In a new Op-Ed for Rolling Stone, Andy Kroll accuses the DNC of creating restrictive rules that backfired on them during the 2020 nominee race.
Kroll argues the system gave pollsters too much power and donor requirement overly favored candidates with existing name recognition.
Furthermore, the decision to throw away the donor right when billionaire Bloomberg began to increase his standing in polls has been widely criticized and viewed as hypocritical.
In late 2018, DNC Chairman Tom Perez unveiled the revamped rules for the upcoming Democratic primary debates. Perez pledged that the DNC’s debate rules would “give the grassroots a bigger voice than ever before” and “put our nominee in the strongest position possible to defeat Donald Trump.”
Until Democrats pick a nominee and that person faces off against Trump, it’s impossible to say for sure how well Perez’s reforms panned out. But a year later, what’s beyond a doubt is that they did not empower the grassroots and they replaced old gatekeepers with new ones.
Because of these new rules, the most powerful people in the primary up to this point have arguably been the pollsters. Polls are, of course, a partial reflection of the electorate itself, but if 2016 taught us anything, it’s that polls can mislead, give false confidence, and miss entire chunks of the voting-age population.
For the past year, campaigns lived and died by the latest Quinnipiac or Fox News or CNN poll; journalists built devoted followings around reporting on polls and interpreting the DNC’s obscure guidelines for which polls did and didn’t count toward the debate. And for voters, polls came to represent — rightly or wrongly — a proxy for viability, strength, the ability to beat Trump.
The DNC also required that candidates meet a threshold of individual grassroots donations to make the debate stage. Candidates and staffers say they understand why the DNC used this metric as a stand-in for grassroots support, but they complained that the donor requirement — like the polling threshold — gave a leg up to candidates who already had high name recognition and a preexisting network of small-dollar donors to draw on.
Candidates without both of those qualities entered the race at a disadvantage. Instead of spending money to build a field operation in Iowa or make an early play for California’s delegates, campaigns spent money to buy email lists to fundraise off of in order to meet an arbitrary donor target. Jenna Lowenstein, Cory Booker’s deputy campaign manager, wrote on Twitter that on the day the DNC doubled the donor threshold to 130,000, she “literally Control+A+Deleted a plan for a whole entire early game, early-state persuasion strategy, and used the money to buy email addresses instead.”
West Coast governors such as Jay Inslee of Washington state and Steve Bullock of Montana might have suffered the most from the DNC rules. Both are highly accomplished politicians with progressive records that should make an Iowan swoon. Unlike U.S. senators, though, governors don’t get to use nationally televised congressional hearings to boost their profiles or enjoy easy access to the bulk of the political press corps now located in Washington and New York. Despite having a compelling story to tell, Inslee and Bullock dropped out of the race rather than miss qualifying for the debates.
“The thing that surprised me the most is that brand name meant so much in this primary,” says Jennifer Fiore, the former adviser to Julián Castro’s campaign. “There isn’t a single top contender who didn’t come into this with a major brand already identified in Democratic politics. It used to be that somebody new could really break out in a primary. It’s where Obama came from, Kennedy came from.”
The DNC provided more fodder to its critics when it recently announced it would eliminate the donor requirement for its February debate. There’s an argument to be made that it makes sense to adjust the debate rules after voting starts and include primary election results as a new metric for measuring viability. But the upshot is an old, white, self-funding billionaire in Mike Bloomberg will now benefit from new rules that help him get on the debate stage (if he bothers to show up) after a slew of younger candidates, candidates of color, and female candidates effectively saw their campaigns ended by a lack of cash and a failure to qualify for future debates.
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