The Slatest

DNC Changes Debate Requirements to Favor All Candidates Named Michael Bloomberg

Do billionaires have too much influence in our politics? Ask Michael Bloomberg when he takes the debate stage under newly changed Democratic qualifying rules.

Michael Bloomberg, wearing white tie formal wear, talks at a banquet table
Michael Bloomberg chats with Brian Moynihan, CEO of Bank of America, during at the annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation dinner on October 18, 2018. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Now that the Democratic Party’s program of ever-more-stringent candidate requirements has winnowed the presidential debate field from two full stages worth of people to one full stage to a less-than-full single stage, the Democratic National Committee has announced the rules are changing. For the January debates, in addition to meeting the polling thresholds, candidates needed to have at least 225,000 individual donors, reflecting the party’s focus on grassroots support. For February debate, DNC chairman Tom Perez has lower that requirement to zero. This is very exciting news for candidates named Michael Bloomberg.

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The new requirements, according to Politico:

Candidates will need to earn at least 10 percent in four polls released between Jan. 15 and Feb. 18, or 12 percent in two polls conducted in Nevada or South Carolina, in order to participate in the Feb. 19 debate in Las Vegas. Any candidate who earns at least one delegate to the national convention in either the Iowa caucuses or New Hampshire primary will also qualify for the Nevada debate.

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This is all quite a departure from last June, when Perez told CNN in defense of the then-requirements, “You can’t win the presidency in the modern era if you can’t build relationships with the grassroots.” Or from what Perez said in December of 2018, when the primary debate structure was first announced: “My goal in this framework is to give the grassroots a bigger voice than ever before.” Or from what he told Vox, in May of 2019 of the third debate’s requirements: “That was designed with an understanding that if you want to win the presidency, you’ve got to have a grassroots strategy.”

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In response, candidates changed their strategies and spent months trying to get as many donors as possible, rather than getting the large donations that might fund ads that could help them hit the necessary poll numbers. As more and more candidates missed the polling cutoff and left the stage, the other billionaire Tom Steyer ended up effectively begging for change.

After much discussion of how the old rules forced candidates like Kirsten Gillibrand, Marianne Williamson, Kamala Harris, or Cory Booker out of the race early, the new rule comes to the rescue of Bloomberg, the same candidate who, recently filed FEC records show, jumpstarted his campaign with $200 million of his own money. Despite only jumping into the race this past November, Bloomberg spent $188 million just on advertising by the end of 2019. As it turns out, plastering pricey ad campaigns around the country works. According to FiveThirtyEight’s polling averages, Bloomberg is currently just behind Buttigieg at 8.4 percent, within striking distance of 10 percent in the polls.

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But Bloomberg has vowed not to collect any donations at all. A campaign funded by a single billionaire was, by definition, contrary to the DNC’s grassroots funding principles. What to do? Dump the principles!

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Bloomberg is no stranger to getting rules changed for his benefit alone. As mayor of New York, Bloomberg got the city council to fast-track a vote overriding mayoral term limits, giving him a clear path to a third term in office. Two years later, having secured his own extra time as mayor, Bloomberg pushed to reverse the change for everyone else.

Still, maybe the public can benefit from Bloomberg’s presence on the debate stage. For one, he makes an incredible foil for Sanders, particularly since he doesn’t share Steyer’s attitude of desperately wanting a pat on the head from Father Bernard. And since it is clearly possible for billionaires to buy their way into the race, it’s certainly useful for Michael Bloomberg to be forced to answer for himself, in public.

As things currently stand, the only candidates we’ll definitely be seeing on the debate stage in February are Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren. Pete Buttigieg can get in by doing a little better in the polls, or by winning a delegate in Iowa. Bloomberg probably can get there if he just keeps spending money.

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