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January Debate Criteria May Winnow Democratic Field Some More

Could be fewer podiums on the stage in Des Moines. Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

Those who enjoyed Thursday night’s sixth Democratic-candidate debate, with its reduced field allowing more airtime for participants and interplay between them, will be pleased to learn that the Democratic National Committee is continuing to ratchet up the qualifying criteria for its next debate, in Des Moines on January 14. The odds are good that the seven-candidate field on display in Los Angeles won’t grow and could even shrink.

Ignoring complaints that its whole approach to qualifying was keeping nonwhite candidates off the stage, and rejecting demands (agreed to by the seven qualifiers and two non-qualifiers for Los Angeles) for a relaxed set of criteria, including abandonment of the dual requirements for polling performance and grassroots fundraising, the DNC offered more of the same for January. The polling threshold moves up from four percent to five percent in four national or early-state polls, or seven percent in two early-state polls, while the donor threshold edges up to 225,000 unique donors (cumulatively for the entire cycle) with at least 1,000 in 20 states. The fairly restrictive list of qualifying polls is essentially unchanged, and polls dating from November 14 to January 10 will count.

The Big Four candidates (Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Pete Buttigieg) will have no trouble qualifying. Amy Klobuchar’s campaign announced this morning that she had made the cut as well. Tom Steyer, whose heavy ad spending is focused on early states where recent polling has been limited, has work to do, as does Andrew Yang, who has managed to gradually improve his standing just enough to meet prior polling thresholds. Tulsi Gabbard, who narrowly missed qualifying for the December debate and announced she was boycotting it in any event, has such eccentric support patterns it’s hard to figure whether she has a shot. But there’s no reason at present to think that chief criteria complainers Cory Booker and Julián Castro are any closer to reaching the higher thresholds than they were prior to the December event.

One candidate especially affected by the refusal to allow for separate polling and fundraising qualifications was Michael Bloomberg, who can’t meet the latter because his self-funded campaign isn’t accepting contributions. But it’s doubtful that he cares; he’s running a completely different campaign from the rest of the field, focused entirely on Super Tuesday, and his wallet is building him his own stage, where he stands alone, which is how he likes it.

Twenty days after the Des Moines debate, Iowa caucusgoers will begin the process of voters weighing in on the viability of the field, and DNC-imposed criteria will start to fade. But during the quick succession of debates already announced for February (February 7 in New Hampshire, February 19 in Nevada, and February 25 in South Carolina), pressure on the field to sort itself out once and for all will accelerate. Before you know it, Democrats will be fighting over the nominating-contest calendar and debates of the 2024 cycle.

January Debate Criteria May Winnow Dem Field Some More