Wednesday, Feb. 19 marked the first time United States presidential candidate, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg appeared on the debate stage. Bloomberg had only announced his candidacy on Nov. 24, 2019, almost a year and a half after the other candidates declared their run for the presidency.  

On Jan. 31, the Democratic National Committee changed its debate rules to eliminate the donor and polling requirements. As a result, Bloomberg became eligible to participate in future debates. As the debates have continued since June 2019, the DNC over time has made both the polling and donation requirements stricter. With more and more candidates running for the nomination, most candidates of color dropped out as they were not hitting the polling requirement, but in many cases were still meeting the donor threshold.

The qualifications for the first debate held on June 26-27 of 2019 were: “Attain at least 1% support in a minimum of 3 approved polls at a national level or in the first four primary/caucus states (Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina)” and “a candidate must have received donations from a minimum of 65,000 unique donors, with at least 200 unique donors per state in at least 20 states.” Twenty candidates qualified. By the sixth debate on Dec. 19, 2019, only seven candidates qualified, only one of whom, businessman Andrew Yang, was a person of color. In order to be on the December debate stage, the candidates had to have “at least four percent support in four different polls” and “financial support from a minimum of 200,000 unique donors, with at least 800 unique donors per state in at least 20 states.” At that time, Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, former Secretary for Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and California Senator Kamala Harris were all still in the race. However, none of them qualified to participate. 

As the debates winnowed down to mostly white candidates, many party officials, candidates, and Democratic voters started pushing the DNC to change the qualifications for the debates. Booker dropped out after not qualifying for two debates in a row and Harris dropped out having known that she would not make it to the Jan. debate stage. On Dec. 14, 2019, a letter was sent to the DNC signed by Booker, Castro and seven other candidates. The letter urged the DNC to return to an earlier rule of qualification which reads, “either achieving the threshold through polling or through individual contributors — rather than requiring candidates to reach both.” This would have allowed both Castro and Booker to participate in the January debate. However, the Democratic National Committee on multiple occasions refused the request to alter the rules for the candidates of color. However, they then allowed a rule change to bring a white billionaire in Bloomberg on stage for the Feb. 19 debate. 

In a tweet on Jan. 31, presidential candidate and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, in an echo of her future attacks on Bloomberg, wrote: “The DNC didn’t change the rules to ensure good, diverse candidates could remain on the debate stage. They shouldn’t change the rules to let a billionaire on. Billionaires shouldn't be allowed to play by different rules—on the debate stage, in our democracy, or in our government.” The senator was not the only one to criticize the DNC: Many other current and former candidates went on Twitter to express their disdain. 

On a macro level, it is important to have Bloomberg on the debate stage just so the hundreds of millions of dollars he has been pouring into advertisements are not the only part of him that voters hear. When on a debate stage, as we saw in the Feb. 19 debate, both moderators and candidates were able to push back on his claims and ask both important and challenging questions. Having to answer tough questions about one’s past and plans for the future should be necessary for Bloomberg to be on the ballot. However, it is not right for the DNC to change the debate rules to only benefit one candidate, after having refused to do the same exact action earlier at the end of 2019. 

It is also especially problematic given that the qualification the DNC got rid of was the donor qualification. Having donors from all across the country shows depth in someone’s campaign and also shows, in a way, a better representation of how much support the candidates have. Bloomberg bought his way onto the stage without having to ask for donations. The candidates, eventual nominee and the primary process itself should reflect the Democratic party and its values. These values are what makes the Democratic Party’s process better than the Republicans. However, the way the DNC has dealt with the current election and the debates in particular, have in fact gone against the values of democracy and the Democratic primary. The debate is a very important part of the primary process. It is a way for the candidates to reach national audiences while also answering important questions about current events and their plans for the future. In order to stay competitive, candidates need to continue to be on that all-important debate stage.  However, in manipulating the process, the Democratic National Committee has cheapened what the debates mean and forced people who had support from many Americans out of the race. It is the epitome of being undemocratic.