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Liberal activists drive Democratic Party

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

In the run-up to 2020, power over debates, nominating contests and the national convention is moving from the Democratic National Committee to grassroots activists.

The big picture: The rules to qualify for next month's debates include an emphasis on grassroots donors, who helped Democrats take back the House in 2018.

  • That has allowed a virtual unknown like Andrew Yang to be propelled by a small but loud group of 65,000 donors to make sure he qualified for the debate — before someone like former HUD Secretary Julián Castro met the donations threshold.
  • It has also helped someone like Mayor Pete get a spot on the debate stage after a viral town hall moment led to a surge in donations. 

As one sign of shifting leverage, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee plans to pressure the DNC to change the debate format to include a bottom-up open question format.

  • According to a first look at the plans that were provided to Axios, audience members would be allowed to submit questions to the moderators, "so that regular people have more of a say in the questions asked."

Party rules changes (including a move to exclude superdelegates on the first ballot at the convention) are designed to reduce the sway of establishment insiders.

  • Raw vote totals — not just percentages — will be released during 2020 nominating contests for the first time.
  • That could change voter perceptions: In the old world, Democratic voters just fell in line with the "winner." Raw votes may cause some to think: "My vote actually matters, and these super-progressive candidates can actually win."

Between the lines: Pressure from the party's activist base increased after the 2016 election. So the nominating process was altered "to enhance the role of the grassroots" and to avoid anything happening "in the opposite direction," said Jeff Berman, Barack Obama's delegate director in 2008 and a member of the Unity Reform Commission which helped with these rules changes.

  • "The huge result is that basically anti-establishment candidates will not be at a perception disadvantage" and therefore have a better shot in the race, said Adam Green, founder of the PCCC.

The backstory: Changing the rules is one way to address the Hillary Clinton/Bernie Sanders feud that fractured the party and really solidified at the 2016 DNC convention.

  • DNC officials started this debate process over a year ago, holding informational meetings with staffers from the Clinton and Sanders 2016 campaigns and those active with Obama in 2008.
  • That 2016 tension came through in the meetings to discuss debate rules changes. "The DNC heard complaints about fairness and transparency from various cycles," said a Democratic operative familiar with those meetings.
  • DNC chairman Tom Perez "wants to make sure that all voters have a voice in our party, and that is exactly why he has empowered the grassroots — because it makes our party stronger," said Adrienne Watson, national press secretary for the DNC.

That's also one of the reasons the debate stages will be overflowing with candidates.

  • "They came up with what seems to be reasonable thresholds to reach [for the debates], but it turns out it's too easy to reach them," said Matt Bennett, executive vice president of public affairs for the centrist think tank Third Way.

The bottom line: Democrats won't face the problem of too few presidential candidates again, but they could face the problem of too many — all while the power is shifting away from the national party.