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DNC boss says candidates to be involved in debate lottery

Democratic candidates for president or their representatives will be involved when the Democratic National Committee (DNC) does a lottery to determine who stands on stage during the party’s initial two-day debate, DNC Chairman Tom PerezThomas PerezClinton’s top five vice presidential picks Government social programs: Triumph of hope over evidence Labor’s 'wasteful spending and mismanagement” at Workers’ Comp MORE told The Hill in an exclusive interview.

Perez said the DNC hadn’t determined the “precise methodology” for the random draw yet, but he said the process would be transparent and the candidates or their representatives would be involved.

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“We’ll certainly make sure we do it in a way that is transparent for all of the candidates involved because obviously we want them to see for themselves that we meant what we said,” Perez said, seated on a brown leather couch in his DNC office overlooking South Capitol Street.

Perez, who previously served as a civil rights lawyer in former President Obama’s Justice Department, is tasked with managing a process that involves two dozen Democratic presidential candidates, the most by far in recent history.

It appears increasingly likely that 20 of the candidates will make the stage for the June 26 and June 27 debates in Miami — 10 on each night.

That makes the lottery to determine who debates when a pivotal moment and leaves presidential candidates in a high-stakes lottery, like NBA teams hoping to get a favored spot.

The DNC chairman is steadfast in his commitment to randomly determining which night the candidates debate, rather than using polling numbers to determine the lineup, as Republicans did in 2016.

Some fear that the random lottery could result in a leading contender, such as former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBudowsky: A Biden-McConnell state of emergency summit DC might win US House vote if it tries Inaugural poet Amanda Gorman inks deal with IMG Models MORE or Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersTim Ryan says he's 'looking seriously' at running for Portman's Senate seat Bernie Sanders has been most-followed member of Congress on social media for six years This week: Senate stuck in limbo MORE (I-Vt.), getting grouped with nine people polling at 1 percent.

“We wanted to make sure we didn’t have our thumb on the scale,” said Perez, who was dressed down in khakis on a Friday afternoon before the holiday weekend.

“I don’t want people thinking that night one is the varsity event and night two is the JV, or vice versa,” he said. “We’re going to make sure that we mix it up.”

Candidates must receive donations from 65,000 unique donors in at least 20 states or reach 1 percent support in three sanctioned polls to qualify for the first two debates in June and July.

Perez said the same criteria will hold for another July debate, but that the DNC would raise the threshold for qualification afterwards, which could potentially winnow the field of contenders.

The initial benchmarks have proven to be relatively easy for most of the candidates to hit, leaving some Democrats to gripe that the top contenders will be crowded out by the lower-tier candidates, who make up more than half the field. 

Conversations about the criteria are ongoing, but the DNC could add a paid staff requirement, in addition to raising the polling and fundraising benchmarks.

“We clearly have to adjust the thresholds, and if you look at history, that’s what has happened over time,” Perez said. “People have to demonstrate progress and those that do will stay on the debate stage. Those that don’t, won’t.”

Perez insists every candidate will be treated fairly. 

“Our north star is to make sure everyone gets a fair shake,” he said.

The DNC will announce two weeks prior to the debate who has officially made the cut.

The four candidates excluded from the debate are likely to complain.

Most of the candidates appear to have reached the fundraising or polling thresholds, making it likely that Perez will have to turn to tiebreakers to determine the top 20. The unlucky 21st candidate could potentially miss the debate stage by a dozen small-dollar donors or a fraction of a percentage point in the polls.

But those are the breaks, Perez said, noting that the DNC laid out the criteria for qualification back in February, before most candidates got into the race.

“We were very transparent because we wanted to give everybody ample time to qualify,” Perez said. “People have known the ground rules for some time and we’re not moving the goalposts in any way, shape or form.”

If more than 20 candidates qualify, the final field will be determined first by those who meet both the polling and fundraising thresholds, then by who has the highest polling average, and finally by who has the most unique donors.

Several big-name entrants who were late to announce their presidential bids have not yet qualified, including New York City Mayor Bill de BlasioBill de BlasioDisjointed vaccine distribution poses early test for Biden Fauci said second COVID-19 vaccine shot knocked him out for 24 hours Ohio vaccine distributor suspended after improperly storing, spoiling 890 doses MORE and Sen. Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetLawmakers move to oust extremists from military Top Democrat pushes for tying unemployment insurance to economic conditions 50-50 Senate opens the door to solutions outlasting Trump's moment of violence MORE (D-Colo). A couple of long-shot outsiders — inspirational speaker Marianne WilliamsonMarianne WilliamsonMarianne Williamson discusses America's "soulless ethos" Marianne Williamson discusses speaking at People's Party Convention Fewer people watched opening night of Democratic convention compared to 2016 MORE and tech entrepreneur Andrew YangAndrew YangYang to quarantine after campaign staffer tests positive for COVID-19 Andrew Yang sparks Twitter uproar with pro-bodega video Yang announces run for New York City mayor MORE — appear to be in line to make the cut.

There are expected to be four Democratic debates between September and the end of the year, and six more in 2020.

Perez is standing by his decision to exclude Fox News from the primary debates, even as several Democratic presidential contenders have accepted invitations to appear at town-hall events on the network.

The DNC chairman noted that he often makes appearances on the network, and he praised anchors Chris WallaceChristopher (Chris) WallaceRomney: Total figure for Biden coronavirus stimulus is 'pretty shocking' Rubio: Trump impeachment trial is 'stupid' Romney noncommittal on impeachment vote but says trial is likely constitutional MORE and Bret Baier as fair and impartial journalists.

But he said he didn’t trust the network higher-ups to treat the Democratic candidates fairly.

“I need to have 100 percent confidence before I commit to any partnership and I frankly just don’t have that,” Perez said. “I didn’t have it then and I don’t have it now.”

The DNC’s handling of the debate process has been deeply influenced by the 2016 primary, when it was accused of limiting the number of debates and hiding them on inconvenient nights in an effort to limit Sanders’s opportunities to take on former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonSenate to vote Tuesday on Biden's secretary of State pick Portman planned exit sets off Ohio free-for-all Biden must wait weekend for State Department pick MORE.

“I’m acutely aware of the challenges that existed in 2016,” Perez said.

“That’s why we took unprecedented steps to create this grass-roots threshold — never been done before in a primary,” he continued. “That’s why two nights in a row — never been done before. To have no JV, varsity debates, that’s a very clear effort on our part to show people who we are. I want people to be able to articulate their values clearly in a format that will ensure we put our best foot forward.”