vision 2020

Democratic 2020 Field May Be Sliced in Half by Debate Cut

Julián Castro could be the next, and possibly the last, candidate to qualify for the third round of debates. Photo: Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

When I wrote earlier about the third Democratic presidential debate, there was a lot of uncertainty about the impact the second debate might have on the polls to determine who will qualify for inclusion in the September 12 event (and for night two on September 13 if the qualifying field exceeds ten candidates). Now it’s pretty clear that none of the bottom-feeding candidates are taking off like a rocket. So most likely no more than a dozen — and perhaps just 11 — of the 23 Democrats running for president (24 if you count Wayne Messam as a serious candidate) are going to make the stage in Houston.

Nine candidates (Joe Biden, Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Andrew Yang) have already made the cut by meeting the thresholds for both grassroots fundraising (130,000 donors with at least 400 in 20 states) and polling (four approved national or early-state polls showing at least 2 percent of the vote). A tenth, Julián Castro, is very close; he has met the donor threshold and needs just one more qualifying poll before the August 28 deadline. An 11th, Tom Steyer, is probably going to make it too: He has three qualifying polls and is spending like the proverbial drunken sailor to get one more and to meet the donor threshold despite his very late start (it doesn’t hurt that he started a couple of national political groups whose mailing lists he can tap).

After that, we are probably down to two candidates with an outside chance of making the cut: Tulsi Gabbard (who has met the donor threshold but has just one qualifying poll) and Kirsten Gillibrand (who might make the donor threshold but also needs three more qualifying polls). As Geoffrey Skelley observes, nobody else is close:

[T]he rest of the Democratic field will likely not make the cut. While former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper has one qualifying poll to his name, he reportedly had only 13,000 donors as of July 2. (He may also be exploring a possible Senate run back in Colorado.) Two other candidates, Washington governor Jay Inslee and author Marianne Williamson, have reportedly surpassed 100,000 contributors but have yet to hit 2 percent in any qualifying surveys. As for the remaining seven candidates deemed “major” by FiveThirtyEight, none seems remotely close to 130,000 donors, and none has a single qualifying poll yet.

Unfortunately for those frantic to create a simplified schedule of debates, the qualifying field is very likely to be at least one candidate above the maximum (ten) set by the DNC for any one debate. Unless all the candidates near the cut line fail and/or someone who has already qualified drops out, we are looking at two nights of debates in September, and we could also miss out on some of the direct debate confrontations (e.g., Warren versus Biden) that political observers have been craving.

It’s also unclear that the third round of debates will have the impact of the first two. Typically, viewership of these debates declines as the novelty wears off. The September 12 debate will conflict with college and pro football broadcasts; the September 13 event is on a Friday, where TV shows go to die. And it’s possible the debate cut line won’t winnow the field as much as it might: The DNC has strangely decided to let polls taken before the third debate count as qualifications for the fourth (in October, exact time and place TBD). So struggling candidates could hold on, hoping for a fresh infusion of media attention in October and keeping the debate stage or stages full.

If, on the other hand, the third debate cut essentially ends non-qualifying campaigns, the complexion of the field will indeed change. If John Hickenlooper, Michael Bennet, Steve Bullock, John Delaney, and Tim Ryan aren’t around, the frequency of complaints about the Democratic Party heading off a lefty cliff to disaster will drop significantly. The relative diversity of the remaining field will improve as well, with two African-Americans, two (or three, depending on what happens to Gabbard) Asian-Americans, at least three women, and a Latino sticking around.

By mid-fall we should finally begin to have a clear sense of which candidates are viable, not just in terms of poll showings and money but early-state campaign organizations and a plausible path to the nomination. If, as is the case right now, public support is being hogged by a Big Three group of candidates (Biden, Sanders, and Warren, who together account for two-thirds of national voter intentions, according to the RealClearPolitics polling averages), we could be looking at an earlier decision than appeared likely at the beginning of this cycle. So those hankering for a winnowing of the Democratic field may need to be patient just a bit longer.

Democratic 2020 Field May Be Sliced in Half by Debate Cut