vision 2020

September Democratic Debates Should Feature Less Crowded Stages

Billionaire Tom Steyer is likely to be the 11th candidate to qualify for the September round of debates. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In political-journalism circles the strong likelihood that the September Democratic presidential debate will again be a two-nighter has elicited loud groans and a scrambling of schedules. Many had hoped the significantly higher threshold for participation would cut the debate field to no more than ten candidates, the limit for how many can be accommodated on a single stage based on how the DNC handled the first two rounds.

But now ten candidates (most recently former HUD secretary Julián Castro) have qualified, and an 11th, billionaire Tom Steyer, is just one qualifying poll away with eight days left before the deadline. Steyer’s strategy of heavy advertising in early states seems almost certain to pay off with a fourth qualifying poll before the window closes.

The two remaining candidates who appear to have an outside shot at joining the third-debate field are Tulsi Gabbard (who’s met the donor threshold and just got her second qualifying poll) and Kirsten Gillibrand (who’s just short of the donor threshold but just has one qualifying poll), as Cameron Joseph reports:

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D-N.Y.) campaign is now trying to do the same thing as Steyer’s. She’s using some of the millions she transferred over from her Senate campaign fund to run more than $1 million worth of television ads in Iowa and New Hampshire to try to get herself up to 2% in any upcoming polls of the early-voting states (she has one poll and needs three more).

Her campaign has dropped another $1 million on Facebook ads over the past month to try to reach the donor threshold. Her campaign said in early August that she’s surpassed 100,000 donors and thinks it’ll get to 130,000 by Aug. 28.

Gabbard doesn’t have the money to burn on targeted ads and has also just been called up for a two-week National Guard training exercise.

So unless a qualifier drops out of the race (very unlikely at this point; the most discussed possible dropout, Beto O’Rourke, has again eschewed the Senate race so many want him to embrace), the debate field for Houston in September will include somewhere between 11 and 13 candidates. It’s not 100 percent certain that the DNC will split up the field into two groups debating on September 12 and 13, but it’s likely. And if so, that would be a very different — and arguably higher-quality — event than the debates we’ve seen so far, with just six (or at most seven) candidates sharing the stage and the questions rather than ten. And since the September field will automatically qualify for the October debate(s) (date and location TBD), there won’t be any desperate candidates lobbing grenades in hopes of sticking around for the next event.

There will remain the usual problems with making sure the top-polling candidates are not clustered on a single night (which the DNC addressed in the first two rounds with separate drawings for debate assignments from groups of candidates divided by poll standings), but all in all, the atmosphere should be less frantic and may lend itself to fuller and fairer discussion. Maintaining viewership could be a challenge: September 12, a Thursday night, will mean competition with NFL and college-football broadcasts, and Fridays are a terrible night for TV ratings generally. But the political junkies of the world — including media folk sure to amplify anything that happens — will be watching as attentively as ever.

September Debates Should Feature Less Crowded Stages