Democrats shut out of September debate say DNC rules are eliminating candidates before voters tune in

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent

The Democratic infighting over the next presidential debate really boils down to one issue: Lower-tier candidates think the party rules are narrowing the field too early, before voters are paying attention and before former Vice President Joe Biden has had a chance to fade, as many Democrats expect him to.

“We’re still five and a half months from voters actually expressing a preference” in the Iowa caucuses, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock said on MSNBC Wednesday.

Bullock failed to qualify Wednesday for the Sept. 12 debate in Houston. The Democratic National Committee set Aug. 28 as the deadline to attract support from at least 130,000 small-dollar donors and to hit 2 percent in at least four polls over the previous two months.

Nonqualifying campaigns have complained that the polling requirement is being increased prematurely and that the small-dollar-donation requirement has forced them to spend vast amounts of money on digital ads on Facebook, often spending between $50 and $80 for every $1 they raise.

Tulsi Gabbard, Michael Bennet and Steve Bullock. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP [3], Paul Sancya/AP)

The DNC’s view is that candidates who have failed to qualify simply aren’t connecting with voters. Spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa said Wednesday that a compelling candidate won’t need to spend a lot of money fishing for small-dollar donors.

“If you have a message that resonates, it shouldn’t be costly,” Hinojosa said on MSNBC.

Others who did not qualify include Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, billionaire activist Tom Steyer, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. With the exception of Steyer, who entered the race in early July, all these candidates reached the requirement for the first two debates, hitting 1 percent in three polls and receiving at least 65,000 small-dollar donations.

Inslee and Gillibrand both dropped out after it became clear they would not participate in the September debate.

Bennet, however, has been the most outspoken critic of the DNC’s handling of debates and is refusing to go quietly. His campaign put out a six-page memo last weekend arguing that “most voters haven’t made their choice and aren’t paying attention yet.” The Bennet memo said “internal research” showed that in Iowa “69 percent of likely caucus-goers remain undecided” and that half that number won’t make up their mind until December or January.

On Wednesday the Bennet campaign fired another missive at the DNC, sending it a public letter accusing it of a lack of transparency — largely over who at the committee is deciding the criteria — and of prematurely trying to narrow the field.

“Why is the DNC in an unprecedented rush to eliminate candidates from a volatile field five months before the first vote is cast?” Craig Hughes, a Bennet adviser, asked DNC Chair Tom Perez in the letter.

Gabbard also hit the DNC in a Fox News interview for a “lack of transparency.” The rules for the upcoming debates are being decided by a group of DNC senior staff led by Mary Beth Cahill, its interim CEO.

Bennet himself told Yahoo News in an interview that debate criteria intended to reward grassroots support and to empower voters has instead benefited the most ideological activists in the Democratic Party. It is, he said, “a Twitter criteria” that disenfranchises the people who will actually cast ballots in early primary and caucus states like Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.

“I’m not sure you could come up with something more arbitrary and less instructive of how candidates are going to perform,” he said.

However, of the 21 qualifying polls for the September debate, eight were surveys of likely voters in either Iowa, New Hampshire or South Carolina.

Bennet said a track record, like his, of having won two statewide elections in a swing state should be a formal criterion for debate participation.

“I think it would be useful to consider past performance. Have you won a statewide race? If so, you can be on the debate stage,” Bennet said. “I know those sound self-interested, but they are far better than ‘Did you bribe — did you pay $60 or $70 to acquire donors on Facebook?’”

The second night of the first Democratic presidential debate in Miami in June. (Photo: Mike Segar/Reuters)

Bennet said his campaign had suggested this to the DNC but did not have any sense of whether the committee was considering it. A DNC spokeswoman said no one at the committee had a recollection of conversations with the Bennet campaign about this proposal.

Bennet said he was “not contending that anybody should be off the debate stage.” His complaint, he said, is that nobody “should be off the debate stage this soon.”

A Bennet spokeswoman clarified that Bennet wanted to add this criterion to others, not make it “the only one.” The Bennet campaign also pointed out that every Democrat elected president over the last century was first elected to statewide office.

If winning a statewide contest were a requirement, it would eliminate South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Housing Secretary Julián Castro, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, current Reps. Gabbard and Tim Ryan of Ohio, former Reps. Beto O’Rourke and John Delaney, Steyer, author Marianne Williamson and businessman Andrew Yang.

Buttigieg, Castro, O’Rourke and Yang all have qualified for the Sept. 12 debate under the current rules, along with Biden, Sen. Cory Booker, Sen. Kamala Harris, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

The DNC’s approach to the 2020 debates was driven by a desire to avoid mistakes of the past. Prior debates had begun to monopolize candidates’ time and schedules, and many Democrats came to believe the process needed more order. In 2008, Democrats complained that the 26 debates were far too many. So in the next competitive primary, the 2016 race, the DNC limited debates to just six, and said candidates would be barred from them if they participated in a nonsanctioned debate. (The Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders campaigns later agreed to add four more.) This year, Perez doubled the number of debates to 12.

Another concern was that in 2016, the DNC — then helmed by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz — was accused of advantaging Clinton over Sanders by working behind the scenes to help her.

While Perez and the DNC were determined to provide rules that kept debates to an orderly process that didn’t overwhelm candidates, the DNC’s top priority has been to avoid any appearance of taking sides or picking winners and losers.

That’s a big reason why they announced the rules for the first two debates in February, almost five months before the first event, which took place in Miami in late June. In the past, the party had worked with TV networks to come up with criteria to set for each debate, and would announce the rules closer to the event. The rules for the first Democratic debate in October 2015 weren’t announced until less than three weeks beforehand.

The DNC’s Hinojosa, speaking on MSNBC, pointed to that five-month notification as proof the group was operating in good faith. “We have been very fair and transparent,” she said.

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