The need to clear a polling threshold advantaged those who had run before (Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders), political celebrities (Elizabeth Warren), and those with unlimited bank accounts (Tom Steyer). The fundraising requirements theoretically gave the people more of a voice. The problem is that those who are most engaged online are hardly representative of the people or even of people who are Democratic primary voters.
According to a survey conducted by Third Way, 73 percent of Democratic primary voters do not post on Twitter at all. Just 12 percent of Democratic primary voters post on Twitter daily, but these Twitterati are younger, whiter, and more male than the rest of the party. They’re also “ten points more liberal than primary voters as a whole and a whopping 24 points more likely to call themselves Democratic Socialists.” Another study of the Democratic electorate, by the nonpartisan Hidden Tribes project, backs this up, finding that Democrats who post content online are more likely to have a college degree, be white, and be more liberal than the rest of the party. Only 11 percent of online Democrats are African American compared to 24 percent of Democrats in the real world.
Democratic small-dollar donors have always held views to the left of the party as a whole, but as with everything else, the move online has supercharged this tendency. Yet thanks to the DNC debate rules, campaigns needed to fundraise online in order to garner support from enough of these donors to qualify for the debates (at least 130,000 to be included in the third one). And taking positions far to the left of mainstream liberal orthodoxy, such as getting rid of private health insurance, embracing reparations for slavery, and decriminalizing unauthorized immigration, can drive viral moments—and a deluge of digital donors.
Thus, as the debates unfolded, the rapidly contracting field took as its victims not gadfly candidates like Andrew Yang or Tom Steyer, but three accomplished governors (Steve Bullock, Jay Inslee, and John Hickenlooper), two popular female U.S. senators (Kirsten Gillibrand and Kamala Harris), the most prominent Latino in the race (Julián Castro), and perennially rising Democratic star Senator Cory Booker. The new rules muted the real-life party, and gave an outsize voice to a cadre of virtual activists.
Peter Beinart: Regular Democrats just aren’t worried about Bernie
This is why Democrats now find themselves in a bind. A Booker, Harris, or Bullock might have received a second look from Democratic voters looking for an alternative to Sanders, but those candidates have already been forced from the race.
Instead, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar have enjoyed increased support, showing that it’s not impossible to succeed without already enjoying a national profile or taking extreme positions. That they’ve done so well, despite the DNC’s new rules, makes their accomplishments even more impressive.
However, they are exceptions that prove the rule.
Ultimately, the DNC debate rules had the unintentional consequence of creating a nominating system that took power away from the party and gave it to the Twitterverse. As a result, the problem this election season isn’t too many choices for voters; it’s that they never got a chance to choose at all.