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Rule change by Democrats could help Bloomberg

Critics say wealthy self-funded candidates could benefit while keeping most of the leaders in the racially diverse Democratic Party white.
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Mike Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York running for president, was in the news this week for the wrong reason: The week of the New Hampshire primary, where he did not even appear on the ballot, Bloomberg was caught on tape directing police to target “male minorities, 16 to 25,” because “that’s where the real crime is.”

It’s a situation that in any other year could render Bloomberg a bit player in the race. But in 2020 many of the usual presidential primary season storylines no longer apply. A January rule change announced by the Democratic National Committee could, as critics of the change feared, possibly propel Bloomberg to the next debate stage.

Since the rule change, Bloomberg and other candidates wealthy enough to self-fund campaigns complete with massive ad buys and constant marketing can reach voters and boost their standing in the polls without the worry, cost and work of fundraising. The situation, some political experts say, could contribute to a situation where most of the candidates vying for the presidential nomination of the nation’s most diverse political party remain white and unusually rich.

“This is totally an accommodation for a big-time spender who does have some traction,” said Wayne Steger, a professor of political science at DePaul University.

Under the change, to participate in the February debate, candidates must earn at least 10 percent of voter support in four qualifying national polls, or 12 percent in two polls in Nevada or South Carolina. Alternatively, a candidate must earn at least one delegate from either Iowa or New Hampshire.

This week, Bloomberg had 11 to 17 percent support in four national polls listed by Real Clear Politics, and 51 percent of voter support in a Quinnipiac University head-to-head contest with Trump (42 percent).

Political ads remain one of the major ways that average voters come to know, understand or even contemplate candidates, especially those whose names and reputations are less well known, said Lara Brown, a political scientist and director of the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University.

“The thing is, you can’t buy an actual election,” Brown said. “You can buy visibility, which is what these self-funded guys are doing. If you are going to get the entire country to stop buying Colgate or Crest, you are going to have to invest millions in ads, the kind that can get a candidate like Bloomberg some standing in the polls.”

Party officials insist that when the old debate qualification rule changed in January, candidates knew it was coming. The party had long indicated that after voting began it would shift standards to reflect the will of actual voters, said Xochitl Hinojosa, a spokesperson for the DNC.

“Just to remind you, you need 1,991 delegates to win the nomination,” said Hinojosa. “We opted for this because we looked at history and saw no one polling in single digits after the first two contests ever winds up being the nominee. We didn’t pull the standard out of thin air or shape it for anyone’s benefit.”

Butthe standards used to cull the field did produce a 2020 Democratic presidential contender lineup far whiter than the country or the party.

Two African American senators and a Latino former Housing secretary didn’t make it to Iowa, the first primary contest. But two self-funded billionaires, Bloomberg, who was elected mayor in 2001 as a Republican and later became an independant, and businessman Tom Styer, remain in the race. Both have invested heavily in self-funded ad campaigns.

“There's’ probably no perfect way to winnow a very large field,” said Brenda Choresi Carter, director of the Reflective Democracy Campaign, which works to increase the power of women and people of color in public life. “That process is inevitably going to be complicated and flawed and various constituencies are likely to be unhappy. But at the same time, any move that makes or clears the way for a self-funded billionaire to get the stamp of legitimacy, very possible debate participation, particularly after most candidates of color have been cleared out of the race, does not suggest a process that is as inclusive and forward looking as it could be.”

By 2044, just six presidential elections from now, black, Latino and Asian Americans will together make up the majority of Americans, according to census projections. Right now, 88 percent of all public office holders in the United States are white, according to data gathered by the Reflective Democracy Campaign.

The campaign's research also indicates that most Americans view the “current crop of office holders as an old boys’ club,” a situation voters don’t like.

Before the DNC’s rules change last month, some candidates had complained that a dual standard requiring candidates to meet both polling and fundraising requirements forced them to organize their campaigns and spend their money in ways consistent with those priorities, whether it was a good fit for their campaign or not. Chief among those who voiced concern was Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, who dropped out of the race last month.

The day the new rule was announced -- one that unlike previous rules required no fundraising activity from individual donors -- Booker’s former campaign manager tweeted an exasperated meme. Booker did not respond to requests for comment on the rule change.

The party always shapes the candidate choices put before voters in a variety of subtle and overt ways, Steger said. It suggests that some candidates are more qualified, electable, palatable with reporters, big donors and important groups such as labor unions.

After Hillary Clinton’s failed 2016 presidential bid, the party found itself beset by voluminous complaints that Democrats had effectively rigged the primary process in favor of Clinton, a centrist party insider. The party stripped superdelegates of a significant share off their power, giving them no more influence than others at the party’s nominating convention unless a first-round vote failed to provide a clear answer.

The list doesn’t end there, Steger said. Democratic Party conventions look as diverse as America, he said, because the party created a rule requiring states to send delegations that are half male and half female, and a certain percentage of African Americans, Latinos and Asians.

“Have you noticed that this time around,” said Steger, who wrote the book, ‟A Citizen’s Guide to Presidential Nominations: The Competition for Leadership,” “that every debate has at least one woman moderator or person of color? Do you think the networks did that on their own?