DNC Making Up Rules as it Goes
Proposed mid-stream changes could help Bloomberg, hurt Sanders, and divide the party.
In 2016, the Democratic National Committee unnecessarily put its proverbial thumbs on the scale to help Hillary Clinton win the nomination, even though rival Bernie Sanders was never a serious threat. That created bitterness that persists to this day and may well have helped hand the election to Donald Trump, as Sanders supporters either sat it out or even crossed over. Clinton is still bitter over it.
Meanwhile, there is talk afoot of changing the nominating rules mid-stream to favor establishment candidates.
A small group of Democratic National Committee members has privately begun gauging support for a plan to potentially weaken Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign and head off a brokered convention.
In conversations on the sidelines of a DNC executive committee meeting and in telephone calls and texts in recent days, about a half-dozen members have discussed the possibility of a policy reversal to ensure that so-called superdelegates can vote on the first ballot at the party’s national convention. Such a move would increase the influence of DNC members, members of Congress and other top party officials, who now must wait until the second ballot to have their say if the convention is contested.
“I do believe we should re-open the rules. I hear it from others as well,” one DNC member said in a text message last week to William Owen, a DNC member from Tennessee who does not support re-opening the rules.
Owen, who declined to identify the member, said the member added in a text that “It would be hard though. We could force a meeting or on the floor.”
Even proponents of the change acknowledge it is all but certain not to gain enough support to move past these initial conversations. But the talks reveal the extent of angst that many establishment Democrats are feeling on the eve of the Iowa caucuses.
Granting that this likely just amounts to idle chatter and is unlikely to happen, that it’s happening at all signals that the DNC learned nothing from the 2016 debacle. If you’re going to select your nominee through a series of primaries and caucuses, then the rules have to be transparent and static. And the party leaders have to bend over backward to demonstrate impartiality. Otherwise, the game looks rigged.
Similarly, by all appearances, the party is simply making up the rules on who gets to participate in the debates as it goes.
The Democratic National Committee is drastically revising its criteria to participate in primary debates after New Hampshire, doubling the polling threshold and eliminating the individual donor requirement, which could pave the way for former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg to make the stage beginning in mid-February.
Candidates will need to earn at least 10 percent in four polls released from Jan. 15 to 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.
The new criteria eliminate the individual-donor threshold, which was used for the first eight debates, including next week’s debate in New Hampshire. Bloomberg, the self-funding billionaire, has refused to take donations from other individuals, which has thus far precluded his participation in any of the debates since he joined the race late last year.
“Now that the grassroots support is actually captured in real voting, the criteria will no longer require a donor threshold,” said Adrienne Watson, a DNC spokeswoman. “The donor threshold was appropriate for the opening stages of the race, when candidates were building their organizations, and there were no metrics available outside of polling to distinguish those making progress from those who weren’t.”
As of Friday, the three candidates who have met the Nevada polling thresholds are Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, according to POLITICO’s tracking of public polling. The other candidates, including Bloomberg, have not yet cleared the polling threshold.
Four candidates who are slated to participate in next week’s debate — Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Andrew Yang and Tom Steyer — have also not yet hit the new polling threshold.
Not everyone is thrilled that Bloomberg — who has hit 10 percent in only one of the requisite four polls released so far — could be on stage after the donor threshold was eliminated.
“To now change the rules in the middle of the game to accommodate Mike Bloomberg, who is trying to buy his way into the Democratic nomination, is wrong,” Jeff Weaver, a senior adviser to Sanders, told POLITICO as the rules were being announced.
Weaver pointed to other current and past candidates like Cory Booker, Yang and Julián Castro, who dropped off the stage because they couldn’t meet the minimum polling threshold.
“Now, suddenly because Mr. Bloomberg couldn’t satisfy one of the prongs, we see it get changed?” Weaver said. “That’s the definition of a rigged system where the rich can buy their way in.”
I’m more sympathetic to the party on this one, in that there were far too many candidates in the field and there has to be some way of deciding who gets on the debate stage. Public opinion polls are certainly a reasonable way of testing viability. Individual contributions always seemed an odd metric, in that it’s pretty easy to game, but it could theoretically be an indicator of intensity of support.
Regardless, while it makes perfect sense to ratchet the requirements up as the race goes along, those metrics should have been established at the outset. Otherwise, it appears that the party is crafting them to choose their preferred candidates—even if that’s not what’s actually happening.
Now, it’s true that the Republican Party looks to be changing the rules to ensure that President Trump faces no serious primary challenge. Indeed, it looks like a number of states may not have presidential primaries at all on the GOP side. But Trump would cruise to the nomination regardless and alienating the seven people who might cast a protest ballot for Bill Weld or Mark Stanford isn’t going to divide the party.
The Democratic Party is bigger and more diverse. Tensions between the progressive and establishment wings are going to leave a large swath of the party bitter regardless of the outcome. And Sanders is simply a sore loser; he’s going to feel robbed regardless if he loses. But it’s the job of the party leadership to minimize these challenges. Doing everything in their power to ensure that the process seems fair is a minimum first step in that.
UPDATE: The discussion below, and clarifications buried (appended?) late in the piece have persuaded me that the POLITICO report about “changing the nominating rules mid-stream to favor establishment candidates” is, at best, overblown. The rumblings of six anonymous people out of a large number of DNC members likely don’t amount to much—and the DNC Chairman is adamant that it won’t’ happen.
The overall concern expressed in the piece is nonetheless justified. While I both hope and expect that Democratic primary voters will choose someone other than Bernie Sanders, he and his supporters have a demonstrated a propensity for holding grudges over perceived sleights. It’s probably less of a concern with other candidates but changing the debate rules in such a way as to advantage latecomer Bloomberg and disadvantage Buttigieg and others could certainly backfire.