Democrats pursuing the chance to capture their party’s presidential nomination have until midnight on Wednesday, August 28 to meet the criteria for a spot on the debate stage in September. With less than 24 hours until that deadline, ten candidates appear to have made the cut, while 10 more have, so far, fallen short.
Some of those in the latter group are already berating the Democratic National Committee (DNC) for its handling of the qualifying process. Missing out on the opportunity a debate appearance provides is a severe blow to any political campaign, but it all comes down to polling and fundraising. Even those candidates who will not be taking part in the September 12 debate – which will be held over two days if more than ten contenders qualify – could still book their spots in the October debate.
The threshold for booking a podium in Houston is hitting at least 2% in four national polls (polls the DNC chooses to recognize) or getting at least 2% in polls from Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada: These are the first four states to hold Democratic primary elections or caucuses. In addition, candidates must receive 130,000 or more unique campaign donations, including at least 400 individual contributions from 20 or more states.
Who’s In? Who’s Out?
Joe Biden and Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) are the clear front-runners, currently. Joining them on the debate stage in September will be Sens. Kamala Harris (D-CA), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN). The remaining four qualifiers are businessman Andrew Yang, former Texas congressman Robert O’Rourke, South Bend, IN, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and former HUD Secretary Julian Castro.
As of Wednesday afternoon, those candidates not qualifying for the debate are Montana Governor Steve Bullock, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, billionaire Tom Steyer, author Marianne Williamson, Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Michael Bennett (D-CO), Reps. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) and Tim Ryan (D-OH), and former Reps. John Delaney and Joe Sestak. Steyer and Gabbard both met the donor threshold, but neither cracks 2% in polling, and that did not change in the two most recent primary polls released Wednesday morning.
DNC Under Fire
The DNC has taken some flak for its debate standards from several of these candidates, including Bullock, Bennett, Gabbard, and Steyer. Now that Washington Governor Jay Inslee has dropped out of the race, Bullock is the only serving governor still running. He likened the debate rules to The Hunger Games and also bemoaned the absence of state governors from the race. “So I think as we’re losing governors from this race,” he said recently during an appearance on MSNBC. “Maybe we ought to think about: are these DNC rules for the debates disadvantaging folks who have gotten real things done?”
“The DNC’s process is stifling debate at a time when we need it most,” claims Bennett. Steyer’s campaign cites “the lack of recent qualifying polls” for its candidate’s failure to qualify for the Houston debate and Tulsi Gabbard agrees. Her campaign has complained that the party’s criteria for selecting which polls it uses for debate qualifications have not been released to the candidates.
Fox News reports that a statement from the Gabbard campaign called upon the DNC to “revise their list of debate qualifying polls in light of numerous irregularities in the selection and timing of those polls, to ensure transparency and fairness.” In a recent poll in New Hampshire, Gabbard hit 3% support, but the survey was not one of those recognized by the DNC as eligible for qualification.
How far one or more of these dissenting candidates will take their fights with the party’s rule-makers remains to be seen. This is something that might be dealt with behind the scenes, or it could become a significant distraction.
Contenders and Dreamers
Despite a seemingly endless stream of verbal gaffes, former VP Biden maintains a significant lead in most polls, mainly by virtue of the fact that his two most progressive opponents – Sanders and Warren – are dividing the votes of the party’s more extreme leftwing primary-goers. Until one of them drops out, that trend is likely to continue, but there seems, currently, to be little prospect of that.
At some point, then, both Sanders or Warren are going to face a tough decision: Withdraw from the race in order to throw support to the other or fight it out for the progressive vote and risk handing the nomination to Biden?
Delaney, who is one of the most moderate and rational Democrat contenders, is vowing to remain in the race, believing that – as the field narrows – voters will focus more on the policies and will take his candidacy more seriously.
One has to wonder, though, how – and, indeed, why – some of the other 2020 hopefuls are sticking around. Bill de Blasio and Kirsten Gillibrand, in particular, appear to share the unenviable mantle of least-liked candidates. Neither one is likely to make it to October unless pure self-delusion is their only driving force, which is entirely likely, of course, given their characters.
Buttigieg, O’Rourke, Harris, and Booker all seemed like strong contenders, at one point or another. While O’Rourke’s campaign has always seemed to be nothing more than a half-baked vanity project, the other three are still the only potential challengers to Biden, Sanders, and Warren. Arguably, Harris is the only threat to the front-runners.
It would appear likely that the party and many of its supporters will breathe an enormous sigh of relief when the race comes down to three or four candidates. Until then, the donation dollars and the polling numbers will be fought over by a quartet (or quintet?) of real contenders and five or six dreamers who are doing little more than wasting everyone’s time.