The decision of who gets to participate falls to the Democratic National Committee (DNC), which was battered from all sides (including In These Times) with accusations of bias during the 2016 primary. This time around things would be different, the DNC promised. Among other changes, candidates were able to qualify for the first debates by one of two routes: performance in polls (the traditional measure) or how many donors they have — even (and especially) those who give as little as $1.
A campaign’s tally of small donors is now viewed as a proxy for broad, grassroots political support — and a hallmark of any good insurgency. It began with Howard Dean in 2004. Barack Obama used the approach to power past Hillary Clinton in 2008. Bernie Sanders nearly did the same in 2016. (Another candidate also mastered this approach last time around: Donald Trump.)
I saw firsthand the power small-donor fundraising can have, working as part of the teams that helped Obama raise record amounts of money in 2008 and again in 2012. But as more candidates adopt this approach, we’ve also seen the rise of an industry custom-built to deliver small donors, for anyone who can afford it. Candidates with a large, established base of support like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden will likely meet any donor threshold the DNC sets. For everyone else, the new rules are an invitation — and maybe even a requirement — to buy your way onto the stage.
Advertising firms have reportedly been quoting a cost of $40 and up for campaigns to acquire a single $1 donor. In practice, this amounts to a massive transfer of campaign funds directly to online ad platforms — 2020 candidates are collectively paying more than $1 million a week to Facebook alone. Not only have fundraising appeals become more numerous, they’ve become increasingly desperate. Kirsten Gillibrand (D‑N.Y.) plays beer pong to earn donations. Julián Castro’s mom pleads, “I’m humbly asking for $1 to help my incredible son, Julián, qualify for the Democratic Presidential debates.” As a recent Vice News headline summarized: “2020 Democrats Are Literally Begging for $1 on Facebook.” Even Bernie is offering up copies of his latest book (cover price $27.99) for a buck.
In the end, all 20 candidates in the first debate qualified by polling (with 14 meeting the donor threshold as well). For the third round of debate in September, the threshold will double (to 2% polling and 130,000 donors), and candidates have to meet both criteria. Because each new donor is harder to bring in than the one before it, expect the desperation (and spending) to ramp up exponentially.
There’s a lesson or two in all of this about unintended consequences. There’s also a larger question the Left will need to continue to grapple with moving forward: Do we really want money to be the measure of a good candidate?
If we want a politics focused on building mass movements, then the price of entry should ultimately be participation and solidarity. What we don’t need is to encourage politicians to become better hucksters, offering a brighter future for the low, low price of just $1.