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Debate May Be Last-Ditch Effort For Struggling Democrats To Stay Alive

(From left) Former Housing Secretary Julián Castro, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard. Warren, Booker and O'Rourke have already qualified for the Democratic debate in September.
Drew Angerer
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(From left) Former Housing Secretary Julián Castro, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard. Warren, Booker and O'Rourke have already qualified for the Democratic debate in September.

Updated July 30

This week's debate could be the last onstage appearance for more than half of the 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls.

With more stringent qualification rules from the Democratic National Committee set to severely limit who will make the debate stage in September, lower-tier candidates are now facing a do-or-die moment this Tuesday and Wednesday in Detroit.

As those in the danger zone face what may be their last chance to salvage their bids, don't be surprised if struggling candidates try to take on the front-runners and create their own buzz-worthy moment. However, that still may not be enough to keep their White House hopes alive in a massive field that must somehow begin to winnow.

Currently, about a third of the 24 candidates in the field qualify for the September ABC/Univision debate in Houston. Several are on pace to potentially make it by the end of an August deadline, but it's looking increasingly likely that there could be fewer than 10 candidates who will make the stage. That would make the debate a one-night affair, not two.

As of now, the seven candidates who meet the requirements for September are: former Vice President Joe Biden, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, California Sen. Kamala Harris, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker.

On Monday, Booker announced that he had met the fundraising requirements after already having reached the minimum in polling. That same day, entrepreneur Andrew Yang's campaign announced he had met the polling threshold after already having met the individual donor target, but on Tuesday the DNC said one of the polls Yang's campaign was using didn't qualify as part of their calculations. So now, he needs one other poll to make it in September.

For the first two debates, candidates could qualify by meeting either a polling or fundraising threshold set by the DNC. But for September, those requirements have not only doubled, Democrats must hit both benchmarks to make the stage. That means registering at least 2% in at least four national or early state polls recognized by the DNC, along with proving they have at least 130,000 unique donors in 20 different states.

Other candidates are getting close. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar has met the polling requirements, but is still short when it comes to donors. Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro has enough donors, but is only halfway to hitting the polling requirement.

Mitchell S. McKinney, the director of the Political Communication Institute at the University of Missouri, said he'll be watching the candidates on the "wings of the debate stage" to see whether they can make a last-ditch effort to save their candidacy.

"They realize that they need to do something to garner some attention to break through, to have a moment to do something that will attract, that could create, some momentum for them so individuals would look at them again, which might move their polling numbers," McKinney said.

For most, the polling criteria may be harder to hit than the fundraising benchmarks. The DNC wants candidates to show some signs of momentum in order to qualify, and while 2% may not sound hard to achieve, the majority of candidates remain mired at 1% or even barely registering. Of the two dozen candidates, only four routinely net double digits.

Even candidates like Castro, who had a breakout moment in last month's debate that helped boost his fundraising, didn't necessarily see dividends when it came to the polls.

"Honestly, after that first debate, you know, I believed that we might see a bigger bounce in the polls than we did," the former Obama Cabinet member and the only Latino candidate running told the NPR Politics Podcast last week. "We've seen some [bounce], especially in favorability and name ID, and in some of the polls have gone above 1%. Had one that was at 4%, 3%, 2%. But again, that does not affect my confidence in myself or in my message for the voters, or the fact that I still have over six months to win this election in Iowa and then New Hampshire."

Ahead of this week's prime-time debate, moderated by and broadcast on CNN, some lagging candidates have already signaled they're planning to make their move. According to Axios, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who has struggled to catch fire, appears ready to attack Biden over women's issues. It's a strategy that Harris used to her advantage in June's debate when she criticized the fragile front-runner over his past opposition to busing and working with onetime segregationists in the Senate.

But candidates will also have to be careful. For this debate, new CNN ground rules state that a "candidate who consistently interrupts will have his or her time reduced." So for those trying to elbow their way to relevance, they'll still need to strike a delicate balance.

And going for the jugular doesn't always work. In June's debate, California Rep. Eric Swalwell tried to attack Biden over his age and make the case for a younger, newer generation of politicians. Earlier this month, Swalwell became the first major candidate to drop his bid.

One of the most interesting candidates to watch over the coming months to see whether he can make the debate stage may be Tom Steyer. The billionaire environmentalist — who announced earlier this year he wouldn't run but then reversed that decision at the beginning of July — has already spent heavily on advertising to pressure congressional Democrats to back impeachment, so he has name identification that could help boost him, and he did hit 2% in a Monmouth University South Carolina poll last week. His change of heart came too late to try to qualify for this week's debate.

But while Steyer is planning to infuse his campaign with his personal money, he still needs individual donors other than himself to make the debate cut in September. His ActBlue fundraising page alludes to that, encouraging supporters who want him on stage to donate even just $1 to help him make it to Houston.

Ultimately, a smaller debate field would mean Democrats were able to pare down their candidates faster than Republicans could in 2016 — and help them more quickly focus on their ultimate goal of defeating President Trump. Unlike the GOP in 2016, the DNC did mix up their candidates onstage instead of having an "undercard" debate. Still, those secondary debates continued up until just before primary and caucus voting actually began.

As McKinney put it, if a Democratic hopeful doesn't qualify in September, it becomes "harder to argue why are you in this race." For those who don't qualify, not making the next debate may be the death knell for their campaign, as they find it harder to generate buzz and media attention. And that then leads to even lower polling numbers and fundraising struggles, which has traditionally led to a natural shrinking of candidates, with many unable to pay staffers or maintain a presence in early states.

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Jessica Taylor
Jessica Taylor is a political reporter with NPR based in Washington, DC, covering elections and breaking news out of the White House and Congress. Her reporting can be heard and seen on a variety of NPR platforms, from on air to online. For more than a decade, she has reported on and analyzed House and Senate elections and is a contributing author to the 2020 edition of The Almanac of American Politics and is a senior contributor to The Cook Political Report.
Renee Klahr
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