The Democratic Party’s new directive that candidates must have at least 130,000 donors to qualify for the third primary debate in September arrived virtually without warning on Wednesday morning, and immediately sent shock waves through presidential campaigns worried that it would distort their priorities and affect the way they operate.
Two-thirds of the sprawling field of 23 candidates are probably at risk of falling short of that threshold, and news of the more stringent rules set off a flurry of frustrated early-morning text messages, emails, calls and meetings as campaigns reassessed the path forward, according to multiple 2020 campaign officials.
While the Democratic National Committee had long intimated it would raise the bar to qualify for later debates, many 2020 strategists were stunned by the 130,000-donor threshold, which doubles the requirement for the first two debates in June and July and which few are close to hitting. Some candidates questioned whether the party’s new donor threshold would winnow the field too severely, before most voters even tune in to the race.
Most declined to discuss their frustration with the D.N.C.’s rules on the record or to indicate how exactly they would shift tactics, saying their campaign plans were confidential. But campaign after campaign said the party’s donor requirements are skewing the way they allocate resources, forcing them to choose between investing in staff or pouring more money into ads on sites like Facebook, where prices are soaring to dizzying new heights. Two campaigns said digital vendors are currently quoting them prices of $40 and up to acquire a new $1 donor.
Democratic digital strategists said the unprecedented chase for small donors was encouraging poor habits aimed at simply stirring up internet interest or spamming existing email lists unsustainably, while also driving up the price of finding donors for down-ballot Democrats.
Ryan Alexander, a Democratic digital strategist, mocked the new rules on Twitter. “Let the irresponsible email acquisition and direct-to-donate spending continue!” he wrote. “Build national email lists while drowning out U.S. Senate and House campaigns!”
Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado, a lower-profile contender and one of the Democrats to enter the race most recently, called the new threshold “completely arbitrary.”
“When you have people competing for donations by creating viral moments that have nothing to do with governing our country or ideas that will move us forward, I think that’s challenging for our democracy,” Mr. Bennet said Wednesday in New Hampshire. He added: “I certainly don’t think the D.N.C. should be favoring national fund-raising and cable TV over decisions by voters in early states.”
Only four candidates have said publicly that they already have 130,000 donors: Senators Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind. Two others presumably have either hit that figure or are on track to do so based on previously disclosed donor numbers: Beto O’Rourke and former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.
Everyone else — even the other half-dozen campaigns with 65,000 or more donors, one path to the first debate stage — is currently on the outside looking in, hoping either to catch fire with the public or spend heavily enough to find more donors who give as little as $1.
“For second- or third-tier candidates, they have to choose: They can either spend their money achieving these metrics, or invest in programs on the ground in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina,” said Betsy Hoover, a Democratic digital strategist who served as director of digital organizing for the Obama campaign in 2012. “Very few are going to be able to do both.”
Ms. Hoover said campaigns currently pay digital firms rates starting at $25 to acquire a new donor, who is asked to give as little as $1. The price per new donor, she said, could soar as high as $75.
“You’re caught in this hamster wheel that I wouldn’t say is ideal for democracy,” she said.
The D.N.C., which oversees the debates, faces an unenviable challenge of trying to manage the 20-plus candidates running. The two nights of debates are unwieldy and unlikely to provide much time for the front-runners.
Democratic Party officials say the new rules are the most incremental uptick the committee could make and have it still be a meaningful measure. They argue that any viable candidate will need to have hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of donors to win a general election, so encouraging campaigns to expand their base of financial support helps the party’s future chances.
The donor requirement has already led to some unusual practices: A super PAC supporting Jay Inslee, the Washington governor focused on climate change, spent $411,000 on Facebook ads that directed donors not to the super PAC website but to Mr. Inslee’s campaign — an almost sleight-of-hand way to convert big money checks into the small donors needed to qualify for the debates.
The ads stopped running almost immediately after Mr. Inslee announced he had 50,000 donors in early May. A Twitter page run by the super PAC, Act Now on Climate, has continued tweeting more than 62,000 times, often replying to users who tweet about climate change or Mr. Inslee and offering a link to sign up for his emails.
Mr. Inslee reached the 65,000-donor threshold last week.
The rules for the first two presidential primary debates allowed candidates to make the stage via either polling or having 65,000 donors. If more than 20 candidates hit one of the milestones, the D.N.C. has said it will prioritize those who meet both metrics.
The third debate will require both 130,000 donors and achieving 2 percent in four polls, a more stringent polling requirement that will also help narrow the field.
Another complicating factor for campaigns: They must now search for donors during summer months, traditionally among the slowest of the year.
D.N.C. officials said that while candidates were aware the thresholds would increase in the fall, they were not briefed on the specifics, to avoid any appearance of favoritism.
“The D.N.C. has established debate qualifications that are fair, transparent and appropriate for each phase of the primary season,” said a committee spokeswoman, Xochitl Hinojosa. “We are confident that the two sets of criteria we have announced thus far achieve those goals, and have been communicated to candidates months before each debate.”
Those who have exceeded the D.N.C.’s thresholds have mostly remained quiet about them.
“I’m not in a position to tell the D.N.C. what to do, but I think that there is no question that we need to support a robust process of letting everyone make their case to the American people,” Ms. Harris said Wednesday in Greenville, S.C. “At some point it will whittle down, and that’s part of what a competition involves.”
But digital campaign experts expressed concern that the donor race is spiking the cost to find new contributors across the Democrats’ entire online ecosystem.
“The price is higher because people are getting inundated with even more ads,” said Amanda Litman, who served on Hillary Clinton’s digital team in 2016 and now leads Run for Something, a group recruiting progressive candidates to run for office.
Ms. Litman said chasing small donors for its own sake makes little sense. “Grass-roots fund-raising is not an end,” she said. “It’s a means to end.”
Yet hitting the donor thresholds has become an imperative — a symbol of vitality and viability.
John Delaney, a former Maryland congressman, began pledging he would personally give $2 to charity for every dollar donation he received. He said in an interview earlier this year that he began the program after reviewing various digital firm proposals. “It was pretty clear that I would lose money,” he said of the outreach plans.
“I’d rather give money to charity than a digital marketing firm,” Mr. Delaney added, though he said he was giving to the firms too.
More prominent names are still short the 65,000 mark, let alone 130,000 donors.
John Hickenlooper served two terms as governor of Colorado and doesn’t have that many. Neither does Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who spent millions on online ads ahead of her run trying to build up her online operation.
“This is going to be tough,” Ms. Gillibrand’s campaign wrote its supporters about the new debate rules Wednesday. “But we can do this.”