Debate rules upend the way Democrats run for office

By David Siders

It began as nothing more than a device to govern an unruly primary field.

But the bar set for Democrats to qualify for this year’s presidential debates has become a force in its own right, more consequential than any of the early debates it administered — and with unintended effects that continue to ripple through the party.

In the seven months since they were first announced, the standards — a combination of increasingly higher polling and fundraising thresholds — have upended various campaigns’ tactics and become the proximate cause of multiple withdrawals from the race.

And the rules are now metastasizing in unexpected ways. In Iowa, some prominent Democrats are privately urging struggling campaigns to stay in the contest even if they cannot qualify for the debates, incredulous that metrics imposed by national Democratic Party officials could stamp out lesser contenders — a perceived infringement on what is traditionally the first caucus state’s job.

Meanwhile, Democrats raising money for down-ticket candidates are complaining that the presidential candidates’ imperative to raise money to meet debate thresholds is drawing attention away from congressional and state house contests — and perverting the Democratic Party’s messaging overall.

“It’s a national primary based on the worst foundation: Name identification and money,” said Dave Nagle, a former congressman and Iowa state Democratic Party chairman. “And we’re supposed to be the party of ideas.”

Instead, thanks to months of non-stop, $1 fundraising appeals, the campaign has, in some ways, come to resemble a pledge drive on PBS.

There was Tom Steyer, a billionaire, asking Facebook users, “Can you contribute even one dollar?” Or Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, before she dropped out, pleading, “Will you donate just one dollar today? … Please help me now. It makes all the difference.”

Last week, actor Jeff Bridges aired a video for Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, telling his audience, “What I’d love you to do is send a buck in to my good buddy.”

In a nod to the oddity of the ask, Bridges said it only mattered that Bullock be heard.

“I don’t care if you vote for somebody else,” he said.

For candidates, qualifying for debates has become a significant marker of viability, forcing them to spend early on social media to inflate their ranks of small-dollar donors and influence polls in early nominating states. But none of the debates so far has appeared to leave a lasting mark on the campaign.

In part, that is a function of the debate rules, as well.

Randomly selected stages split over two nights for the first two sets of debates kept Joe Biden, the front-runner, apart from Elizabeth Warren, his ascendant challenger from the progressive wing of the party. They met this month for the third debate, which was reduced to one night, but could be separated again in October, when the field will grow again and could be split over two debates.

Following the debate in Houston this month, Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said, “At the end of the day the front-runners are still the front-runners … Nobody said anything new.”

He added, “The only thing the debates are doing now is either disqualifying you or giving you more points to stay in the next debate.”

In Iowa, Nagle said he has called a handful of candidates who he said are at risk of dropping out, lamenting that “they’re being excluded without even being given the benefit of a vote.”

Michael Fitzgerald, Iowa’s Democratic state treasurer, said long-shot presidential candidates could once plan — and save their money for — a potential late surge in Iowa. Now, he said, “I see these candidates, they have to sit down and decide, ‘Oh, my God, do we spend our money just to get into the debates so you can hear our voice?‘”

He said, “You’ve got to strategize to stay ahead of“ the Democratic National Committee.

The ramifications extend to other states and contests, as well.

Daniel Squadron, a former New York state senator who directs the Future Now Fund, a national group working to elect Democrats in state races, said the debate fundraising rules at the presidential level “encourages candidates to soak up all of the resources and the attention — and does nothing to encourage candidates to help build something beyond themselves.”

“Candidates shouldn’t just be measured on their online fundraising or national polls,” he said, arguing that a fraction of the total small-dollar fundraising by presidential candidates this year could shift the balance of power in significant state elections.

Two Democratic strategists working in Iowa and New Hampshire said they have had difficulty organizing small-dollar fundraising events with presidential contenders for their candidates, despite the political advantage presidential candidates often seek from such appearances. Because the presidential candidates need to inflate their small-dollar numbers, both strategists said, they have been less willing to share.

This election cycle, one of the strategists said, “I don’t think down-ballot candidates have been a huge priority.”

Rep. Eric Swalwell, who participated in the first debate but abandoned his campaign in July, said the DNC was right to impose rules to “pare down the field.” But he also said the party should “maybe go back to the drawing board to figure out how you don’t have to bankrupt the campaigns to the point where a lot of us were spending more on the email programs to get a dollar than we were getting back.”

Swalwell, of California, said, “That’s money that could be going to voter contact or field staffers out in Iowa and New Hampshire, and instead there’s this obsession with …. a one-dollar fundraising appeal.”

Presidential elections have long been marred by controversy surrounding debate criteria, and the DNC was unlikely to escape criticism no matter what it did.

The debate rules, first announced in February, were conceived after months of deliberation and a pledge by DNC Chairman Tom Perez to repair rifts that flared within the party during the 2016 contest between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. The party also sought to avoid the spectacle of the “undercard” debates in the Republican presidential primary that year.

As a result, the party published an early schedule of debates and began with relatively low fundraising and polling thresholds to maximize participation. It added its fundraising threshold after concluding — as many pollsters had — that early polling in a large primary might not accurately reflect a candidate’s strength.

“If you can’t connect with the grassroots and engage the grassroots in multi-faceted, meaningful ways, you can’t win the presidency,” Perez said. “When I hear the critique that our grassroots fundraising threshold catalyzed perverse behavior, with all due respect, we gave candidates unprecedented access to earned media, not just through the debates and the low threshold for getting on the debates, but we worked with CNN and MSNBC — don’t just do a town hall with the perceived front-runners, give everybody a shot.”

Following the Houston debate, Perez said complaints by Iowans about the debate qualification rules diminishing their stature are “ludicrous,” noting that billionaire Tom Steyer had met his polling threshold by qualifying in early state — not national — polls.

Predictably, the candidates’ view of the debate process has hewed closely to its effect on their own campaigns. Low-polling candidates who are still running but failed to qualify complain loudly. Some middle-tier candidates quietly lament that the stage is too crowded, depriving them of a confrontation with the front-runners. The front-runners don’t complain.

And then there's Andrew Yang, the once-little known entrepreneur whose rise in the primary took the field by surprise. He told POLITICO of the qualification thresholds recently that “I’m Asian, so I love tests.”

He said knowing how many donors and polls he needs has been “incredibly helpful, because then you just know what to aim for."

David Axelrod, a top adviser to former President Barack Obama, said the qualification standards have been helpful to the party, too.

"What [Perez] did was ultimately quite fair, which was to say, ‘I’m going to give you all time to prove that you should be on that stage in terms of support,’ and he did. And most candidates — most of the candidates — got the benefit of being in two debates.”

He suggested the DNC should raise the standard again for the November contest, the prospect of which candidates are already urgently referencing in fundraising appeals. If, as expected, the Democratic National Committee does raises its thresholds, there are almost certain to be casualties.

“At some point you’ve got to get down to the candidates who have a serious chance to be the nominee, and by leveraging up the qualifications to get in the debate, I think he created a test,” Axelrod said. “I just think the process of getting down to those people who are actually competing for the nomination is an important service.”