock campaign in early March, so they have known for months,” said Xochitl Hinojosa, the party’s communications director.

Ridder, the Bullock campaign manager, criticized the party for “excluding an open-ended poll that’s actually harder to register in, and by not sharing the rule in writing with all presidential campaigns.”

Of the 23 Democrats running for president, 20 currently claim to have enough polls under the new criteria to qualify them for the debate stage, leaving only Bullock, Wayne Messam, mayor of Miramar, Fla., and Rep. Seth Moulton (Mass.) out of the proceedings. Thirteen candidates claim to have qualified with 65,000 donors, as well.

The three unqualified candidates have until June 12 to qualify for the first round of debates this month. If more than 20 candidates qualify with polling, those with the lowest polling averages will be excluded. The second round of debates in July will use the same criteria.

A separate set of rules for the third set of debates in September, which the party announced last week, explicitly excludes open-ended polls, which can provide an alternative picture of the race at a point before most voters decide on their candidate. To make the stage then, candidates must receive at least 2 percent in four polls by a similar list of media organizations and receive campaign contributions from 130,000 donors by the end of August.

Those rules have raised alarms for campaigns that have so far struggled to break out of the bottom of the pack. Advisers to four different campaigns, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss strategy, have spent the past week brainstorming ways to increase the number of donors to their campaigns in the summer months, historically a difficult time to reach voters.

“Everything becomes about fundraising, your policy positions, your travel decisions,” said one adviser to a Democratic presidential candidate. “It completely changes the entire process of the primary.”

One idea discussed by three different campaigns would be to establish joint fundraising efforts to encourage donors to give $1 donations to many rivals at once. Another campaign has informally contacted rivals to gauge interest in making a joint push to pressure Perez to change the September criteria to meeting either the donor or the polling threshold, but not both.

A separate campaign has begun discussing the possibility of leaving the Democratic debate process in the fall to organize alternate unsanctioned debates with those excluded from the official stage. Party rules say candidates who participate in unsanctioned debates will be barred from the party debates.

“The other candidates could only do the sanctioned debates,” the adviser said. “It opens everything else up.”

Some party officials have also expressed public concern about the process by which Perez has decided the debate rules, which has not involved discussions with rank-and-file members of the committee.

“We are at least owed an explanation or some degree of consultation with the process that was implemented. And we don’t know,” said Jim Zogby, a committeeman from the District of Columbia. “To win in November 2020, we are going to need a unified party.”

Others have also chimed in with similar concerns.

“For these types of big steps/decisions, I think we need a rep from each region voted by the region to participate in decision-making process,” Jane Kleeb, the chairwoman of the Nebraska Democratic Party, recently tweeted in response to Zogby’s concerns.

Bullock’s showing in the disputed Post-ABC poll highlights just how small the difference can be between a candidate making the stage and toiling out of the limelight. Candidates polling at 1 percent often get support from only a handful of respondents in polls.

A majority of the 447 Democrats and Democratic-leaning adults interviewed for the Post-ABC poll in January did not volunteer a specific candidate, but two respondents mentioned Bullock.

When the survey was weighted to population benchmarks, Bullock’s support rounded to 1 percent, the same as those who volunteered Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar in that survey. When an April Post-ABC poll asked the same question, no respondents volunteered Bullock’s name.

Bullock announced his campaign May 14, after the Montana legislative session had closed, putting him at a clear disadvantage for meeting the debate thresholds. Bullock also drew 1 percent support in March in a Des Moines Register poll in Iowa, and an April national poll by Reuters. Both will continue to be counted for the threshold.