Months out from the first primary debate, Democratic candidates are resorting to everything from meme-generation to the promise of charitable giving to recruit the donors needed to qualify.
The moves are quirky and unconventional, but they may just work. Increasingly, party officials are resigned to the likelihood that the stage—at least on the first night— will be packed, not just with top-line candidates but several apparent also-rans as well.
Top officials insist it’s a good problem to have: a field where numerous candidates, including some unexpected ones, have effectively engaged grassroots donors to the point that they qualify for the first big event of the primary. But not everyone is thrilled with the prospect of more established frontrunners squaring off against obscure longshots who may be more interested in pushing pet causes than putting the party’s best foot forward.
“It’s going to be a disaster in the beginning,” Democratic Senate veteran operative Jim Manley told The Daily Beast. “I have zero intention of watching.”
The first debate is set to be held sometime in June on MSNBC. Beyond that, there are few specifics known, including just who will be participating.
The Democratic National Committee has said that any candidate who is over 1 percent in three polls prior to the first two debates or who has hit 65,000 donors with 200 unique donors in 20 different states would qualify. The committee also said that it would cap the number of participants at 20. But it also left open the possibility of splitting the debate in two, should the number of those who qualify get too large.
In order to avoid the appearance of bias, the DNC said that the option would exist to host those two debates on consecutive nights (each in primetime) and to choose the lineups randomly, which would give lower-polling candidates the opportunity to get national televised airtime beside better known opponents.
The committee did not specify how they would determine the lineups for each night. But the expectation had been that the field would be packed with so many elected officials, and the threshold for qualifying so high, that the system would sort itself out.
And then, the campaign happened.
Andrew Yang, the comparatively little-known entrepreneur running on a platform centered around a universal basic income to combat the trend of automation, parlayed a unique internet fandom into a donor base that has skyrocketed past that 65,000 donor threshold.
Now, Yang is trying to pull other lower-tiered candidates across the threshold with him. He has tweeted about South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and spiritual teacher Marianne Williamson, imploring his followers to support their campaigns.
“It wasn’t strictly ‘Oh now that I’m in, let me give someone else a boost,’” Yang explained in an interview. “It’s just I’m friends with certain other candidates and I think that we’re aligned on many big things. And if your goal is to try and solve the problems that are happening in the U.S., the more people trying to solve those problems that are on a national stage the better.”
“Someone like me, or Marianne or Pete or others, we’re not name-brand politicians,” he said. “We should be trying to boost each other.”
Williamson, a 66-year-old author and spiritual teacher who came to prominence with appearances on The Oprah Winfrey Show, finds herself closing in on the debate stage too. Her key issue thus far has been a plan to set aside $100 billion to $500 billion for a reparations program. A spokesperson for her campaign told The Daily Beast that, as of Tuesday afternoon, they were confident in meeting the threshold and were already “41% of the way there, with donations growing exponentially.”
Meanwhile, Buttigieg has soared past 65,000 donors, though not likely because of Yang’s direct help. After a well-reviewed town hall on CNN, the South Bend mayor’s campaign raised more than $600,000 from over 22,200 donations.
And then there’s John Delaney. The Maryland Democrat was the first candidate to announce. But having yet to make a real impact in polling, the congressman has decided to dip into his own immense wealth, listed a few years ago at more than $230 million. Last week, Delaney announced that for every new donor his campaign recruited, he would personally donate $2 dollars to nonprofits and charities, giving each donor the opportunity to select from 11 options on his campaign website.
“I just think the Democratic party needs a good debate,” Delaney told The Daily Beast. “Because in some ways we didn’t really have one in 2016, in my opinion.”
Officials had settled on the 65,000 voter number in consultation with NGP VAN, Inc., a privately owned voter database, and ActBlue, an online donor hub that Democrats have used to jumpstart their fundraising. Both vendors had studied historical campaign finance data to come up with the 65,000 figure, determining that it would be hard but not impossible to hit and would require a solid digital infrastructure.
“No matter what threshold the DNC determined, we knew campaigns would motivate their supporters and try to hit that goal,” Erin Hill, executive director of ActBlue said. “And we're seeing exactly that: candidates and their supporters working together in a grassroots effort to get their message on the debate stage. This is not only an exciting moment of grassroots engagement, it's a moment where campaigns are building the kind of effort they'll need if they become the nominee.”
They and the committee had considered adding another metric for qualification that would have been specific to the average size of the donation. But they ultimately decided that having a person sign up to a website and enter credit card information was a big enough hurdle in its own right.
The risks were obvious to those involved. Random candidates and even provocateurs could simply ask donors to make one dollar donations in hopes of getting 65,000 willing individuals. But the DNC was comfortable with it, reasoning that it was hard to imagine tens of thousands of people giving over their credit card information simply to troll the Democratic Party and even harder to imagine a world in which this would happen to multiple candidates at the same time.
And, so far, it hasn’t been problematic. Yang, for one, has not only sped past 65,000 donors, but he’s begun registering at the critical 1 percent support line in public opinion polls—indicating, in fact, that his backing is real. And while Delaney is now effectively trying to parlay philanthropy into debate access, it’s not clear if it will work. His campaign did not reveal exactly how close he was to qualifying. Nevertheless, the congressman stressed that he would be a valuable debate participant and not some mere side-show.
“I’m much more of a solutions-oriented person, I focus on common ground,” Delaney said. “I’m much more about results than I am about talking points. So that makes me a bit more moderate and centrist probably.”