clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How DNC Chair Tom Perez plans to avoid the chaos of the GOP’s 2016 debates

With 21 candidates running so far, Perez is staring down a big logistical challenge for the Democratic debates.

DNC Chairman Tom Perez speaks to a crowd of supporters at a 2017 Democratic unity rally in Salt Lake City, Utah.
George Frey/Getty Images

Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez has the unenviable job of figuring out exactly how the summer DNC debates will accommodate a 21-candidate field that is growing by the week.

Out of that massive group, 18 candidates have so far qualified for the first two debate stages, according to their self-reported numbers (spiritual author and little-known candidate Marianne Williamson just announced she’s the latest to do so). All are jockeying for 20 highly coveted spots on the stage, and they have new DNC requirements to meet this year — 65,000 grassroots donors in a certain number of states, in addition to garnering a certain polling percentage in national or early state polls.

These new requirements were deliberate on the DNC’s part; a move to be more inclusive of grassroots candidates, after some argued the party tried to stack the deck for Hillary Clinton in 2016. But national Democrats also may not have anticipated this many candidates jumping in. With just 20 available spots, the committee recently released detailed guidelines for how it plans to cull the herd.

Thinking back to the chaos of the Republican debates in 2016, Perez already has a few ground rules: there will be no varsity and junior varsity stages — candidates will be chosen at random. If there are 20 qualifiers, 10 will go on one night, and another 10 the next. And there will be absolutely no discussion of hand size.

“It was all too frequently a circus on the Republican side where they were simply engaged in name calling and distractions that didn’t allow viewers to understand what they stood for,” Perez told me during a recent interview. He doesn’t plan on letting the Democratic debates devolve into the same thing — but with 20-plus candidates, anything could happen.

Since Perez was elected chair in 2017, he’s embarked on a larger effort to try to mend fences after a bitter 2016 primary fight between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. That was the impetus for Perez scrapping the DNC’s so-called “superdelegates,” party insiders and state Democratic officials who could pledge to support a certain candidate before the party convention. Though their votes didn’t necessarily count more than regular delegates, their presence loomed large, especially when a number threw their support behind Clinton over Sanders.

Perez calls 2016 the “perfect storm,” complete with Russian hacking, exposing the committee’s own “shortfalls” in how it was treating the Sanders campaign.

“And all of these acts had the impact of making the process a lot more problematic as sowing seeds of discord,” he told me. “We wanted to restore trust in the DNC, that we’re not trying to put a thumb on the scale for one candidate or another.”

Whereas 2016 was the battle between Clinton and Sanders, 2020 is a much different scenario that presents its own challenges. There’s no clear contrast to draw between any two candidates yet, because there are nearly two dozen of them.

“If we’ve got 20 candidates in the field, 19 aren’t going to make it to the mountaintop,” Perez said. It’s his job, he added, to try to make sure everyone thinks the nomination process is fair in the meantime.

I recently talked with Perez about the DNC’s changes to debates and superdelegates, and why the party banned Fox News from hosting any debates. Our interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Ella Nilsen

I wanted to start off by talking about the new debate requirements. What was the impetus behind these changes?

Tom Perez

Well, the impetus behind everything is we want to make sure we create a fair process, an inclusive process, a process that gives every single person the chance to articulate her or his vision for the American people.

I have had the privilege of working with the vast majority of the candidates, and they’re really great people in their own right. I want to make sure the American people get to see what I’ve had the privilege of experiencing. So, fair shake for everybody and inclusive process. That equals more participation and an energized electorate, and that translates to victory for Democrats.

Ella Nilsen

Looking at how these changes are playing out so far, have they satisfied that original goal? Are there any trade-offs?

Tom Perez

We wanted to make sure that we returned power to the grassroots. When we undertook reform of our rules last year, we limited the role of superdelegates on the first ballot. And that superdelegate reform was designed to return power to the grassroots. We engaged in other reforms of our primary and caucus processes, so now there are going to be six states that had a caucus before that will have a primary this time. Why is that desirable? Because more people participate.

Then the grassroots fundraising threshold for the debate participation, that was designed with an understanding that if you want to win the presidency, you’ve got to have a grassroots strategy. And so I’m very excited about the fact that I believe our protocols and requirements have catalyzed further engagement with the grassroots by a number of candidates. And I think that’s great for our process.

Ella Nilsen

I know a few Democratic candidates have gotten a bit creative with the ways that they’re satisfying these requirements. I’m thinking specifically of John Delaney promising to donate his own money to charity [per number of donors]. Do you think this is gaming the system at all?

Tom Perez

I look at what’s happening in the aggregate. And what we have seen, overall, is a lot of engagement that I don’t think would have taken place otherwise. The fact that we have catalyzed this conversation and catalyzed action among every campaign, I think that’s good for the Democratic Party. Our nominee is going to be that much more capable of winning because they’re going to be that much more engaged with the grassroots.

Ella Nilsen

Since you brought up superdelegates — and since Vox is an explainer website — could you explain the DNC’s superdelegates changes in plain English?

Tom Perez

Sure. Superdelegates were put in place in 1984 by the DNC. And superdelegates are a group of people: They are elected officials, they’re members of the DNC. They’re technically called automatic delegates, but the reason they’re called superdelegates is because they had certain authorities that were, I think, colloquially referred to as superpowers.

The challenge I think ensued with superdelegates is best illustrated through an example. Let’s assume we’re two weeks away from the Iowa caucus, so nobody has cast a vote yet. Nonetheless, if you watch television in the run-up to the Iowa caucus, whether it was 2016 or 2012, or 2008, you’ll see a ticker, which has delegate counts to the convention, and it’ll say ‘Candidate A’ has accumulated 400 delegates to the convention. People would ask the question — ‘How could someone have accumulated 400 delegates to the convention if nobody’s voted?’

The answer was superdelegates had signed up for ‘Candidate A’ before there had been any voting. Candidates aggressively courted them during this process, because they wanted to create a momentum going into the voting. So that was the effect of having superdelegates. And by the way, superdelegates never in fact affected who won the Democratic nomination. What our new superdelegate rule says is that superdelegates will not be counted on the first ballot unless and until you have one person that has a majority of the delegates to secure the nomination.

The concern about [superdelegates] was it created a perception before anyone had ever voted, that one candidate had an upper hand over another. We wanted to restore trust in the DNC, that we’re not trying to put a thumb on the scale for one candidate or another. As we were contemplating the enactment of these rule changes, we ran an exercise where we applied these rules retroactively to prior conventions. So in 2016, if these new rules had been in place, Hillary Clinton still would have won on the first ballot because she won three or four million more votes than Sen. Sanders. Same thing with Barack Obama in 2008.

While superdelegates had never actually decided who the nomination went to, they certainly affected people’s sense of fairness of the process. If people don’t believe that a process was fair, then they’re not going to be enthused about the outcome of the process. And one of the things we’ve tried to do from jump street in my tenure, is to make sure that we’re working hard to earn the trust of voters ... making sure that power returns to the people and candidates and their supporters feel like they got a fair shake. Because if we’ve got 20 candidates in the field, 19 aren’t going to make it to the mountaintop.

Ella Nilsen

I know you weren’t chairman back then, but why do you think there was so much mistrust in 2016? Do you think there had been past years where there had been similar mistrust in the party and party officials, or did 2016 set this new mark for that?

Tom Perez

Well, in 2016, we had a perfect storm that created all sorts of challenges.

You had Russian interference. You had the hack of the DNC, the hack of senior officials in the Clinton campaign. You had shortfalls in the DNC. You may recall, there was a moment in time where the DNC cut off access to the voter files for Sen. Sanders. And all of these acts had the impact of making the process a lot more problematic as sowing seeds of discord. There was a strongly held view among them that the primary debate calendar was set with an eye toward helping one candidate over another, and the reality is, whether that was perception or reality, it absolutely impacted people’s sense coming out of the convention, of unity. And as a result, we had challenges that I’m trying to address day in and day out.

We’re working exceedingly hard, and I have from the outset, to earn trust in everything we do. We announced the primary debate calendar long before we knew who the entire field would be. We are going to do random selection for the first two debates, so if 20 people make it to the stage, we’ll do 10 one night, 10 the next and we will do random selection of the candidates who are going to appear the first night the second night.

Ella Nilsen

Thinking back to 2016 and how chaotic the Republican debates were, what have you learned from that about conducting debates with a crowded field?

Tom Perez

We’re not going to have JV/varsity because I don’t think that works. We have worked very vigilantly with the networks to ensure that they’re focused on the issues. We’re not going to be talking about hand size. We’re going to be talking about health care, we’re going to be talking about climate change, we’re going to be talking about how we ensure that people who work a full-time job can feed their family and live a stress-free life. We’re going to be focused on the issues that matter to people.

There was, I believe, no questions or maybe one question or reference to climate change in the 2016 [Republican] debate cycle. That is mind-boggling to me. Those are the lessons I learned from the 2016 cycle. It was all too frequently a circus on the Republican side where they were simply engaged in name calling and distractions that didn’t allow viewers to understand what they stood for. At the end of this debate series. I am confident voters are going to be in a much better position to differentiate candidates from another and figure out who their preferred candidate is.

Ella Nilsen

Since the DNC announced a ban on Fox News hosting debates, there’s been this interesting debate on whether Democrats are ignoring a wide, and certainly ideologically different audience for their ideas. Especially with candidates like Bernie Sanders going on Fox town halls — and in Sanders’ case, there was this interesting moment on Medicare for All with the audience.

Tom Perez

I go on Fox News pretty regularly, I’ll continue to go on Fox News. I encourage the candidates to go on Fox News and I wholeheartedly support the Town Hall format that they have been using with candidates.

A debate with all the candidates on the stage is one of the most important parts of our primary cycle. And while I will continue to engage with Fox News in all the ways I’ve just described, I think it’s one of my responsibilities to ensure that our debates are substantive, that they focus on the issues. And when you look at all the media accounts for Fox News ... Sean Hannity, that’s not news, that’s just the peddling of propaganda.

I mean, that’s disturbing enough. But what was even more troubling for me was the fact that the senior people were putting their thumb on the scale of the news division. Donald Trump getting questions in advance from the 2016 campaign. You look at recent media accounts about Fox News and the aftermath of Sen. Sanders’ appearance. Apparently, Trump tweets and he uses the term ‘we’ referring to him and Fox News. No, they are not supposed to be one and the same, but they are and so many reports that speak to the inappropriate, close relationship between Fox News and the Trump administration.

So I have an obligation as the DNC chair to ensure that at Fox, that every single debate is going to be a debate on the issues where I don’t need to worry about distractions or other things that undermine our North Star principle, which is making sure that all of the candidates have their chance to articulate their vision to the American people. Holding a debate with the stakes as they are, I just don’t have the confidence at the moment they are up to the task.

Ella Nilsen

Is there anything at this point that they can do, like issue an apology or say that what they did was wrong, that would potentially change your mind about debates with them in the future.

Tom Perez

I haven’t seen anything at the moment of that nature. And that’s what makes it very difficult for me in these circumstances. I continue to have an open line of communication with Fox News. I also have a continuing obligation. We’ve got 10 more debates that we haven’t finalized arrangements with media partners. I’m going to make sure that every single one of those debates, I have 100 percent confidence they are going to proceed, and I am not going to have a pit in my stomach about something happening during the debate that I’m either going to learn about afterward or during that undermines my goal, which is to give the candidates the opportunity to put themselves in front of the American people. That’s my job.

Ella Nilsen

There are a historic number of women candidates, and candidates of color in this field. But so far, national polls show white men are dominating the fields with candidates like Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Pete Buttigieg, who comes up as a rising star. I’m curious what you think this says about where the Democratic Party is at right now?

Tom Perez

I think that there’s a host of candidates, including women, who are actually quite competitive. You look in recent polling and you see Elizabeth Warren has been steadily moving up. Kamala Harris throughout has been competitive. This is the third mile of a 26-mile marathon. And I used to be a marathon runner, I can’t remember who was the head in the third mile of the marathon. It’s all about who will win in the end, and I think it’s incumbent moving forward for us to make sure that all of the questions we ask and all of the approaches that folks in the media take reflect an understanding that we are in mile three.

And we want to make sure that we treat all of the candidates with the fairness and inclusion that I believe they have all earned. Today, there are people who may be pulling 2 percent. Sen. Klobuchar, who may be taking off in states that will reap dividends months down the road. I don’t know the answer to that. What I do know is we have a bumper crop of candidates, and we’re certainly working our hardest to make sure that every single one of them has a chance to articulate what they believe in and what they’re going to fight for.

Ella Nilsen

Lastly, with candidates jumping in so early this year and the interest around town halls that we’ve seen so far — even though the debates are being held at the same time they have been in past years, is there a sense that it’s almost too late for the debates? Is there any talk about moving the debates up earlier in the schedule, just because of how early this is all happening this year?

Tom Perez

No, we haven’t had any discussion about that. I think the way we’ve placed these has been actually quite good. I think it’s really helpful before we have everybody on one debate stage or two debate stages for the first two debates, to give people that one-on-one opportunity to introduce themselves to the American people, and that’s exactly what’s happened in recent months.

We’re six weeks or so away from the first debate. And by that first debate, people are going to have had a healthy introduction to the candidates. But I think that introduction is going to whet their appetite, not only to hear more about their views, but then to see them in the interaction stage where they are going back and forth, toe-to-toe. Because one of the questions I’m sure voters are going to ask is, does this candidate or that candidate have the capacity and strength to go toe-to-toe with Donald Trump down the road?

We look forward to not only these first two debates but then a debate a month for the last four months of the year. And then four more in the run-up to Iowa. We look very carefully before we set the debate number and the debate schedule. And I think we have settled on a pretty good timeline.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.