democratic debates

Next Debate May Be Do-or-Die for Four Candidates

It’s getting tougher to make the stage. Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

At this point, ten candidates have qualified for the November 20 Democratic debate in Atlanta; qualifying ends on November 13, and it’s not looking good for those who haven’t met the donor and polling thresholds. Only six (Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren) have qualified for the December 19 gabfest in Los Angeles (exact location TBD, since Democrats have decided to boycott the original site, UCLA, in solidarity with unions who are in the middle of a labor dispute with the school). That’s not an accident but the result of the DNC’s significantly toughening the thresholds for qualifying:

Candidates must earn 4 percent support in four national or early-state surveys, or 6 percent support in two early-state polls, as well as contributions from 200,000 unique donors (including at least 800 donors in at least 20 states or territories).

According to FiveThirtyEight’s accounting, the four candidates who will debate this month but haven’t made the cut for December are Tulsi Gabbard, Tom Steyer, Andrew Yang, and Cory Booker. All four have their work cut out for them:

Of that quartet, only tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang has cleared the donor threshold (though it seems probable that Gabbard, billionaire activist Tom Steyer and Sen. Cory Booker can also attract 200,000 unique donors by the deadline). Getting enough qualifying polls, on the other hand, will be challenging. So far, Gabbard and Steyer are closest with two surveys each, while Yang has one to his name. Booker is in real trouble, though. He hasn’t hit 4 percent in a single debate-qualifying poll since late August, so getting four surveys at that threshold will likely be difficult.

I’m sure each of these candidates has a plan for getting over the thresholds for Los Angeles before the December 12 deadline, but the most obvious game-changer would be a star turn in Atlanta in November. This would definitely shape their debate strategies and might even lead to a sharp elbow or two if not the throwing of a bomb. Certainly, Gabbard has positioned herself in the field as a lefty-outsider truth-teller, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see her lob a hand grenade into this or that tent (her viciously efficient attack on Harris’s prosecutorial record in the July debate may have played an underestimated role in the Californian’s subsequent struggles). You have to wonder what Booker can do, since he has by most accounts done well in all the debates, to no avail. Steyer has the advantage of being able to field-test messages via the paid advertising he’s doing in the early states, and Yang probably needs to keep gradually growing his following and hope it’s enough. But for all the candidates, the time for experimentation is growing short.

Next Debate May Be Do-or-Die for Four Candidates