After a long campaign that has featured a plethora of contenders, the primaries and caucuses for the 2020 Democratic primary are nearly here. Voters have had a chance to see the candidates grapple with each other in high-stakes debates across the country, including one right here in Georgia on Nov. 20, 2019. There’s only one more debate before the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 14, giving candidates one last chance to make a big impression before voting starts.
Unfortunately, the qualification requirements for these debates have led to issues. By requiring a certain number of donors to make the debate stage, the Democratic Party has incentivized the candidates to appeal to the activist base instead of considering the needs and desires of the party as a whole.
Following the 2016 primary, the Democratic National Committee faced criticisms from within the party. This, along with the unwieldy size of the Democratic field, forced the DNC to try to make new rules that would appease everyone and still produce a candidate capable of beating President Donald Trump. And, in some ways, the changes make sense. After all, you want a nominee who has demonstrated some ability to generate grassroots support and raise the money needed to run a successful presidential campaign. But the new rules have created new problems.
For starters, the people who donate to campaigns are different from the broader electorate. According to Pew Research Center, campaign donors are more likely to be older, more educated and wealthier than the population. Moreover, campaign donors are more likely to be white and male than the general population, according to Demos. This means that campaigns have to appeal to a group of people that do not represent the broader party. In a time when political analysts are routinely questioning whether we should give outsized-influence to Iowa and New Hampshire, two states that are not demographically representative of the U.S., in picking our presidential nominees, the new rules feel jarring.
The need to compete for donors has also slowed the party from fully-coalescing around a few strong candidates earlier. Donors cannot and will not give endless sums of money to campaigns, no matter how excited they are. By incentivizing donating to multiple campaigns, the Democratic Party encouraged its members to give its limited resources to candidates with a small chance to win the nomination. To illustrate this, consider someone who wants to donate $20. Perhaps this person likes former Vice President Joe Biden and businessman Tom Steyer. Steyer needs donations to qualify for the final debate, so the donor might choose to split the donation between the two candidates. Steyer has very little chance to win the nomination, and he’s a billionaire who could self-fund his own campaign if needed, making the donation practically worthless.
This kind of donating may seem relatively innocuous, but it could leave Democrats outgunned in the general election. While Democrats have split their fundraising over a large number of candidates, Trump has rapidly raised large sums of money for his reelection machine. In the fourth quarter of 2019, Trump raised the most money of any single candidate, but the Democratic field combined raised more than Trump.
On one hand, this is good for Democrats because it demonstrates that the party has the ability to raise the money it needs to win the general election. On the other hand, the split in fundraising between many candidates means that whoever the nominee is will probably start with a disadvantage. To give context, Sen. Bernie Sanders raised the most of any Democratic candidate in the fourth quarter of 2019 with a total haul of $34.5 million. This is an impressive number, but it’s much less than the $55 million former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton raised in the fourth quarter of 2015. Coupled with the fact that Democrats will have to spend this money to win the primary while Trump can just build his reserves before the general election, and you’re looking at a situation in which the future nominee is will likely have far fewer funds than Trump.
The Democratic Party’s willingness to address its past mistakes and current challenges is admirable, but the new incentives for campaigns to seek donations simply leads to more issues. In the next presidential election, the party needs to find a new solution.