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As Bernie Sanders Surges Ahead of Iowa Caucus, DNC Under Fire for Changing Rules to Help Bloomberg

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The Iowa caucuses take place today, kicking off the official start of the 2020 presidential election season. Democratic presidential candidates spent the weekend making last-minute pitches to voters at rallies across Iowa. Meanwhile, the Democratic National Committee is facing criticism for overhauling its rules, opening the door for billionaire former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who is running a self-funded campaign, to take part in the next debate. This comes as fear is growing among some Democrats that Bernie Sanders might win the nomination. Politico reports a small group of DNC members have begun discussing a proposal to increase the role of superdelegates to give the party establishment more say in who becomes the nominee. From Des Moines, Iowa, we’re joined by John Nichols, The Nation’s national affairs correspondent and host of the podcast “Next Left.” He’s covering the Iowa caucuses on the ground and recently wrote the piece “The DNC’s Move to Accommodate Bloomberg Stirs Outrage in Iowa.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin with the Iowa caucuses, the official start of the 2020 presidential election season. Candidates spent the weekend making last-minute pitches to voters. On Saturday, Senator Bernie Sanders addressed 3,000 people at a rally in Cedar Rapids, in one of the largest rallies of the election season in Iowa.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: We are taking on the entire political establishment, both the Republican establishment and the Democratic establishment. We are taking on Wall Street and the insurance companies and the drug companies and the fossil fuel industry and the military-industrial complex and the prison-industrial complex and the whole damn 1%.

AMY GOODMAN: On Saturday, former Vice President Joe Biden campaigned in North Liberty, Iowa.

JOE BIDEN: Several of my colleagues in this race think it’s naive of me to think we can bring the country together. I refuse to accept the notion that it’s a forever war between Democrats and Republicans. It’s not impossible. I’ve done it my whole career. They say I don’t understand the new Republican Party. Well, you just got a glimpse of it. I understand the new Republican Party. I’ve been the object of their affection for a long while now. I wonder why. I wonder why. Oh god love them, as my mother would say. … Folks, I think it’s pretty simple. They don’t want me to be the nominee because they know I’ll beat him like a drum. We will beat him.

AMY GOODMAN: On Sunday, Senator Elizabeth Warren campaigned in Indianola, Iowa.

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: Look, I get it in America. There are rich people. There are people who aren’t rich. And rich people, they may own more shoes, they may own more cars, they may own more houses. But they’re not supposed to own a bigger piece of our democracy. If we want to change that, we’re not going to be able to do it with just a little nibble around the edge, one little statute over here, a couple of regulations over there. No, we want to beat back the influence of money. We want to save our democracy. We want to save our country. It’s going to take big structural change. And I got a plan for that.

AMY GOODMAN: In more news about the 2020 elections, the Democratic National Committee is coming under fire after overhauling debate requirements to eliminate the need for candidates to obtain a significant number of small donations, allowing billionaire Mike Bloomberg to take part in upcoming debates. Bernie Sanders’ senior adviser Jeff Weaver, on DNC debate rules, said, “To now change the rules in the middle of the game to accommodate Mike Bloomberg, who is trying to buy his way into the Democratic nomination, is wrong. That’s the definition of a rigged system,” Weaver said.

This comes as fear is growing among some Democrats that Bernie Sanders might win the nomination. Politico reports a small group of DNC members have begun discussing a proposal to increase the role of superdelegates to give the party establishment more say in who becomes the nominee.

We go now to Des Moines, Iowa, where we’re joined by John Nichols, The Nation's national affairs correspondent, host of the podcast Next Left. He's on the ground covering the Iowa caucus, just wrote the piece, “The DNC’s Move to Accommodate Bloomberg Stirs Outrage in Iowa.” His forthcoming book, The Fight for the Soul of the Democratic Party: The Enduring Legacy of Henry Wallace’s Antifascist, Antiracist Politics.

John, it’s great to have you on the ground in Iowa. So, talk about this latest move of the DNC, the changing of the rules for who can participate in the debate.

JOHN NICHOLS: Yes. The DNC set up some pretty strict rules last year. And there was a structure to it, but essentially you had to have a little bit of poll position, and then you had to raise a substantial number of small contributions, in order to get on the debate stage. And with each step of the process, they raised the number of contributions you needed, and also raised the threshold for polls. That was what all the candidates who got in last year or earlier last year accepted. It’s what they dealt with. Sometimes they complained about it, but those were the rules.

Now, suddenly, on Friday, the DNC signaled that they want to get rid of the small donor rules and set a couple of poll thresholds, around 10%, or to say if you got delegates in Iowa or New Hampshire, that you have to meet one of those standards to get into the Nevada debate and the debates going forward.

Well, what’s interesting about that is that in the past, when climate activists asked for a climate debate, they were told, “Well, you can’t. That’s not within the rules.” When folks who wanted a poverty debate asked for a poverty debate, they said, “No, you can’t. That’s not in the rules.” When Cory Booker really challenged this process and said, “Look, you’re going to end up with the potential of all-white debates, in a party that has relied very heavily on African-American and Latino support,” again, he was told, “You can’t change the rules.”

But now, suddenly, they have changed the rules in a way that a lot of activists and, frankly, other candidates believe benefits Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York, who got in the race late and who skipped — who is skipping Iowa and New Hampshire in the early contests. And there’s a tremendous amount of frustration with this, because to an awful lot of folks it looks like the rules are being changed to accommodate a billionaire, especially at a point when one candidate, Bernie Sanders, who’s been campaigning against the billionaire class, seems to be rising.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Oscar-winning filmmaker, activist Michael Moore, speaking at a Bernie Sanders rally Friday night.

MICHAEL MOORE: The fact that I have to wake up this morning and realize that we have to fight the corporate Democrats, the 1% of the Democratic Party, who are thoroughly [bleep] that Bernie Sanders is now number one, that Bernie Sanders might win this primary season, that Bernie Sanders might be the next president of the United States! Oh, they’re so upset! They’re like asking each other, “How the hell did this happen? Bernie wasn’t supposed to win!”

And so, today they announced, in this “Hail Mary” pass of theirs, to try to undo the people’s movement, they are removing the rule to be on the debate stage where it says you have to have so many people donating to you. You know, otherwise, instead of 27 people on the stage, there’d be 227 people on the stage. So you had to show — you had to have a certain number of Americans that would give you a buck. That’s all the rule said. But it would — to show that there’s support. And that’s how they determine who would be on that debate stage. Today they removed that rule, because Mike Bloomberg, the billionaire, the Republican mayor of New York City —

CROWD: [boos]

MICHAEL MOORE: They’re backstage, going, “Oh god, what’s he going to say?” They removed it so that he could be in the next debate. He doesn’t have to show he has any support amongst the American people. He can just buy his way onto the debate stage. And I’ve got to tell you what’s so disgusting about this! I watched the debate in Iowa here two weeks ago — the all-white debate — and the fact that the Democratic — the DNC will not allow Cory Booker on that stage, will not allow Julián Castro on that stage, but they’re going to allow Mike Bloomberg on the stage, because he’s got a billion [beep] dollars!

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Michael Moore speaking on Friday night in Clive, Iowa. The next night was the massive rally in Cedar Rapids of thousands. John, you were at both. Talk about his point and these rallies, the significance of what’s happening with — and we don’t usually cite polls, but right now it does look like Bernie Sanders is at the top.

JOHN NICHOLS: Yeah. I mean, there’s an incredible enthusiasm in Iowa, and also there’s an incredible depth of awareness of the race. And so, you saw at that rally, the mention of the DNC rule change, which maybe be a lot of folks around America aren’t following all that closely, in Iowa, it was not just a line that drew passionate responses, I mean, literally sustained booing and angry responses, is indicative of how seriously the people are taking this race and how seriously the Sanders people are.

Sanders is running very well. I would always caution, and I know you sort of referenced it a moment ago, that polling of the Iowa caucuses is really hard, because of the dynamics of the caucuses. So, be very cautious about saying who’s up or who’s in front. But it’s clear that Bernie Sanders is going to do very, very well here. And he could win.

And the enthusiasm that’s built up, you see it at those rallies, of course. And the rally in Cedar Rapids, with the band Vampire Weekend, just drew a massive crowd. And there were a lot of other speakers. Sanders spoke, but also Cornel West and others. The rally in Clive that you saw, with Bon Iver, a very popular singer, very popular band, also had a lot of speakers. It was full of energy. It really was a mix of politics and culture. And these are big-deal events getting coverage. But, Amy, I’ve been around the state the last week a lot, and I’ve gone to small — what should be small events at Sanders’ field office, you know, in some small town in the basement of a building or something like that, and there will be 100-150 people at those events. And so, there’s clearly incredible grassroots energy here.

And to tie it back to the debate rule change, I think an awful lot of those grassroots activists get very, very frustrated by the notion that the rules might be changed in the midst of the game. And they don’t just talk about Bernie Sanders. I’ve been struck. I was at an event in Grinnell, Iowa, the other day and talking to a whole bunch of people and brought up the rule change. They were aware of it, and they all brought up Cory Booker. There was a real sense that while Cory Booker never led the polls in Iowa, he really worked hard in the state. And he won a lot of interest, sympathy and support. And he did drop out at a point where it was clear he wasn’t going to get on those debate stages anymore. And there’s a real consciousness that an African-American candidate, who worked hard in Iowa, wanted to keep going, wanted to be in the debates, couldn’t get an accommodation, but Mike Bloomberg, who has not campaigned in Iowa, appears to be getting an accommodation.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, even Democrats who raise the issue of Bernie Sanders being a Democratic Socialist, who is raising the issue of Bloomberg switching from being a Republican to a Democrat?

JOHN NICHOLS: A Republican mayor, yeah, yeah, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: But let me ask you about what actually is happening tonight, for people to understand what caucuses are, why people might go in and caucus with someone they might not necessarily support, someone who is not going to win, to then be freed up to go to see who’s going to be the top candidate, to go over to that person’s caucus.

JOHN NICHOLS: Yeah, caucuses are complicated for people who don’t live in Iowa and a couple other states that use them. Iowans really understand them quite well, so it’s a kind of fascinating thing. And there’s a lot of reasons to criticize caucuses; we may talk about that in a little bit.

But the way a caucus works is this. At 7:00 tonight — actually, people line up around 6:30 — you go to a library or a school or a community hall in towns across Iowa, you know, every little, tiny town, the smallest place, and in precincts throughout cities. And you go with the people who live in your area, in your voting district. Some of these caucuses are huge. They will get hundreds of people in a college town, a place like that. Some of them are rather small. They’re almost like in a living room or something.

But at 7:00, they open the caucus. A caucus chair calls it into session, if you will. They close the door, so more people can’t come in. And they ask people to kind of go to a corner in the room with the other folks that you — that are for your candidate. So, if you’re for Sanders, you go to your corner. If you’re for Warren, you go to your corner. If Biden, Buttigieg, etc. And then you count who is in each corner or who’s in each place. You have to have 15% of the people in the room to meet the so-called threshold for, you know, kind of getting delegate — ultimately, getting the delegate equivalents at this level. And if you don’t have 15%, then you’ve fallen below what’s referred to as viability.

Now, the people who are with a viable candidate — say, you’re in a room where there’s a lot of Bernie Sanders backers, and you’re in your Bernie Sanders corner — you’re locked in there. You can’t move around to other candidates. But if you’re with a nonviable candidate, somebody who didn’t get to that threshold, then you become the most popular person in the room, because the other campaigns all want you to come over. They get a higher level of delegate strength, ultimately, if you come to them. Or you can coalesce with other nonviables to form your own group. But the bottom line in the room is that everybody wants to come out with the most support. And frankly, nobody wants to leave without supporting somebody. So there’s a lot of interest in, or at least a lot of attraction to, joining a campaign that you might not have backed.

And, Amy, the best way to understand this is, let’s say you show up, and you’re really excited about Andrew Yang, and you’re excited that he’s brought up a universal basic income. You’re excited that he’s talking about automation in ways that the other candidates aren’t. But he doesn’t get to the threshold in your room. So then you look around, and maybe candidate — people from the other campaigns come up to you and say, “Hey, you know that Andrew Yang said something nice about Bernie Sanders,” or “You know that Elizabeth Warren is talking about big structural change, and that might fit with some of what you’re discussing,” etc. And so you go with one of the others. Let’s say you go with Sanders. You and other people from that Yang group going with Sanders could really boost Sanders to an even stronger position coming out of your caucus and ultimately statewide.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, didn’t Yang say that supporters can — didn’t Yang say supporters can move to Bernie Sanders if their caucus sites don’t meet the threshold for Yang?

JOHN NICHOLS: Yeah, he has, although he’s sort of, you know, pulled back and forth on that, because one of the challenges on this thing is you don’t want — you do want your backers to get there, and you do want them to be as strong for you as possible. But yeah, Yang has said some nice things. And frankly, there has been speculation that Amy Klobuchar, who has a substantial amount of support but might not meet thresholds, that her people might go with another so-called moderate candidate, like a Biden or a Buttigieg.

And so, all of the campaigns have trained their caucus leaders to work that angle, to work really, really hard. And to give you a sense of how much this has moved up the political ladder, yesterday I was with Elizabeth Warren at an event in Ames, and she opened up with a very long soliloquy about how much she liked the other candidates and how much she had learned from them and how much they had contributed. And the telegraphing there was, if you show up at a caucus and maybe your candidate’s not doing very well, Elizabeth Warren really likes your candidate or really is sympathetic and will listen. That was a very smart thing for Elizabeth Warren to do. And you’re hearing it from other candidates, as well. They really do want to kind of pull these folks together, at least in the caucus.

AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly, John, could there be multiple winners tonight?

JOHN NICHOLS: Absolutely. The rules are complex. And so, when they do that initial count in the room — right? — that will — you’ll get a report on that. And so, somebody might do pretty well in the initial counts but not meet the threshold, so they will point to that. But ultimately, the big thing people will look at is the delegate equivalents, what it comes out at the end, who’s kind of moving up that ladder. And so, that will probably be the main winner.

But remember something else, Amy, that in Iowa, coming in second can mean a lot. If Bernie Sanders comes in first and Elizabeth Warren comes in second, that’s going to be very powerful for Elizabeth Warren, because she drifted down a little in the polls. If somebody unexpected — let’s say Buttigieg, who has had big rallies and big events — let’s say he comes in first. That’s huge for him, and then it might be rough for Sanders, because many people expected him to come in first. So, there’s a lot of tea leaf reading as you get late into tonight and early tomorrow morning.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, of course, we’re going to be bringing people results tomorrow on Democracy Now! John Nichols, please stay with us, because we want to ask you about impeachment. You wrote a book about it. What’s next? John Nichols is The Nation's national affairs correspondent. Then we'll talk about the expanding Muslim ban, and what is Trump’s approach to the coronavirus? Stay with us.

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