The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Tougher new debate rules could dramatically winnow Democratic presidential field

Tom Perez, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said he is committed to a running a primary process that is “open and transparent.”
Tom Perez, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said he is committed to a running a primary process that is “open and transparent.” (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

The Democratic National Committee announced Wednesday new criteria for the party’s September presidential debate that could dramatically winnow the sprawling field of 23 candidates, raising the stakes for the summer campaign season.

What some candidates have called a marathon may soon take on the look and feel of a sprint, as those who fail to register in public polls and attract a large pool of donors confront a sharp deadline to create a breakout moment and stay in the mix.

To appear in the party’s third debate, to be broadcast by ABC News and Univision, candidates will have to earn at least 2 percent support in four party-approved polls between late June and August. In addition, they will have to show that they have attracted at least 130,000 donors since the start of the campaign, including at least 400 contributors from a minimum of 20 states.

By requiring a combination of grass-roots donations and polling, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez is preparing to effectively cast out candidates who fail to make the cut by summer’s end. That may be a relief to Democratic voters, many of whom complain about the field’s sprawling size, but the plan is causing widespread concern among the campaigns that are polling in the bottom half of the field.

Candidates positioned to easily clear the September requirements are not expected to challenge the new rules. But some others, who have yet to build substantial public followings, went public Wednesday with their concerns.

Former U.S. representative John Delaney (Md.), who has been largely self-funding his campaign and did not intend to devote great energy to raising money at this point, wrote a letter to Perez asking for “complete transparency” on how the criteria for the September debate were determined. He asked for the names of Perez’s advisers, the rationale for using a donor standard, and whether Perez was prioritizing “attributes of certain candidates.”

"Forty percent of the American people can't afford their basic needs like food, utilities, and housing, so obviously, they're voiceless in this process," Delaney wrote. "If you can't afford your basic needs, you're not giving money to candidates. Why is that a good decision for the party?"

Sen. Michael F. Bennet (Colo.), who joined the field recently and may not qualify for the first debate in June, called for the party to “review” the just-announced qualifications.

“I don’t think it should be based on national fundraising and cable news,” Bennet said. “It’s all just completely arbitrary, and I wish it weren’t.”

Democratic Party officials dispute those criticisms, saying the process has been carefully calibrated.

“The DNC has established debate qualification that are fair, transparent and appropriate for each phase of the primary season,” DNC communications director Xochitl Hinojosa said in response to the Delaney letter. “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.”

For the first two debates, in June and July, candidates must attract at least 1 percent support in three party-sanctioned polls or show that they have attracted 65,000 donors. That makes the bar for the third debate significantly higher.

Advisers to four other campaigns also expressed misgivings, speaking on the condition of anonymity to criticize the DNC. Some argued that the fundraising quota would require campaigns to redirect money from grass-roots organizing to donor courtship, largely through Facebook advertising during the summer months when raising money is hard.

A senior aide to one campaign said the rules could tilt the race toward candidates who appeal more directly to the party’s activist base, whose members are more willing to contribute to Democrats but also tend to be further out on the party’s ideological edge.

“This almost creates an incentive structure to focus on the 2 million low-dollar donor universe, rather than the 30 million Democratic primary electorate or the 47 million Democratic general election audience,” this person said.

Another campaign aide warned that the effective elimination of candidates through debate rules could revive the specter of party anger that split Democrats in 2016, when many supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) decried the outsize role of advisers to Hillary Clinton in setting the debate schedule.

“If there is any whisper of things being rigged or not fair, you are going to see the same kind of turnout as last cycle,” said one campaign adviser, referring to the low Democratic participation in the 2016 election. “The DNC has been making every effort to appear fair. But the appearance of this is not awesome.”

As the race stands, eight of the 23 candidates would meet the 2 percent threshold in recent party-sanctioned polls, according to an assessment by FiveThirtyEight, a data analysis website. And many are struggling to reach the 65,000-donor goal for the first two debates in June and July; attracting double that number for the September event is likely to be at least as difficult.

In recognition of how much this might cut down the field, party leaders are leaving open the possibility that the September debate would be held on just one night. Each of the first two debates will feature 20 candidates and will be split over two nights.

There is no modern precedent for a presidential candidate’s losing access to party-sanctioned debates and going on to win the nomination anyway, a history that explains the candidates’ intense focus on the debate qualifications.

Democratic leaders think that only candidates with a broad donor network will be equipped to challenge President Trump in the general election.

“Candidates who will be prepared to take on Trump in the general should already be working to build programs that can bring in 130,000 donors by the second round of debates,” Erin Hill, the executive director of the liberal fundraising platform ActBlue, said in a statement.

As they began planning for this primary season’s debates, Democratic Party leaders sought to avoid any accusation that they had rigged the system in favor of more-established candidates. For that reason, they crafted a relatively low bar for entry to the first two debates.

But the tougher standards for the September event, which were broadly expected in some form, signal the party’s impatience with an extended campaign season that has generated a historically large field of contenders. Many voters complain that the large size of the field is making it harder to distinguish among candidates and choose which to support.

In the September debate, unlike the earlier events, candidates will have to meet both the polling numbers and the fundraising goal.

Some campaigns have privately expressed other concerns about the debate structure. It does not guarantee that those with the highest polling numbers, such as Sanders and former vice president Joe Biden, will face off on the same night.

The third debate will be held Sept. 12, with the possibility of a second session on Sept. 13 if enough candidates qualify. The party plans debates every month of this year starting in June, with the exception of a break in August. Perez has reserved the right to keep raising the debate thresholds in coming months.

Polls to qualify for the third debate must be publicly released between June 28 — just after the first debate in Miami — and Aug. 28.

That raises the pressure on candidates in the crowded field to seize attention during the first two debates to generate the poll numbers and donations to qualify for the third.

As it stands, 19 candidates have already qualified for the June debate through polling, and Marianne Williamson, a spiritual adviser and activist, claims to have qualified by donors alone.

Several candidates who announced their campaigns later in the spring, including Bennet, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, may not qualify for the first debates.

The party announced last week that the debate stages for June and July will be split according to a complex formula intended to allocate polling leaders and underdogs in similar proportions on each stage.

Debates of candidates polling at 2 percent or higher will be randomly split over the two nights, followed by a separate drawing for those with lower polling numbers. The number of candidates on any one night will be capped at 10.

The party has not yet said how the stages will be divided in September if enough candidates qualify to merit two nights.

Democratic Party rules bar candidates from debate participation if they appear in unsanctioned debates. Last year, Perez said he would design an inclusive debate system with several goals, including a desire to increase the voice of the grass roots, maximize voter viewership and allow for a robust discussion of issues.

“As chair of the DNC, I am committed to running an open and transparent primary process,” he said at the time.

Most candidates Wednesday seemed resigned to working within the rules and refrained from any public denunciation of Perez or the Democratic Party. Bullock, one of the newer candidates, issued a statement focused on his campaign message of bringing people together and confronting money in politics.

“I’m focused on what I can control,” he said.

David Weigel contributed to this report.