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Polling Drought Helps Winnow Democratic Debate Field

Tulsi Gabbard is likely to fall one poll short of qualifying for the December debate. Photo: Sean Rayford/Getty Images

When Democratic candidates gather in Los Angeles on December 19 for their sixth debate, the stage will be roomier, with just seven candidates appearing as opposed to the ten who appeared in Atlanta last month. It might have been even airier — and paler (the other six qualifiers are all white) — had Andrew Yang not secured his fourth qualifying poll from Quinnipiac yesterday, just two days before the December 12 deadline.

Yes, it’s possible (albeit unlikely) that Tulsi Gabbard will also get the qualifying poll she needs before tomorrow, but she’d already sworn off attending the debate, perhaps because she figured she wasn’t going to qualify, or perhaps to highlight her argument that the whole process is flawed and the debates are superficial. In either event, her grievances (and those of other recent non-qualifiers like Cory Booker and Julián Castro) are supported by some analysis from Geoffrey Skelley documenting the post-Thanksgiving drought of qualifying polls that has made getting across the line more difficult than in the past:

Only two polls have been released in the last two weeks compared to nine in the lead up to the last debate. In fact, the two national polls from Monmouth University and Quinnipiac University released on Tuesday marked the first surveys since a CNN poll came out on Nov. 27, the day before Thanksgiving …

So what’s behind the dearth in polling? One obvious culprit is Thanksgiving. Pollsters try to avoid polling around the holidays because of concerns about response rates — people are often traveling or visiting family and friends. In that sense then, it’s not surprising that there weren’t any polls released right after the holiday weekend when few pollsters would’ve been in the field anyway. However, pollsters could have conducted surveys last week and then released them this past weekend — yet none did. But of course, the DNC doesn’t control when independent media organizations or universities choose to conduct their polls, so some of this is just bad luck for candidates like Booker, Castro and Gabbard. It’s also unclear, especially in the case of Booker and Castro, whether more polls would have helped them. Remember, neither has a single qualifying poll to their name.

But as Skelley points out, the DNC does control which pollsters it chooses as debate qualifying. Here’s their list for the December debate:

Each poll must be sponsored by one of the following 16 entities or pairs of entities (“Qualifying Poll Sponsors”): Associated Press; ABC News/Washington Post; CBS News/YouGov; CNN; Des Moines Register; Fox News; Monmouth University; National Public Radio; NBC News/Wall Street Journal; NBC News/Marist; New York Times; Quinnipiac University; University of New Hampshire; USA Today/Suffolk University; Winthrop University. For individual entities that are included only in Qualifying Poll Sponsor pairs but are not listed individually, independent polling by such individual entities or polling conducted in new partnerships with such individual entities shall not meet the Qualifying Poll Criteria. The DNC reserves the right to add a Nevada-specific poll sponsor to this list in the near future.

That leaves out a lot of pollsters, notes Skelley:

[S]ome major national pollsters who have released surveys since Thanksgiving aren’t counted, including Morning ConsultThe Economist/YouGov, and Reuters/Ipsos.

Overall, there have been 26 qualifying polls in the “window” set for the December debate (for the November debate there were 32), but they certainly weren’t arrayed to help candidates succeed in any final push to make the debate stage.

There will be one more DNC-sanctioned debate, in January, before voters begin their own winnowing process on February 3 in snowy Iowa. But that will be cold comfort for candidates forced to the sidelines before then.

Polling Drought Helps Winnow Democratic Debate Field