On June 26 and 27 in Miami (on NBC, MSNBC, and Telemundo) and on July 30 and 31 in Detroit (on CNN), the 2020 Democratic presidential contest will quickly get real with the first sanctioned candidate debates of the cycle. In February, the Democratic National Committee published reasonably clear rules and guidelines for these events, making it possible to figure out with some specificity which candidates have qualified for the big stage — or rather, stages, since the DNC anticipates events that span two consecutive evenings to accommodate the large field, with placement in one night or the other being determined randomly (so no “kiddie table” debates like Republicans held in 2016 for less-esteemed candidates).
The DNC offered two ways to qualify:
Polling Method: Register 1% or more support in three polls (which may be national polls, or polls in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and/or Nevada) publicly released between January 1, 2019, and 14 days prior to the date of the Organization Debate. Qualifying polls will be limited to those sponsored by one or more of the following organizations/institutions: Associated Press, ABC News, CBS News, CNN, Des Moines Register, Fox News, Las Vegas Review Journal, Monmouth University, NBC News, New York Times, National Public Radio (NPR), Quinnipiac University, Reuters, University of New Hampshire, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Washington Post, Winthrop University. Any candidate’s three qualifying polls must be conducted by different organizations, or if by the same organization, must be in different geographical areas.
Grassroots Fundraising Method. Candidates may qualify for the debate by demonstrating that the campaign has received donations from at least (1) 65,000 unique donors; and (2) a minimum of 200 unique donors per state in at least 20 U.S. states. To demonstrate that the fundraising threshold has been reached, candidates must provide verifiable evidence, which they may do by authorizing ActBlue and/or NGP VAN to provide that evidence.
So who’s already qualified? According to an analysis from FiveThirtyEight, 14 announced candidates, and one very prominent unannounced candidate, have made the cut, all but one via the polling method. We’ll continue updating this post as more candidates make the cut.
Though he’s yet to actually announce, Biden has ranked at or very near the top in every national and early-state poll taken this year. The explosion of the Biden–Abrams Dream Ticket idea being circulated by Biden boosters has been one piece of bad news recently for the former Veep, and fresh allegations of inappropriate touching of women has been another. But he hasn’t lost much if anything in the polls, and his entry very soon seems very likely if not absolutely certain.
Sanders has ranked second in the bulk of national and early-state surveys, and is running first in some New Hampshire polls. Given his large and active small-donor fundraising base, Sanders would certainly qualify by the grassroots fundraising method if he needed it. He is in some respects the most predictable quantity in the 2020 contest, given his high name ID and broad national base of support. That base, however, continues to skew youngish and whitish.
Harris is one of a group of candidates who are trailing Biden and Sanders by a significant margin in most polls, but who rank consistently well above the DNC’s one percent threshold for inclusion in the debates. Her main asset is strategic: If she can outflank Cory Booker among African-American voters and do very well in South Carolina, then she could clean up in the newly early (March 3) primary in her home state of California. Good debate performances could help her stay near the top.
Like Sanders, O’Rourke had boffo initial fundraising with a diverse (though not as diverse as Bernie’s) small donor base, but has waxed and waned and waxed again in the polls. He’s running roughly even with Harris nationally, though a bit further back in the early states, where he will need to make up ground through personal appearances.
Given her political stature, the Massachusetts senator has not impressed most observers with either her fundraising or her poll numbers, though in the latter respect, she’s comfortably above the debate threshold. Debates could help her showcase her universally acknowledged policy chops, but will also test concerns about her “likability.” Like Harris, she remains well-positioned ideologically in a diverse but left-leaning field.
If O’Rourke looks better in national than in early-state polls, Booker is the reverse. But he trails Kamala Harris almost everywhere, which is a big problem for a candidate who needs to show strength among African-Americans from the get-go. His Wall Street and Silicon Valley connections should keep him funded well for at least a good while.
The Minnesota senator is part of another group of candidates who have qualified for the debates by meeting the polling threshold, but otherwise trail the pack by significant margins. She is doing relatively well in next-door Iowa, and perhaps more than anyone else, would benefit from a decision by Joe Biden to give 2020 a pass.
If there’s someone in the group of candidates far behind the pace who seems to have a bullet next to his name at present, it’s South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg. He met the minimal polling threshold some time ago, and has recently made impressive gains, including a Quinnipiac showing in which he rocketed past Booker and Klobuchar into a tie for fifth place with Warren. The debates will test whether he can convert the good personal impression he’s been making with selected audiences into a viable candidacy, despite his youth (he’s 37) and the limitations of his résumé in public office.
The former San Antonio mayor and HUD secretary hasn’t made much of a national impression (he’s at the debate minimum of one percent in national and Iowa polls) so far. But he has potential as the only Latino in the field, and could make a splash in Nevada, and an even bigger splash in the March 3 megastates of California and Texas. He mostly needs to survive in the early going. It might help him, too, if he obtained greater proficiency in speaking Spanish.
It’s very good for the Democratic Party and for the country that four women serving in the U.S. Senate are running for president. It’s not very good for New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand, who’s struggled to distinguish herself from the other, more easily identified women, and from the rest of the field generally. She’s a candidate who could really benefit from a strong debate performance.
The Washington governor does not have Gillibrand’s problem at all; he’s identified himself clearly as the candidate who is making climate change his sole priority. The furor over the Green New Deal helped make “his” issue even more paramount in the national debate, but also gave other candidates a way to show themselves as credibly urgent about climate change. If voters or the media get notably tired of listening to senators, Inslee’s non-Washington résumé could help him.
The latest to qualify by virtue of the polling threshold, the former Colorado governor (and Denver mayor) is clearly running as a self-identified “moderate,” presumably competing with Biden and Klobuchar (and perhaps O’Rourke) for voters alarmed at the party’s leftward tilt. Like Klobuchar, his relatively close proximity to Iowa gives him a bit of an advantage if he can get traction there. But both his ideological and geographical base could receive an existential threat if Colorado senator Michael Bennet jumps into the race, which he’s recently said he very well might.
At first the only candidate to qualify for the debates via the grassroots fundraising method, and now also qualifying in the polls, is entrepreneur and social-media sensation Andrew Yang, who has developed a significant and quite young following with his self-consciously quirky persona and a universal basic income proposal. If he can translate his online charisma to a debate stage, he could make some waves.
A former three-term congressman from Maryland, and prior to that a health-care entrepreneur and lender, Delaney was the first Democrat to declare for the 2020 race (way back in July of 2017), and has spent a great deal of time in Iowa and New Hampshire. He is an unabashed moderate who opposes the Green New Deal and still supports the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement that most Democrats now oppose. He’s qualified for the debates via minimum poll showings, but is in danger of following the path trod by fellow Marylander Martin O’Malley in 2016: doing everything right other than becoming popular.
The Hawaii congresswoman has qualified by meeting the grassroots fundraising threshold. As a lifelong surfer, a military veteran, a Hindu, and an outspoken progressive, Gabbard might be attracting more attention in a less crowded field. But much of the buzz about her has been negative, based on her controversial habit of defending Syria’s murderous president Bashar al-Assad, her links to anti-Islamic Hindu nationalists in India, and her history of anti-LGBTQ rhetoric (for which she has apologized). She does share with Bernie Sanders and (so far not debate-qualified) Mike Gravel a strongly noninterventionist foreign policy posture, but may just be too tainted for viability.
So that’s the current debate field. Who else might qualify?
There are several potential candidates who might make the polling threshold pretty quickly if they choose to run, including Montana governor Steve Bullock (who has said he’d decide once his legislature has adjourned); former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe, who is a legendary fundraiser; and the aforementioned Michael Bennet. Another announced candidate, New Agey self-help author Marianne Williamson, has enough of a national following that she might qualify via the grassroots fundraising method, if not polling minimums.
At this point it doesn’t seem likely that the debate-qualified field will rise above 20 candidates, forcing sponsors, under the DNC rules, to cut previous qualifiers to get down to that maximum number. So those who have made the cut can start practicing pretty soon, with the complication that they have no idea which rivals they will actually be facing. It could get unpredictably wild and predictably important in the winnowing of this huge field.
This post has been updated throughout.