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DNC announces criteria for fall debates - and ups the ante

Democratic presidential candidates hoping to appear in the party's official third and fourth round of debates in September and October will need to meet higher polling and fundraising thresholds, party leaders announced Wednesday.

The new criteria is likely to significantly winnow the record-size field of contenders by Thanksgiving by forcing out of the race the lesser-known contenders unable to reach the debate and its national television audience. But the Democratic National Committee is exercising strict oversight of the debate process in order to keep the presidential nominating contest as equitable as possible and to avoid another round of accusations of favoritism that roiled the 2016 presidential cycle.

The DNC announced earlier this year plans for two rounds of two 10-candidate debates on consecutive nights in June and July — a first for either major political party.

On Wednesday, the DNC announced that the third round will be held on Sept. 12 in a yet-to-be announced city. ABC and Univision will co-host and simulcast the debate in English and Spanish, keeping with the party's strategy of awarding networks capable of airing the debates in both languages to reach a larger audience of potential Democratic voters.

Notably, while the DNC is scheduling two nights of debates in June and July to accommodate the large field, a press release explaining the September criteria mentions a "potential" second night of debating on ABC and Univision on Sept. 13 — signaling that party leaders expect that the field could shrink to 10 or fewer candidates by then. 

In order to qualify for the September debates, candidates will need to meet new polling and fundraising thresholds that significantly up the ante. 

Candidates will need to score at least 2 percent in at least four national or statewide polls in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. The polls must be sponsored by a DNC-approved news organization: The Associated Press, ABC News, CBS News, CNN, Des Moines Register, Fox News, Monmouth University, NBC News, New York Times, NPR, Quinnipiac University, University of New Hampshire, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Washington Post, or Winthrop University. A candidate's four polls must be conducted by different organizations or if by the same organization, they have to be conducted in different geographic areas.

Candidates must also receive donations from at least 130,000 unique donors in at least 20 states. In each of the states, a candidate will need to find at least 400 unique donors, the party said. 

In order to appear at debates being held in June and July, candidates must have received donations from at least 65,000 unique donors in at least 20 states. In each state, candidates must find at least 200 donors. Or, a candidate must earn at least a 1 percent polling average in three separate surveys. 

So far, at least 18 Democratic candidates have qualified for the June and July debates, according to a CBS News tally. 

With a record number of two dozen presidential contenders so far, Democrats widely agree that appearances at nationally televised debates are key to breaking out of the pack and into the top tier of the field currently dominated by former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who enjoy a wide polling lead. 

The first debates are being held June 26 and 27 in Miami and airing on NBC, MSNBC and Spanish-language sister network Telemundo. The second round is scheduled for July 30 and 31 in Detroit and airing on CNN and CNN en Español.

The time, location and television partner of the October debates will be announced at a later date, the DNC said.

CBS News and CBSN remain in discussions with the DNC about televising future debates.

At a campaign stop in New Hampshire on Wednesday, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet criticized the DNC for "winnowing the field" of 2020 democratic contenders. 

"I certainly don't think the DNC should be prioritizing national fundraising and cable television over the early states like New Hampshire," the struggling Democratic hopeful told CBS News' Nicole Sganga. 

Asked what it means that candidates like businessman Andrew Yang and author Marianne Williamson have qualified for the stage while sitting senators have not, Bennet said, "There's something wrong with the process." 

He added to a gaggle of reporters, "When you've got people competing with these donations...I think that's a challenge for democracy." 

Here are more details of the polling and fundraising thresholds, as released Wednesday morning by the DNC:

  • For the September debate, each poll must be publicly released between June 28, 2019, and August 28, 2019.  Deadlines for qualifying polls ahead of the October debate will be released in the future.
  • Each poll's candidate support question must have been conducted by reading or presenting a list of Democratic presidential primary candidates to respondents. (Poll questions using an open-ended or un-aided question to gauge presidential primary support will not count).
  • Each polling result must be the top-line number listed in the original public release from the approved sponsoring organization/institution, whether or not it is a rounded or weighted number.

Grassroots Fundraising Threshold:

Candidates must submit a certification, executed by the Presidential candidate's campaign Treasurer, demonstrating that the campaign has received donations from a minimum of (1) 130,000 unique donors; and (2) 400 unique donors per state in at least 20 U.S. states. For the September debate, qualifying donations must be received by 11:59 P.M. on August 28, 2019.  Deadlines for qualifying donations ahead of the October debate will be released in the future. An acceptable certification must provide or attach adequate verifiable evidence to show that the fundraising threshold has been reached and may include verification from ActBlue or NGP VAN -- groups that are providing Democratic candidates with fundraising software and other campaign support.

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