Speaking anecdotally, it’s been clear that the most commonly held opinion about the two rounds of 2020 candidate debates occurring in June and July is that it’s a really bad idea to give so many of these people a nationally televised platform. But now as the “invisible primary” moves to its next, more voter-adjacent phase, the great winnower approacheth, mainly through the significantly heightened thresholds for participation in the September and October debates, set out by the Democratic National Committee.
Put concisely, the DNC is limiting the third debate(s), sponsored by ABC and Univision, on September 12 and 13, to candidates who can demonstrate they have 130,000 unique donors (with 400 in at least 20 different states), and can hit 2 percent (rounded up from 1.5 percent if need be) in four of a specified list of national or early-state polls taken up to August 28. There will be an additional qualifying window for the fourth debate(s) planned for October (date and sponsor TBD), though the criteria stay the same. Not only have the donor and polling thresholds doubled since the first two rounds, but candidates have to meet both, not one or the other, to qualify (dual qualification became a tiebreaker in the early rounds, but was not generally required). This could be a problem for candidates with decent donor networks but little popular support. Realizing the dream of a single debate in future rounds depends on ten or fewer making the cut. It could be close, but probably won’t happen. Here’s how the field is shaping up:
Seven Who Are Locks
At present seven candidates — Joe Biden, Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, Beto O’Rourke, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren — have already qualified for the September debate.
It’s possible, of course, that qualifying candidates could drop out of their own volition, either because they aren’t doing well (I’m looking at you, Beto), or in order to downshift to a Senate race (also a possibility for O’Rourke, along with the lower-polling Steve Bullock and John Hickenlooper).
Three Who Should Be In
Amy Klobuchar has met the polling threshold, and is reportedly just 10,000 donors short of that threshold as well, with a month to get across the line. She should be able to accomplish that.
Andrew Yang claims he has already qualified, but he’s in an argument he is unlikely to win with the DNC over which polls can be utilized. Since he had a creditable debate performance in Detroit, the odds are good that Yang will pick up that fourth 2-percent-poll showing he needs; he has clearly met the donor threshold thanks to the ubiquitous Yang Gang.
Like Yang, Julián Castro has met the donor threshold and needs one more qualifying poll to make the cut. After two solid debate performances, he should be fine.
From here on projections get very iffy, depending mostly on how the debates affected both fundraising and poll standings. My guesses are precisely that.
Two on the Bubble
Billionaire Tom Steyer didn’t even enter the race until July, but his face on the many advocacy ads he’s run since Trump became president should give him a very good shot at meeting the polling threshold by the end of August (he’s already hit 2 percent relevant surveys). And while he doesn’t need the small-dollar money 130,000 donors can give him, he certainly has the resources and the mailing list to buy that qualifier, too. He’ll probably make the cut, but it could get hairy.
Another tardy entrant, Steve Bullock, was long considered a potentially viable dark horse for the actual nomination, though his late start squandered an awful lot of buzz. Like some other “moderates” in the field, he could have really used a midsummer collapse of support for Joe Biden that does not appear to be forthcoming. His second-round debate performance drew some appreciative assessments, but he needs to make a splash with electability-focused elites and voters alike.
Two Who Need Some Help
Two candidates who could really use a post-debate surge both did well in Detroit, but it’s unclear whether their performances will lift them past the polling threshold.
Tulsi Gabbard is close to the donor threshold, but has only one qualifying poll. She got attention in Detroit for an impressively efficient takedown of Kamala Harris’s criminal-justice record, and may be building a following of foreign-policy noninterventionists. But she has a lot of media detractors.
So, too, does Marianne Williamson, whose generally well-regarded performance in Detroit gave her a shot at a polling surge, even as it has (based on negative reactions to my own piece about her appeal) definitely enraged her critics. We’ll know very soon if she can begin to make a splash in the polls; she probably does have the capacity to meet the donor threshold given the far-flung nature of her following.
10 Who Should Be Waving Good-bye
These are the most perilous projections, and I make them fully planning to stay away from Twitter for several days at least. The bottom-feeders whom I don’t expect to make the September debate cut are listed roughly in order of the likelihood that they will prove me wrong, which would hardly be the first time that happened in this cycle.
Kirsten Gillibrand would seem to have a shot at meeting the donor threshold, but her debate performance and her general positioning in the race seem unlikely to lift her in the polls any time soon. She’s likely to finish as the greatest disappointment of the 2020 Democratic field.
Michael Bennet has impressed some observers with his debate performances — while others have debated which cartoon characters his voice echoes. He’s done relatively well in fundraising (and much better than his fellow Coloradan and former boss John Hickenlooper), but doesn’t seem close to the grassroots donor threshold. He’s capable of a post-debate bump in the polls, but again, with Biden doing well, too, it’s less likely that any “moderates” will gain ground.
Jay Inslee has won a lot of positive attention for his climate-change-focused candidacy, but his campaign hasn’t taken off in the early states at all. Nothing that happened in the debates seems likely to change that, though on paper he should have as much potential as the more highly ranked Bullock. He has a fine future as a 2021 Cabinet member if a Democrat wins.
John Delaney got a lot of attention during the first night in Detroit (though much of it was negative); he’s got tons of personal money and has been campaigning in Iowa roughly since that state was admitted to the Union. But his candidacy mostly resembles that of Martin O’Malley in 2016: a lot of effort with little payoff. If he makes the cut it will be as the most conspicuous moderate not named Joe.
John Hickenlooper is another credible-on-paper moderate, but one who has not at all distinguished himself in the debates and has struggled to raise money and keep staff. The biggest question about the former mayor and governor is whether he’s dissed the Senate option so thoroughly in order to stay in the presidential field that he’s painted himself into a corner.
Everything you can say about Bennet, Delaney, and Hickenlooper you can also say about Tim Ryan, who hasn’t translated his midwestern, white working-class street cred into tangible support so far as I can tell. He’s one of those candidates who could conceivably drop out even if he somehow makes the September cut.
And then there is Bill de Blasio, the presidential aspirant who has united his own city in overwhelming antipathy towards his candidacy. During his Detroit debate his delivery of lines that might have worked for somebody — anybody — else palpably fell flat. In contrast to what I just said about Ryan, BDB is a candidate who might stay in the race even if barred from the debates. It wouldn’t be less sensible than his decision to enter the contest in the first place.
Three other candidates — Seth Moulton, Mike Gravel, and Joe Sestak — didn’t make the earlier debate cut, and there’s really no reason to think anything has suddenly made any of them viable. Besides, there will soon be a hue and cry for nonviable candidates to drop out that will dwarf any possible groundswell of support for them. Unless they have a BDB-sized appetite for willful self-humiliation, it will be time for a number of candidates to take a long look in the mirror and see not the next president of the United States, but just another pol who looked at the current occupant of the Oval Office and thought: Why not me?