2020 Democrats scramble for donors ahead of debate deadline
Facing the prospect that they might not qualify for the Democratic National Committee’s upcoming debates, 2020 presidential hopefuls are getting creative in their race to find donors. Not all candidates are happy about the rules, however, and many are finding that amassing small-dollar supporters is itself an expensive process.
Per DNC rules set in February, in order to be eligible for the first DNC debate, candidates need either at least 65,000 individual donors, including at least 200 in each of 20 states, or 1 percent support in three national or early state polls. Twenty candidates currently qualify under these rules, but others — including Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), Gov. Steve Bullock (D-Mt.), former Sen. Mike Gravel (D-Alaska) and mayor of Miramar, Fla., Wayne Messam — have failed to meet either threshold.
Bullock was set to qualify based on polling until the DNC declared last week that one of the three polls in which he hit 1 percent — a Washington Post/ABC poll from January — did not count on the basis that the poll question was too open-ended. The Montana governor, who was the only Democrat to win a 2016 statewide race in a state that went for Trump, has turned the slight into a last-minute fundraising pitch on Facebook, where he spent more than $16,000 on advertisements last week.
“Governor Steve Bullock is the MOST POPULAR Democratic Governor in the country — but the DNC just unmasked a rule that could block just him from taking the Presidential debate stage,” one ad says. “Will you rush just $1 to help Steve Bullock get to the first debate?”
Even if Bullock, Moulton, Gravel or Messam manages to hit 65,000 donors before the end of the day tomorrow, DNC rules still cap participation in the debates at 20 candidates and the party has discretion as to who will participate, with preference going to candidates who met both qualifications.
Six candidates qualified for the debates on the basis of polls but do not have 65,000 donors: former Gov. John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.), former Maryland Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.), Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and Reps. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) and Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.).
Hickenlooper, who declared his candidacy in early March, raised $2 million during the first month of his campaign, 90 percent of which came from individual contributions greater than $200. Bennet, De Blasio, Ryan and Swalwell did not declare that they were running until April, and thus did not report fundraising statistics for the first quarter.
Delaney, who announced his presidential candidacy in July 2017, has self-financed his campaign to a tune of $16.4 million while struggling to pick up grassroots supporters. Through the end of the first quarter of 2019, he raised just $1.7 million from outside donors.
In an attempt to pick up enough supporters to qualify for the debates, the former Maryland congressman, whose net worth was estimated to be $232 million in 2015, announced in mid-March that he would personally donate $2 to charity for every $1 donation his campaign receives. Delaney told the New York Times that he was likely to lose money in recruiting donors regardless, and that he preferred to give money to nonprofits over a digital marketing firm.
More recently, Delaney has turned to constituencies that have generally received little attention in American electoral discourse. Since May 30, his campaign has run Facebook ads aimed the Filipino and Sri Lankan communities. He spent nearly $9,000 on Facebook ads last week.
Social media has been a key source of small-donor fundraising for Democrats over the last few election cycles due to online fundraising platforms such as ActBlue, which recorded more than 42 million donations during the 2018 midterm cycle.
Online advertisements are costly, though. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D-N.Y.) campaign announced Monday that she had reached the 65,000 donor threshold over the weekend. The achievement came after a fervent digital push as her campaign spent more than $200,000 on Facebook ads between June 2 and 8. The campaign has spent $640,000 on Facebook ads alone since its formal launch in March.
Gillibrand is not alone when it comes to heavy spending on digital advertising — former Vice President Joe Biden and Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) have each spent more than $1 million on Facebook ads already. All told, the 24 Democratic presidential candidates have spent nearly $12 million on ads on the site.
Although Biden, Harris, Sanders and Warren are among the candidates who have qualified for the debates based on both metrics, they — along with other 2020 hopefuls — are already preparing to meet the requirements for the DNC’s third round of debates, which will take place in September. At that point, the DNC will require that candidates receive contributions from at least 130,000 donors and hit at least 2 percent in four polls conducted between June 28 and August 28.
A few candidates have already met that donor threshold. Sanders’ campaign reported that the Vermont senator received contributions from 223,000 donors within 24 hours of the campaign’s launch. Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) got 128,000 donors on his first day. Warren, Harris and mayor Pete Buttigieg have all said they reached 130,000 donors.
California entrepreneur Andrew Yang tweeted in late May that he needs only 20,000 additional donors to meet the higher benchmark, and Biden’s campaign likely surpassed it as the former vice president drew nearly 97,000 donors on the first day of his campaign alone.
Those candidates, along with Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), both of whom have regularly polled at or above 2 percent, will likely make the stage in September.
But other candidates have more to worry about. The four who have not qualified for the first debate will face an uphill climb, as will motivational speaker and wellness guru Marianne Williamson, who managed to crack 65,000 donors but has never reached 2 percent in polling and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), who has hit the 2 percent threshold in only one poll.
Several candidates, including Gov. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) and former mayor of San Antonio and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro, have already begun using the 130,000 figure as a new fundraising tactic in their latest digital ads. Inslee has also run ads critical of the DNC after the organization declined his request to host a debate focused solely on climate change despite support from half a dozen candidates.
The first round of DNC debates will take place on June 26 and 27 at 9 p.m. EST, with 10 candidates speaking each night. The DNC will host a second round of debates with the same qualification requirements in July before increasing the requirements for its debates in September.
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