The next televised showdown for the Democratic presidential candidates is due to shrink down to one debate stage, barring any shock developments that help one more contender make the cut for next month’s event.
Ahead of Wednesday night’s deadline to qualify for the ABC News debate in Houston on Sept. 12, only 10 candidates have met both the polling and fundraising thresholds, according to POLITICO’s unofficial tracking of the process. Unlike the first two debates, if 10 or fewer candidates qualify, they will all appear together on one night.
If this holds, it would mark the first time in the still-fledgling Democratic race that all the top candidates debated together. The large field and random assignments had, thus far, prevented Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts from appearing with former Vice President Joe Biden or Sen. Kamala Harris of California.
For a time, it appeared billionaire self-funder Tom Steyer would disrupt that. He crossed the fundraising threshold — 130,000 unique donors — two weeks ago, and he sits on the precipice of the polling threshold, having earned 2 percent in three surveys by pollsters approved by the Democratic National Committee.
But the fourth poll — which would make Steyer the 11th qualified candidate and result in the debate being split over two nights — has been elusive. The last five polls, which have all been conducted among Democratic voters nationally, show Steyer at 1 percent or not registering at all.
That includes two new, deadline-eve polls out on Wednesday morning, from Suffolk University/USA Today and Quinnipiac University — both of which showed Steyer at 0 percent. Of the other DNC-approved pollsters, none has publicly said it would release a qualifying poll prior to the 11:59 p.m. deadline Wednesday night.
The 10 candidates whose spots on the debate stage in Houston are assured are (from top-to-bottom of their unofficial DNC polling average): Biden (37 percent), Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont (21 percent), Warren (20 percent), Harris (17 percent), South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg (7 percent), Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey (3 percent), Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota (3 percent), entrepreneur Andrew Yang (3 percent), former HUD Secretary Julián Castro (3 percent) and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas (3 percent).
Steyer isn’t the only candidate on the bubble. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii has also met the donor threshold, according to her campaign, but only earned 2 percent in two qualifying polls. Self-help author Marianne Williamson crossed the donor mark, but has just one qualifying poll. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York also has one qualifying poll and has been struggling to meet the donor threshold despite pouring millions into advertising.
While, barring an 11th-hour miracle, these other candidates are likely to be excluded from the September debate, they still have a chance to make the stage for the fourth debate in October. The same rules apply: 130,000 donors, and 2 percent in four qualifying polls.
A date and sponsor for the October has yet to be announced, and the qualifying deadline will be two weeks prior to the date of the debate. That gives candidates who don’t make the cut for the third debate roughly an additional three-to-six weeks, depending on the scheduling for October, to qualify for the fourth debate. (Because no debate sponsor has been announced for the fourth debate, it’s not clear whether, like the first three, the stage would be capped at 10 candidates per night.)
Despite this future prospect, both Steyer and Gabbard have not been conceding a place at the third debate without a fight. Both have publicly complained about the scarcity of polls — there have been 21 polls in the DNC’s qualifying period, including 8 in early-nominating states — and have asked the DNC to consider polls from firms or media sponsors that weren’t on the party’s initial list. (The Gabbard campaign, in a memo sent to reporters on Monday, calling the DNC’s rules “cockamamie criteria.”)
For the Steyer camp, the lack of early-state polling has become a particular hobby horse in recent days, as the risk of missing the next debate has grown. Steyer entered the race on July 9 — well into the qualifying period — with a plan to make the stage. He would blitz the four early states — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina — with $12 million in TV ads in order to boost his poll numbers there. His TV ads in the early states stopped airing on Tuesday — the day before the polling deadline — underscoring how central the debate was to his advertising strategy.
His plan for crossing the donor threshold worked, on the other hand. He leveraged his expansive email list from his Need to Impeach campaign focused on ousting President Donald Trump from office, and he has spent $4 million on Facebook ads to solicit small donors, as well.
But as the qualifying deadline has neared, Steyer’s Facebook ads have shifted to complaints about the lack of polls as a list-building strategy. “Wednesday deadline approaching: There have been NO DNC debate-qualifying polls in South Carolina in nearly a month,” one of his latest ads reads. “Your voice matters, but it’s not being heard — voters like you in South Carolina should get a say before the deadline on Wednesday. Add your name.”
Steyer’s late entry into the race — after initially saying he wouldn’t run — means he was only included in 15 of the 21 qualifying polls released thus far from June 28 through Wednesday. In the early states, he earned at least 2 percent in three of the seven polls in which he was included as a candidate. But he has gone 0-for-8 in the national polls and is on the outside looking in as the deadline approaches.
Zach Montellaro contributed to this report.
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