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October Democratic Debate Stage Could Go Back to Two Nights As Steyer Qualifies

Tom Steyer’s heavy ad buys pay off. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

There was much rejoicing — particularly among the journalists who have to cover these events — when it was announced that this week’s Democratic presidential debate would be limited to a single night, with ten candidates crowding onto the same stage. But this weekend the odds went up that in October, the Democrats will again be split into two debates.

For reasons unknown (though perhaps to address carping from struggling candidates about the debate thresholds), the Democratic National Committee decided to let qualifying data (donors and poll showings) put together prior to the August 28 deadline for the September debate roll over to the next event (set for October 15, and, if necessary, October 16, at some location TBD in Ohio). That means all ten September qualifiers automatically made the cut for October. And it gave candidates close to qualifying in September a reprieve. On Saturday, one of them, billionaire activist Tom Steyer, got his fourth qualifying poll from a CBS-YouGov poll of Nevada, vindicating his strategy of heavy paid TV and digital ads in the early states.

Hawaii representative Tulsi Gabbard announced over the weekend that she had bagged a third qualifying poll with her 2 percent showing among registered voters in a new ABC–Washington Post national poll. But the DNC responded that it would only look at “top line” poll results for purposes of qualifying, and because the ABC-WaPo poll first reported “all adults” numbers showing Gabbard at one percent, it doesn’t count for her as a qualifying poll. She and her supporters can be expected to intensify their complaints about the DNC’s evaluation of polling data, and it’s possible, I suppose, that it will reverse its decision and let Gabbard get closer to the velvet rope.

At this point, Gabbard and Marianne Williamson are the only non-debate-qualifying candidates to have met the donor threshold (130,000 unique donors with at least 400 in 20 states). And while Gabbard is short two qualifying polls of what she needs, Williamson has only one qualifying poll. No one else appears to be in shouting distance of making the cut.

The deadline to qualify for October is the first day of that month. The DNC has already capped participation in any one debate at ten candidates, so unless one of the qualifiers drops out, there will be a second night. I would guess that some of the current non-qualifiers will follow Bill de Blasio in admitting that failure to make the October cut makes withdrawal from the race inevitable. But don’t count on anyone with a ticket to that stage packing it in until they know for certain sure that they didn’t catch lightning in a bottle and wow Democrats everywhere with the power of their debating skills. In theory, the DNC could respond to the piteous cries of the Fourth Estate by changing its rules and letting all the candidate crowd onto a single stage again in October. But for now, we’re heading back to the world of televised drawings to determine who lands where.

October Debates Could Go to Two Nights As Steyer Makes Cut