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Candidates scramble to qualify for third debate as deadline nears

The Hill logo The Hill 8/12/2019 Max Greenwood
Kirsten Gillibrand, Steve Bullock, Marianne Williamson, Tom Steyer standing next to a person in a suit and tie: Candidates scramble to qualify for third debate as deadline nears © The Hill Candidates scramble to qualify for third debate as deadline nears

More than a dozen Democratic presidential candidates are at risk of missing their party's third primary debates in September and are clambering to make the cut ahead of a fast-approaching deadline in late August.

Nine candidates have already qualified for the fall debates and two others are getting close, an analysis of fundraising and polling data by The Hill found.

But for the other 13, the prospects appear increasingly dim. None have met the 130,000-donor benchmark set by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and only three have at least one qualifying poll to their name.

The candidates have until Aug. 28 to qualify. And with less than three weeks to go, those who haven't are scrambling for a spot on stage, acutely aware of the risks that failing to make the debate will run.

"You have less than 500 hours to suddenly change the dynamic of the race to either convince enough people they should vote for you in a poll that you hope they get called for, or give you money out of their pocket so that you can make the next debate stage," said Kelly Dietrich, a former Democratic fundraiser and founder of the National Democratic Training Committee. "Every day gets harder."

To qualify for the third and fourth debates this fall, candidates have to amass the support of 130,000 donors and register at least 2 percent support in four DNC-approved polls.

That's a tougher standard than the one used to qualify for the first two debates, which required candidates to collect contributions from 65,000 unique donors or notch at least 1 percent in three polls.

So far, nine candidates have made the September debate: former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-Texas) and entrepreneur Andrew Yang.

Two other candidates, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, are at least halfway there, having met the 130,000-donor benchmark but not the polling requirement of at least 2 percent support in four DNC-recognized polls. Castro is only one qualifying poll away from making the debate stage.

Tom Steyer, the billionaire philanthropist and liberal activist, has so far registered at least 2 percent in three approved polls. But he hasn't yet met the donor threshold, and has ramped up his digital ad spending over the past two weeks in an effort to pick up donations ahead of the deadline.

Between July 27 and Aug. 3, his campaign spent roughly $627,000 - more than any other candidate - on Facebook advertisements urging potential donors to help him make the debate stage, according to data compiled by Bully Pulpit Interactive, a Democratic digital firm that is tracking the candidates' online ad spending.

In that same period, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who has not reached the donor threshold and has only one qualifying poll, spent nearly $400,000 on Facebook ads, the Bully Pulpit data shows. Her campaign said she passed 100,000 donors earlier this week.

That puts her among a handful of candidates who may be able to meet the DNC's donor requirements by Aug. 28, but who face what may prove to be the more difficult challenge of racking up enough qualifying polls.

Best-selling author Marianne Williamson has more than 115,000 donors and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has surpassed 110,000, though neither has registered above 1 percent in a single qualifying poll.

Candidates can drive up small-dollar online donations with relative ease by pumping money into digital advertising and expanding their email lists. But independent polls are largely out of the campaigns' control, hinging more on a candidates' momentum and name recognition than online outreach.

"I will be very surprised if anyone who is not on track with the polling already gets the polling to make the debate," Dietrich said.

At least one candidate has taken it upon herself to try to drive up polling support: Gabbard has met the 130,000-donor threshold but needs at least three more qualifying polls to make it into the September debate.

Her campaign has encouraged supporters in recent days to answer phone calls from unknown numbers - "remember that it could be a pollster," one email reads - and to sign up to participate in surveys from YouGov, one of the few online pollsters approved by the DNC.

"Remember, the more online polls you take, the higher chance you have of being selected to take a poll on the 2020 Democratic Presidential Primary. So whenever you're asked to take a poll, take it!" her campaign said in an email to supporters. "We have thousands of supporters in every state - if only a handful of us are selected for a poll, it can make a difference."

Steyer, meanwhile, is on the cusp of completing the polling requirement. But it's unclear how close he is to reaching the donor benchmark. His campaign did not respond to questions from The Hill about his current donor numbers.

Still, 12 other candidates are also racing to meet the donor threshold and are nowhere close to completing the polling requirement, leaving them with a massive hurdle to overcome before Aug. 28.

One of those candidates, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, spoke critically on Wednesday of the DNC's emphasis on donors as a barrier for entry to the debates. That rule, he said, has incentivized candidates to spend large amounts of money to reach online contributors instead of "actually hiring people to talk to" voters.

But, he added, "if you're going to winnow [the primary field], I'd do it on polling numbers."

Even if some candidates don't make the September debate, there may still be some hope. The DNC sent a memo to campaigns this week noting that candidates will have until two weeks before the fourth debate in October to meet the requirements for the event, with the start of the qualifying period set at June 28. Politico first reported on the memo.

While the exact date of the fourth debate has yet to be announced, the qualifying period effectively gives campaigns more time to meet the thresholds, raising the possibility that the fourth debate could have more candidates on stage than the third.

That doesn't mean qualifying for the fourth debate won't be difficult, Dietrich said. The debates are an opportunity for candidates to pitch themselves to a national audience, and missing out on the third debate could deprive campaigns of much-needed exposure.

Still, he said, it's not impossible.

"No one saw the St. Louis Blues winning the Stanley Cup halfway through the last NHL season," Dietrich said. "But that's not the norm. This is already an incredibly difficult process to qualify."

"If your campaign hasn't qualified for the third, you're likely not getting a lot of national coverage already," he added. "So now you're missing out on the one chance to have national coverage; to have Democrat primary voters listening and seeing you on their TV screens."

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