“I think the DNC was in an unenviable position with this many candidates, and I think I know what they were trying to do,” Matt McKenna, a senior adviser to Montana Governor Steve Bullock, told The Atlantic. “But I think there’s just universal agreement that they failed.”
Read: The DNC debate rules are a game
Bullock missed the first debate in June after entering the race in May. He made the stage last month in Miami, but he was unable to capitalize on the appearance, and his campaign sees a better chance of making the fourth debate in October than next month’s matchup. But unlike some candidates, he has not spent as much money simply trying to persuade people to contribute as little as $1 to reach the DNC’s donor threshold. “If I gave him $100, I wouldn’t want him to go spend $70 of it to go get one more dollar,” McKenna said. “If you say it aloud like that, that’s when you realize the absurdity of this situation that they’ve created.”
Michael Hopkins, a spokesman for former Representative John Delaney of Maryland, says the DNC had “learned nothing from 2016,” when it was criticized for purportedly favoring former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton over Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont in the primaries.“By requiring campaigns to hit this arbitrary donor goal it forces campaigns to talk about more divisive issues and not be on the ground and instead go on Facebook and Twitter,” Hopkins says.
DNC Chairman Tom Perez has defended both the concept of the donor threshold, which is designed to measure grassroots support, and the party’s decision to tighten the requirements for the fall debates. “We have been doing exactly what happens in every Democratic primary process,” Perez told The Atlantic earlier this month. “The closer you get to the first elections, we raise the bar gradually, fairly, and transparently.”
Defenders of the debate rules point out that the DNC is an easy scapegoat for candidates who have failed to gain traction despite months of campaigning and plenty of opportunities to break through, either in the initial debates or in the many prime-time town halls broadcast on the cable networks. And the committee received plenty of criticism for allowing the first debates to be as wide open as they were, with a record 20 candidates onstage over two nights.
None of the campaigns we spoke with said explicitly they would drop out if they were shut out of the fall debates. Indeed, a few staffers actually questioned the importance of the events themselves, pointing out that the debates in June and July did little to change the dynamic of the race. Senator Kamala Harris of California shot up in the polls after her performance against former Vice President Joe Biden in Miami, but she fell back after the next debate in Detroit. The same five candidates—Biden, Harris, Sanders, Senator Elizabeth Warren, and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg—occupy the top tier now as they did in the spring. The rest of the field is hovering in the low single digits at best.