Democrats to Reward 2020 Candidates’ Grassroots Support With Debate Invites

(Bloomberg) -- Democrats plan to reward presidential candidates who don’t poll well if they have grassroots fundraising support, giving them a spot on the stage for the party’s first debates if they can show they have 65,000 donors or more.

The party is prepared to include as many as 20 candidates in its first two presidential primary debates, in June and July, the Democratic National Committee announced on Thursday. Candidates with at least 1 percent support in three major national or early-state polls will also be invited to participate.

“I am committed to running an open and transparent primary process,” DNC Chairman Tom Perez said in a statement. The party’s debates present an “unprecedented opportunity for candidates and voters to get to know each other,” he said.

Scores of Democratic politicians are expected to seek their party’s nomination to challenge President Donald Trump’s re-election. Declared candidates so far include Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kamala Harris of California, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, former Maryland Representative John Delaney and Representative Tulsi Gabbard are also running.

Perez and the DNC are trying to show they’ll include most if not all candidates running serious campaigns after the national party was criticized in the 2016 campaign for a debate process that appeared to favor eventual nominee Hillary Clinton.

The DNC chairman has promised at least a dozen debates over the course of the 2020 primary, including six in 2019 and six more in 2020. The 2020 debates would include one each in the early-voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina just before residents go to the polls or caucuses.

The 12-debate calendar is more robust than any recent Democratic primary. There were six each in 2004 and 2008 and the party initially scheduled six debates for the 2016 cycle. It added three more after criticism of the DNC by Clinton challengers Sanders and Martin O’Malley, the former Maryland governor.

The first two debates of the 2020 campaign will be held in June and July, each on two consecutive weekday nights. The 20 candidates who make the cut, whether by polling or fundraising or both, will be randomly divided between the two nights.

The June debate will be broadcast by NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo, while the July debate will be aired by CNN. The DNC and its media partners have not yet settled on specific dates or locations.

Perez said last year that the party would ask networks hosting the debates to focus on serious policy issues.

“We don’t want debates to be discussions of what your hand size is,” he told reporters in December, referring to a comment that Florida Senator Marco Rubio made about Trump during one Republican primary debate in 2016. “We want debates to be discussions of health care, the topics that are important to the American people.”

Both parties have traditionally relied entirely on polling to determine qualification thresholds for primary debates. Allowing candidates to also qualify by amassing thousands of donors could favor people like Sanders, whose 2016 campaign was fueled by small donations, and Beto O’Rourke, who raised tens of millions of dollars from mostly small donors in his 2018 campaign against Texas Senator Ted Cruz.

Candidates qualifying through donations will have to show they have contributions from at least 200 people or more in 20 different states, the committee said.

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