Were #DemDebate Tickets Sold for $1,750 to $3,200?

On the night of the February 25 2020 Democratic debate, Twitter rumors appeared containing claims that tickets to the event in South Carolina were sold for amounts ranging between $1,750 and $3,200:

What we initially thought was an iteration of the claim appeared on Reddit’s r/SandersForPresident; in actuality, that same figure of $1,750 (to $4,500) had appeared nearly a year before, for the June 2019 Democratic debates in Miami:

In that June 2019 discussion, a commenter asserted that the post was misleading, and that most tickets to those two early debates were free:

Here is the whole article. It is literally only 30 tickets out of HUNDREDS that were sold at these prices and it included a pre reception party. A majority of the tickets were given out for free. https://www.miamiherald.com/news/politics-government/national-politics/article231676383.html

A linked June 18 2019 Miami Herald article reported:

For $4,500, a sponsor gets two tickets to a pre-debate reception on June 26 and two tickets to both debate nights. For $3,000, a sponsor will get the two tickets to the reception and two tickets for one of the debate nights, though it is unclear if the person gets to pick which night. A $1,750 donation to the party covers one ticket to the reception and one ticket for a single debate night.

Only have $250 to spare? That will buy your way into the private reception, the location of which is not disclosed on the invite.

Florida Democratic Party is offering exclusive access to the highly sought-after event in the form of sponsorship packages.

The FDP did not immediately respond to requests for comment on how many tickets are being set aside for the sponsorship packages, but said it has set aside 270 of its 300 allotted complimentary tickets for grassroots supporters, elected officials and community leaders.

By virtue of subtraction, that would leave just 30 tickets for sale to the lucky sponsors.

However, the reporting also indicated that of 300 total available tickets, 270 were distributed to “grassroots supporters,” and 30 were up for sale at various prices. In other words, 90 percent of tickets were free (if not freely available to all), and others could vie for the $1,750 to $4,500 “sponsor” tickets.

Also noted in that same article was that the venue allowed for 2,200 guests, seats for 300 of which were distributed or sold by the Florida Democratic Party. It was unclear how the remainder of 1,900 seats were filled:

The Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, where the debates [in Miami in 2019 were] held, holds 2,200 and the seats have been going fast. Interested folks from California to Cutler Bay have been inundating the Democratic National Committee and host network NBC with requests for tickets, but the access has been scarce.

A paywalled New York Times article about the February 25 2020 debate noted that the rumors about $1,750-and-up tickets to the event fueled additional claims, such as that the crowd skewed wealthy — resulting in purported outsized booing of comments about wealth and taxation. That reporting was sourced from South Carolina’s WCSC, and a headline quite similar to the Miami Herald‘s June 2019 piece — “Want a guaranteed seat at the Democratic debate in Charleston? It’ll cost a lot of cash.”

Unlike the Herald, WCSC did not provide solid figures regarding the number of distributed and free tickets versus the number that were up for grabs at a cost of $1,750 to $3,200. After quoting a Bernie Sanders supporter priced out of the debate, WCSC reported:

[Inability to source debate tickets occurred] because tickets aren’t readily available. The Charleston County Democratic Party website says “The only guaranteed way to get a ticket is to become a sponsor of the debate.”

Sponsorship ranges from $1,750 to $3,200 each for attendance to multiple “First in the South” events.

Charleston County Democratic Party Chair Colleen Condon said neither the state nor local party knows how many tickets will be available to the general public. She said tickets are first handed out to organizers. Then, campaigns may get some tickets to disperse among supporters.

“This is something that the average person doesn’t usually get to go to,” Condon said. “The Gaillard is only so big and this is something that is just a hot ticket from across the country. These kind of events really are set up for sponsors and things like that.”

Condon also added that the ticket system is not unique to the Charleston debate.

“It’s completely usual,” Condon said. “This is exactly what’s happening in New Hampshire for their debate, Nevada’s debate and Iowa’s debate and so on.

Charleston’s Democratic Party chair Colleen Condon stated that the local chapter’s sale of tickets and their pricing was not unique, a claim supported by the Herald‘s reporting in June 2019. WCSC quoted the group’s website as saying the “only guaranteed way to get a ticket is to become a sponsor of the debate” at the listed prices.

At CharlestonDemocrats.com/debate (archived here), volunteers wishing to attend the debate were “strongly” advised to “purchase tickets in addition to volunteering.” The site also said that refunds could be given to “those who are scheduled to volunteer at the same time as their ticketed event”:

IMPORTANT: If you wish to attend any of these events and also want to volunteer, we STRONGLY suggest that you purchase tickets in addition to volunteering. We have several hundred volunteers signed up and we are doing our best to involve everyone, but a ticket is the only way to ensure that you can participate. The good news is that if you are scheduled to volunteer, you will have the option of passing on that slot to another volunteer or getting a full refund for your ticket. Note that refunds are ONLY available to those who are scheduled to volunteer at the same time as their ticketed event. Thank you!

The four events listed underneath that text no longer had working links to their “purchase tickets” pages. The four events for which tickets were sold included the February 25 2020 debate, and were listed as follows:

  • First in the South Dinner
  • Spouse’s Luncheon
  • 10th Democratic Debate
  • Official Watch Party & After Party

In the third category, the “10th Democratic Debate,” a description stated that campaigns would be allocated “a set number of free tickets” for supporters:

The South Carolina Debate will be hosted in partnership with the Democratic National Committee, the Black Caucus Institute, CBS and Twitter. Tickets are extremely limited. The campaigns of participating candidates will have a set number of free tickets to distribute to their supporters. Unfortunately, CCDP will not have any tickets to distribute.

From the available information, it appeared that campaign supporters had a shot at receiving an unknown number of tickets allocated to each individual candidate, and any other interested attendees had only the option of purchasing tickets — presumably (but not necessarily) those starting at $1,750 and going up to $3,200. But neither source indicated how many free tickets were distributed, and how many were sold.

Over on Twitter, Democratic National Committee spokesperson Xochitl Hinojosa addressed Twitter debate over the ticket costs. Hinojosa appeared to be commenting while retweeting a deleted tweet from MSNBC correspondent Steve Kornacki:

Kornacki’s tweet did not appear to have been archived or cached, but it survived in the form of embeds on other sites. Kornacki did not accuse anyone of selling tickets:

@SteveKornacki How were tickets distributed for this debate?

Hinojosa also commented on a tweet by CNN’s Chris Cillizza; Cillizza’s tweet also did not accuse anyone of selling debate tickets. Hinojosa also retweeted other tweets about the ticket distribution protocol, tweets which addressed the free tickets available to specific groups of people:

The South Carolina Democratic Party said that their group had 400 tickets to distribute, and that they had sold no individual tickets:

In the comments of those tweets, Twitter users described the claims as “a technicality,” a dispute appearing to stem from confusion over who sold tickets:

Hinojosa said tickets were distributed “between event sponsors, [the South Carolina Democratic Party or SCDP], [the Democratic National Committee or DNC], [the Congressional Black Caucus Institute, or CBCI,] and [individual] campaigns”; she retweeted Karen Finney’s assertion “tickets [were] distributed between event sponsors, SCDP, DNC, CBCI and campaigns, it’s how we did in when I was at DNC in 2008 and remains the same today.”

Charleston Democrats clearly did receive and sell tickets, but it was unclear if those tickets were sub-distributed from one of the groups identified by Hinojosa; it was also unclear if any of the beneficiaries listed sold tickets.

On their own Twitter page, CCDP retweeted the SCDP tweet that said, “of the nearly 400 tickets that we were able to allocate for [the] evenings debate, we welcomed hundreds of activists, county party leaders, community leaders, State Representatives, State Senators, candidates, & elected officials from every level of government in SC at no cost.” That might further confuse the issue, if CCDP sold tickets and SCDP did not.

Vox’s reporting on the controversy appeared to interpret WCSC’s “viral” debate ticket article as relevant to a “past debate.” However, WCSC’s article was published in early February 2020 and clearly referenced the Charleston debate later in the month:

In the case of at least one past debate, attendees have been able to pay thousands of dollars to sponsor the debate and obtain tickets. As indicated by a story from WCSC, a CBS affiliate based in Charleston, such options were once listed on the Charleston County Democratic Party website, though they’ve since been taken down. “The Gaillard is only so big and this is something that is just a hot ticket from across the country. These kind of events really are set up for sponsors and things like that,” Charleston County Democratic Party Chair Colleen Condon previously told the network.

By CCDP’s own initial statement, anyone wishing to attend the debate was urged to purchase a ticket:

IMPORTANT: If you wish to attend any of these events and also want to volunteer, we STRONGLY suggest that you purchase tickets in addition to volunteering … [purchasing] a ticket is the only way to ensure that you can participate.

That language remained live on CCDP’s website as of February 26 2020, one day after the debate. But a February 7 2020 article reported that an option to purchase tickets to the debate had mysteriously vanished from the Charleston Democrats’ website:

Less than 24 hours after a Live 5 News report on the high cost of a guaranteed seat at the Democratic Presidential Debate, the Charleston County Democratic Party no longer shows the option on their website.

A report [February 6 2020] stated people looking to watch the debate in person would have to pay for a minimum sponsorship package of more than $1,700 for a package that also includes multiple First-in-the-South events … But [the following day], the Charleston County Democratic Party chapter removed the sponsorship link and changed its wording to: “Unfortunately, CCDP will not have any tickets to distribute.”

That still allowed for the possibility that CCDP meant it had none to give away and that some tickets were possibly still for sale. WCSC concluded, reporting that both SCDP and CCDP declined comment on whether the $1,750 and up tickets were still available:

Neither the South Carolina Democratic Party nor the Charleston County Democratic Party has released a statement regarding the ​website changes, or if they are still offering the sponsorship packages.

Going back to the first article — prior to the above-quoted excerpt — Charleston County Democratic Party Chair Colleen Condon did not dispute the sale of the tickets when speaking to WCSC. She instead responded to questions about the price tag, saying:

[$1,750 and up debate tickets are] completely usual … This is exactly what’s happening in New Hampshire for their debate, Nevada’s debate and Iowa’s debate and so on.

In short, a number of two-layer rumors on social media maintained that the mood of the crowd at the February 25 2020 Charleston, South Carolina Democratic debate was thanks to the fact that some tickets were available to purchase for the high prices of $1,750 to $3,200. Subsequent reporting on that claim was a mess — statements were made via tweets that were later deleted, while involved parties made misleading statements (or retweets.) What we do know is that tickets starting at $1,750 for both the February 25 and prior debates were offered for sale, in this case by Charleston’s Democratic Party. A localized, pre-debate controversy led to CCDP’s statement revision about tickets for distribution, not sale explicitly. It was clear from ongoing reporting at least some tickets were offered at those prices, but it remained unclear how many. It also seemed that involved parties attempted to downplay the availability of S1,750 to $3,200 debate tickets, emphasizing instead that free passes were available to select groups and to all campaigns.

Based on Condon’s affirmations to WCSC on February 6 2020, the claim tickets were offered for sale starting at $1,750 was true. After initial backlash in early February 2020, SCDP and CCDP appeared to either discontinue the ticket sales or move them offline.