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September Democratic Primary Debates: Who’s In, Who’s Out

Tom Steyer fell prey to a drop in the number of polls being taken in August. Photo: Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images

Today is the final day for candidates to qualify for the September 12 Democratic presidential candidate debate in Houston. Barring an unexpected last-minute poll, the field should be limited to the maximum number (ten) that can be accommodated on a single stage under the rules set by the DNC and debate sponsor ABC. Those ten are Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Cory Booker, Julián Castro, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Andrew Yang,

Two new national polls (from USA Today/Suffolk and from Quinnipiac) that are on the DNC’s qualifying list came out this morning, and neither showed the two candidates on the bubble holding the required 2 percent support: billionaire activist Tom Steyer (who has three qualifying polls) or U.S. representative Tulsi Gabbard (who has two). Steyer, Gabbard, and Marianne Williamson (who has just one qualifying poll) have all met the grassroots-donor threshold (130,000 distinct donors with at least 400 in 20 states).

It’s always possible that some state poll will be released before qualifying ends at midnight tonight, which could especially benefit Steyer, who bought heavy TV and digital advertising in the early states. But none are expected. It looks like Steyer and Gabbard may have both fallen victim to the reluctance of pollsters to do late-summer surveys at a time when Americans are presumably distracted by vacations, the beginning of a new school year, and other seasonal pastimes. In the month of August, there has only been one qualifying poll released for Iowa, and none at all for New Hampshire, Nevada, or South Carolina. Team Steyer seemed to be resigned to missing the cut last week, according to The Wall Street Journal:

[T]he campaign complained in a statement last week that the DNC should have included more polls than it did and pointed to Mr. Steyer’s higher, but still-single-digit, support in several Nevada surveys that don’t count toward making the debate.

“The American people deserve to hear this message in September, but are being denied by the lack of recent qualifying polls,” the campaign said last week.

To the relief of many of us who have to spend evenings watching candidate debates, Steyer’s and Gabbard’s apparent whiffs at qualifying means a single debate in September with all qualifying candidates sharing a stage — no “lotteries” to determine who is where, and no odd matchups that avoid long-awaited face-to-face confrontations (e.g., Biden versus Warren).

But this doesn’t automatically “winnow” the candidate field, or even the future debate field, as Vox explains:

There’s an interesting twist about qualifying for the fourth Democratic debate in October, though: It will actually be easier.

That’s because the qualification rules are exactly the same as for the third debate — except that there will be more time for campaigns to make it happen.

For the polling threshold in particular, the third debate requires polls released between June 28 and August 28 be used. But for the fourth debate, that window goes from that same starting point (June 28) up until two weeks before the October debate (which doesn’t yet have a specific announced date).

The gist, as Politico points out, is that any candidates who qualify for the third debate automatically make it into the fourth debate — and on top of that roster, the rest of the field will have another month to try and get the rest of what they need as well.

The odds are very high that Steyer will soon get that fourth qualifying poll and hence get a ticket to the October debate. Given his resources, you’d have to guess he’ll stick it out and try. Gabbard and even Williamson might do the same. If any of them make the next cut, and none of the third-debate qualifiers drop out, then we will likely have two nights of debates (exact dates and location TBD) in October. Candidates that didn’t make today’s cut and have little hope of meeting the next one will soon have to decide whether a campaign on life support is worth continuing as actual voting grows nearer.

September Democratic Primary Debates: Who’s in, Who’s Out