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Here’s How We’re Defining A ‘Major’ Presidential Candidate

How many Democrats are running for president? It’s not a trick question. And it’s not an easy question to answer.

Unfortunately, it’s also not a question we can really avoid. We’ll be writing about the Democratic primary for the next [checks notes] 16 months here at FiveThirtyEight, until the Democratic National Convention is held next July in Milwaukee. We’ll be making thousands of charts and graphics featuring these candidates, taping hundreds of podcast segments about them, and collecting heaps of data on their activities. While there’s some room for flexibility — I can mention Marianne Williamson’s name in passing without committing FiveThirtyEight to write a 2,000-word feature about her — we need to make a distinction between “major” candidates and everyone else for a lot of what we’re doing.

It would be nice to be extra inclusive, but that gets out of hand quickly. According to the Federal Election Commission, there were actually 209 (!) Democrats1 who had filed paperwork to run for president or form an exploratory committee as of last Friday afternoon, including luminaries such as Gidget Groendyk, Maayan Z. Zik, John Martini and Dakoda Foxx.

The Washington Post and New York Times have more modest lists of 15 Democratic candidates — but to be honest, their definition of who qualifies seems to be pretty arbitrary. For instance, Williamson, a self-help guru and best-selling author, is on both lists, but Wayne Messam — the mayor of Miramar, Florida, who this month formed a presidential exploratory committee — is not on either.

There are lots of other edge cases. What to do with entrepreneur Andrew Yang, who became Internet-famous and is now penetrating mainstream coverage of the 2020 race? What about Mike Gravel, who is an 88-year-old former U.S. senator and may be running for president — or who may just be helping some teenagers troll everybody? Then there is John Delaney, who is a former U.S. representative and has been languishing in obscurity despite having fairly traditional credentials for a presidential candidate.2 He’s been drawing a goose egg in most polls and failing to raise enough money to qualify for the debates despite having been running for president since July 2017.

For better or worse, we need a set of relatively objective standards to distinguish major from minor candidates. So we’ll be introducing one in this article and revealing which candidates do and do not qualify so far. The fact that the standards are objective doesn’t mean they’re beyond reproach — there’s subjective judgment involved in determining which objective measures to use. (The judgment comes primarily from me and Nathaniel Rakich; everyone else politely ignored us while we went through several iterations of the qualifications in FiveThirtyEight’s politics Slack channel.) But they’re at least something we can apply consistently to all the candidates.

In fact, candidates will have two paths — plus one shortcut, which I’ll explain in a moment — to qualify as major by FiveThirtyEight’s standards. (Candidates must be officially running or have formed an exploratory committee to qualify; Joe Biden may be major, but he isn’t a candidate yet.) The first path is to meet the Democratic National Committee’s standards to qualify for the presidential debates. According to the DNC’s rules, candidates can qualify via either of the following ways:

  • Receive at least 1 percent of the vote in national or early-state polls from at least three separate pollsters on a list prepared by the DNC.
  • Receive donations from at least 65,000 unique individuals, including at least 200 donors in each of 20 states.

There are a couple of complications here. One is that we don’t necessarily expect the DNC to declare which candidates have and have not qualified until we get closer to the debates, which begin in June. So we’ll be determining this for ourselves, using their standards. We’ll also be taking candidates at their word when they claim to have reached 65,000 donors, unless we have some strong reason to doubt them; the DNC will seek to vet and verify their claims, by contrast.

Also, the DNC says that it will limit at least the first couple of debates to 20 candidates; if more than 20 qualify, they’ll use some other (ambiguous) method to decide who actually gets a podium. We’ll consider candidates to be major even if the DNC runs out of room for them, however.3

To be honest, we think the DNC standards are pretty generous. Getting 65,000 people to donate to you isn’t that much — Beto O’Rourke received donations from twice that many people within his first 24 hours!4 It’s also not that hard to hit 1 percent — just 1 percent! — in a handful of polls.

Nonetheless, we also have a second path open. It requires candidates to meet at least six of the following 10 criteria:

How we’re defining “major” presidential primary candidates

Candidates must meet the DNC’s debate qualifications via fundraising or polling OR meet at least six of these 10 criteria …

How actively the candidate is running
1. Has formally begun a campaign (not merely formed an exploratory committee)
2. Is running to win (not merely to draw attention to an issue)
3. Has hired at least three full-time staffers (or equivalents)
4. Is routinely campaigning outside of their home state*
What other people think of the candidate
5. Is included as a named option in at least half of polls*
6. Gets at least half as much media coverage as the median debate-qualified candidate*
7. Receives at least half as much Google search traffic as the median debate-qualified candidate*
8. Receives at least one endorsement from an endorser FiveThirtyEight is tracking
The candidate’s credentials
9. Has held any public office (elected or appointed)
10. Has held a major public office (president, vice president, governor, U.S. Senate, U.S. House, mayor of a city of at least 300,000 people, member of a presidential Cabinet)

The criteria are applied to the trailing 30 days.

* “Routinely campaigning” means being on the road, hosting events open to the public, for at least two weeks out of the previous 30 days. Polls include all state and national polls over the previous 30 days as tracked by FiveThirtyEight; however, each polling firm is counted only once. (If a candidate is mentioned by name in any of that polling firm’s polls over the previous 30 days, he or she counts as having been included.) Media coverage is based on the number of articles at Google search traffic is based on topic searches — rather than verbatim search strings —over the past 30 days in the United States.

These standards are also meant to be pretty generous. If we think of those criteria as a point system, in which candidates get a point for every one they fulfill, someone can get to 4 points just by doing the basic blocking-and-tackling of a campaign: formally launching their bid, going out on the campaign trail, hiring a few staffers and claiming (however implausibly) that they’re in it to win it rather than (as Gravel has said) merely to draw attention to a favorite cause.5 In addition, candidates who are actively running can get 1 or 2 additional points if they have been elected or appointed to public office, depending on the stature of the position. So, candidates such as Delaney, U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper can qualify as major based on actively campaigning (4 points) and their credentials as elected officials (2 points) alone.

For other candidates — those who have held only minor public offices or none at all, or those who are only campaigning half-heartedly — there are four additional ways to gain points, based on whether they’re included in polls, how much media coverage they’re getting and how much they’re being searched on Google, and whether they’ve been endorsed by anyone whom FiveThirtyEight is tracking. It’s really not that hard to get to 6 points.

There’s also the shortcut I mentioned before. If we consider it almost certain that a candidate will eventually qualify under either the first or the second path, we reserve the right to designate them as major even if they haven’t technically qualified yet. For instance, if John Kerry or Stacey Abrams were to run, they might not qualify right away because it would take the various metrics some time to catch up to their (somewhat unexpected) announcements, but they would almost certainly reach them within a few weeks. So we’d consider them to be major candidates from the start.

Which candidates have qualified so far?

By our accounting, 12 people have qualified for the debates under the DNC’s rules, one of whom (Biden) isn’t actually running yet. They also qualify as major under FiveThirtyEight’s rules, therefore.

Which candidates have qualified for the debates?

Candidates who achieved at least 1 percent in three DNC-approved polls through March 24, 2019

Candidate CNN Monmouth U. Des Moines Register (Iowa) UNH (N.H.) Fox News
de Blasio

Shaded candidates have qualified for the debates under FiveThirtyEight’s interpretation of DNC rules, including Yang, who qualified on the basis of fundraising. According to the DNC: “Qualifying polls will be limited to those sponsored by one or more of the following organizations/institutions: Associated Press, ABC News, CBS News, CNN, Des Moines Register, Fox News, Las Vegas Review Journal, Monmouth University, NBC News, New York Times, National Public Radio (NPR), Quinnipiac University, Reuters, University of New Hampshire, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Washington Post, Winthrop University. Any candidate’s three qualifying polls must be conducted by different organizations, or if by the same organization, must be in different geographical areas.”

Eleven of these candidates — Biden, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, O’Rourke, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, Julian Castro, Kirsten Gillibrand, Pete Buttigieg and Jay Inslee — have qualified on the basis of achieving at least 1 percent of the vote in three DNC-approved polls. A 12th candidate, Yang, has qualified by having at least 65,000 donors, according to his campaign. We reached out to various other campaigns that didn’t meet the DNC’s polling benchmark to ask whether their candidate had hit 65,000 donations, and none claimed to have done so.

However, three additional candidates qualify as major under FiveThirtyEight’s second path. Delaney, Gabbard and Hickenlooper are running full-fledged campaigns and currently or formerly held major elected offices, so they each have at least 6 points, enough to qualify. (They’re also been included in the majority of polls, and two of the three, Delaney and Hickenlooper, have at least one endorsement.)

Other candidates fall a little short, however:

  • Williamson gets 4 points for running a full-fledged campaign, including a busy travel schedule and a staff of 10 full-time people, but she has no points beyond that for now. She’s included in polls occasionally, but less than half the time; she has less than half the Google search traffic of the median Democratic candidate who has qualified for the debate; she isn’t included in much media coverage about the campaign; and no one on our list has endorsed her yet. Nor has she held public office before. Some of these categories are close-ish, though, so it’s not a stretch to imagine her qualifying in the future, whether by meeting the DNC’s fundraising criteria or for other reasons.
  • Messam is not yet officially running — although he does have an exploratory committee. He also hasn’t been included in any polls and has drawn very little interest from the media (other than FiveThirtyEight!) or the public (as measured by Google searches). He has a fairly easy path to 5 points if and when he does launch a full-fledged campaign, however — including hiring a staff and traveling to events — since he gets 1 point for being an elected official (although not 2, since Miramar is not a large city). The 6th point is trickier, but getting pollsters to include him or someone to endorse him would do the trick.
  • It’s not clear how seriously Gravel is taking any of this, and even though he gets 2 points for being a former U.S. senator, that alone isn’t (nearly) enough. If he does decide to officially run and begins campaigning (for the time being, an exploratory committee was opened on his behalf), he’ll accumulate additional points quickly, although note that Gravel has said that he would be running to critique U.S. imperialism rather than to win, so he wouldn’t get the point that most other candidates get for being in the race to win.
  • Finally, for posterity’s sake, there’s the question of whether former West Virginia state Sen. Richard Ojeda counted as a major candidate back when he was running. (He has withdrawn his bid.) By our definition, the answer is “no,” as he usually wasn’t included in polls, didn’t draw a significant amount of search traffic or media coverage, and didn’t get any endorsements, meaning that he’d have had no more than 5 points.

So how many “major” Democrats are running for president? By our definition, there are 14 major candidates so far — not counting Biden, who is not running yet — with Williamson, Messam and Gravel having a shot to achieve major status later on. There are also several candidates who, like Biden, are still considering a bid and who would fairly easily qualify as “major” if they ran, so our guess is that the Democrats will eventually meet or surpass the record-setting 17-candidate field that the Republicans had in 2016.

CLARIFICATION (May 2, 2019, 12:25 p.m.): This article has been updated to clarify that the media coverage and Google search criteria for “major” candidates are relative to the median candidate who has qualified to participate in the first Democratic presidential debates.

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  1. Slightly less than that if you remove names that look like duplicates.

  2. Plenty of members of the House have run for the presidency, even if few of them have been nominated.

  3. Or if it changes its standards later on to make them stricter.

  4. And having 200 donors in each of 20 states (or 4,000 total) is trivial if you have 65,000 nationwide.

  5. We assume that candidates are running to win unless they say something to the contrary.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.