As 2020 Candidates Struggle to Be Heard, Their Grumbling Gets Louder

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — When 19 presidential candidates descended on a hotel ballroom for an Iowa Democratic Party fund-raiser on Sunday, it seemed, at first glance, like a relatively collegial affair.

Former Representative Beto O’Rourke wished Senator Kamala Harris and Marianne Williamson good luck. Ms. Harris shared popcorn with former Gov. John Hickenlooper. And Andrew Yang played “six degrees of Andrew Yang,” eagerly pointing out universities and law firms where his path may have crossed with a rival’s.

But it hasn’t taken much to puncture the veneer of campaign comity.

“It’s a ‘Hunger Games’ situation,” Senator Amy Klobuchar told reporters over the weekend. “I’ll start with that.”

The bloated Democratic primary field is aggrieved, available and aggressively thirsty. Of the 23 candidates running, only eight routinely break 1 percent in national polls. Most have not yet qualified for the fall debates. And cable news channels, which have emerged as an early driving force in the race, have only so many hours of programming each day.

That has moved the campaign into a new, yet familiar, phase: the ritual airing of grievances. Weeks’ worth of pent-up frustration is beginning to trickle into the public arena, as a way for candidates to explain their lowly positions — both to themselves and to the voters.

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The rules around participation in the primary debates are a particular sore spot for second- and third-tier candidates, who fear getting shut out of the biggest stage in the race.

The bellyaching is beginning to frustrate some party leaders, including Tom Perez, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, who said candidates are trying to “work the referees” through their griping.

Though candidates complain that the committee is trying to prematurely winnow the field, Mr. Perez said he expected the number of candidates to remain in the double digits well into the fall.

“Over time, candidates who are not moving up in the polls are going to have to make judgments about when they believe it’s in their best interest to move on, but it’s not my place to tell them when,” he said.

[Who’s in? Who’s out? Keep up with the 2020 field with our candidate tracker.]

The situation bears some similarities to the 2016 Republican primary, when 16 candidates squabbled among themselves about Donald J. Trump’s ascendancy. Their decision to complain to reporters, rather than take aim at Mr. Trump, helped propel the future president to the nomination.

Some of those candidates are still complaining about the mechanics of a presidential campaign — more than three years later.

“I think the debates are the dumbest way to pick a president,” said former Gov. John Kasich, Republican of Ohio, who won only his home state in that primary. “These debates are stupid. They reward somebody who makes a clever comment.”

Ms. Klobuchar, of Minnesota, groused about the Iowa state party’s event on Sunday. To keep the program moving, every candidate was granted five minutes on the stage, at which point increasingly louder music cued them to exit.

“You just make your pitch, and you make a shortened version that’s five minutes,” she said. “I’m not a huge fan of five-minute speeches, just because I don’t think it really gives you a chance to do much.”

Other complaints reflect frustration with the new, celebrity-driven political era that Mr. Trump’s rise helped usher in. Established governors, senators, other elected officials and their staff frequently whine about the media attention being paid to less experienced politicians like Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., whose presence on cable television helped him exponentially expand his list of donors and propelled his rise in the polls.

“I try to call 20 people a day or 30 people a day, and a lot of them just say, ‘I’m going to wait until after this primary season’s over,’” said Mr. Hickenlooper, the Coloradan whose biggest viral moment of the campaign so far came when he discussed attending a pornographic film with his mother. “But at a certain point, you just persist. And you don’t always succeed, but if you don’t persist, if you’re not willing to not quit, to really put yourself — you’ll never know, right?”

News coverage of the race has been an easy target even for leading candidates like Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who has for decades complained about “the corporate media.”

At a town hall-style event on Saturday in Waterloo, Iowa, Mr. Sanders vented about a Wall Street Journal column that greeted his campaign kickoff announcement this year.

“The day after I made it clear I was going to run, there was like this huge editorial in The Wall Street Journal, and not even attacking me. Attacking my wife, for God’s sakes,” he said. “We knew that that was going to happen. We knew — we deal with the corporate media all the time.”

The Democratic National Committee’s management of the party debates has emerged as another central frustration. Aware of criticism leveled during the 2016 campaign by Mr. Sanders and his supporters that the committee organized the debate schedule to favor Hillary Clinton, the eventual nominee, the D.N.C. set the standard deliberately low for the first two debates, scheduled for June and July. Candidates are required to raise money from 65,000 donors in 20 states or reach 1 percent in three approved polls, with the field capped at 20 participants.

But those standards were not quite low enough for some.

“I think that the particular metrics that the D.N.C. has put in place for the debate stage is distorting what people would ordinarily do,” said Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado, whose spot in the debates is not yet assured.

Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana moaned in a fund-raising solicitation Monday that “the D.N.C. changed the debate rules” by excluding a poll in which he performed well. Mr. Perez said he briefed Mr. Bullock’s team on the rules in a discussion in March. “We keep very copious notes of every contact we have with campaigns,” he said.

And then there is Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington, who has mounted a full-throated assault on the party committee and Mr. Perez for rejecting his request for a debate centered solely on the issue animating his campaign — climate change.

“I heard the D.N.C. say, ‘Well, it’s impractical,’” he said. “What’s impractical is having the Midwest underwater for eight or nine feet over your head. That’s what’s impractical.”

Mr. Perez adopted the posture of a teacher unable to give every student a cookie just because they want one.

“Once I accede to the request of one candidate to have a debate focus on the issue he’s running on, then I need to go back to everybody else that has made those requests and reverse course,” he said of Mr. Inslee’s request.

The intensity of complaining is certain to rise in the coming weeks. For the third debate, scheduled for September, the party raised the bar, saying the candidates must reach 2 percent support in four polls and collect donations from 130,000 individuals, a figure Mr. Perez described as a minimum for a serious presidential contender.

“The president of the United States is a very aggressive small-dollar fund-raiser,” Mr. Perez said, referring to Mr. Trump. “Our candidate must have proficiency in raising dollars from the grass-roots or else he or she cannot win.”

That thinking is not sitting well with many of the candidates, who argue that the standard forces them to spend time and money recruiting donors, rather than investing in staff or other online advertising.

Former presidential candidates say that as much as the process may frustrate, their best counsel is to focus on the task at hand — winning the nomination.

“Running for president and running a successful campaign is extremely difficult,” said Mr. Kasich, whose high point came with his second-place finish in the New Hampshire primary. “If all you’re going to do is whine, it’s going to take energy away from what you need to do.”

“Though I have to say,” he added, “that after New Hampshire, I never got the bump I needed.”

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