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First Democratic Debates: How DNC Decided the Rules

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“We wanted to make sure that the threshold for grassroots fundraising was not a lay-up, but also not a half-court shot,” Perez said in the email.

As the senior DNC aide put it, the threshold was designed to require a candidate to first build a serious campaign infrastructure—“not a huge juggernaut, but a campaign that’s doing real work and that has a grassroots following of some sort that might not be reflected in a national polling result or even a state polling result.”

Hill, while noting that the 65,000 number was the DNC’s alone, said the threshold “was definitely doable by a wide swath of candidates, but it also means that candidates have to put in the work to be able to hit those numbers and really prioritize their small-dollar communities.”

In practice, both the polling and donor thresholds have proven achievable to plenty of candidates—but not the ones that either the DNC or political pundits might have predicted. Candidates with no political experience, like the entrepreneur Andrew Yang and the author Marianne Williamson, might make it to the debate stage, while sitting U.S. senators like Bennet and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, and governors like Bullock are on the bubble.

The result over the last several weeks has been a mad rush for donors, as candidates have purchased pricey digital ads simply to get contributions of even a single dollar—a tactic that they have complained is a poor use of money and one that will continue once the threshold rises to 130,000 donors for the fall debates.

“It was more about who’s last into the car than a real test of the field,” the veteran Democratic strategist told me. “The donor threshold is well-intentioned to reflect grassroots support. In reality, it’s easier to game and may end up biased toward campaigns that spend inefficiently instead of candidates with profiles, with records, and who can win.”

From the DNC’s perspective, Yang and Williamson’s strength at the expense of more  traditionally credentialed candidates is merely a reflection of politics in the age of Donald Trump. “Really this is where we are now in American politics,” a senior DNC adviser told me, citing Trump’s 2016 success. “We’re in another world, and we have to accept that the American people are open to all kinds of candidates. And we have to give them the forum so that they get to see those candidates standing together and then make a decision.”

Heading into 2020, the DNC finds itself is in a slightly more sympathetic position than it did during the last presidential campaign, as operatives and even some of the longer-shot candidates recognize the inherent difficulty of trying to give an enormous field of candidates a platform while simultaneously helping that field shrink down to a manageable size. “I don’t have any problems with the DNC,” Representative Eric Swalwell of California, another candidate on the debate bubble, told me. “All of us want to see this field start to winnow so we can distinguish ourselves, and our hope is we stay in the field as it does that.”

With less than two weeks until the first debate, the DNC has no regrets about its threshold—at least not yet. “Everybody got a pretty fair shot here. I’d say a very fair shot,”  the senior aide told me. “It’s hard for me to see how we could have set it any lower than this.”

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