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It Won’t Be Easy For Many Democrats To Make The September Debate

We’ll know next week who made the stage for the second Democratic primary debate on July 30-31 — July 16 is the deadline for polls that can affect who qualifies — so stay tuned, but in the meantime, here’s an early look at which Democrats are positioned to make the third debate in September.

At the moment, just five candidates have qualified for the third debate, according to our research, and while it’s early yet (candidates have until late August to improve their donor numbers and gain more support in the polls), the debate’s higher thresholds will probably result in far fewer than 20 candidates making the stage.

To qualify, candidates must have at least 2 percent support in four qualifying national or early-state polls released after the first debate on June 26-27 through two weeks before the third debate on Sept. 12-13 and 130,000 unique donors (including at least 400 individual donors in at least 20 states).1 And while those thresholds might not sound that difficult to meet, it’s definitely raising the ante from the first two debates, in which candidates needed to hit only 1 percent support in three qualifying polls or 65,000 unique donors (including at least 200 individual donors in at least 20 states).

So far, there have been six qualifying surveys for the third debate, so with more surveys to come, the number of candidates who make the cut will probably grow. But here’s a sneak peek of the five who have already made it and where the other candidates stand:

Which candidates qualify for the third primary debate?

Democratic presidential candidates by whether and how they have qualified for the third primary debate, as of July 12, 2019

Candidate Qualified Polls Donors POLLS Donors
Joe Biden 6 >130k
Pete Buttigieg 6 >130
Kamala Harris 6 >130
Bernie Sanders 6 >130
Elizabeth Warren 6 >130
Beto O’Rourke 3 >130
Julian Castro 1 >130
Andrew Yang 1 >130
Cory Booker 4 65-130
Amy Klobuchar 3 65-130
Tulsi Gabbard 0 65-130
Kirsten Gillibrand 0 65-130
Jay Inslee 0 65-130
Marianne Williamson 0 65-130
Michael Bennet 0 <65
Steve Bullock 0 <65
Bill de Blasio 0 <65
John Delaney 0 <65
Mike Gravel 0 <65
John Hickenlooper 0 <65
Seth Moulton 0 <65
Tim Ryan 0 <65
Joe Sestak 0 <65

For candidates deemed “major” by FiveThirtyEight.

To qualify, a candidate must reach 2 percent in at least four national or early-state polls from qualifying polling organizations and must have at least 130,000 unique donors with at least 400 donors in at least 20 states. Information released by campaigns is used to determine whether a candidate has hit the donor threshold. If a campaign reached 130,000 donors but did not say whether it had at least 400 donors in 20 states, we assumed that it had met the latter requirement as well. Candidates will have to prove to the DNC that they have met the donor requirements.

Sources: Polls, Media reports

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the only five candidates to have currently qualified are the polling front-runners (or those averaging 5 percent or more in national surveys). Outside of the five who have made it, three candidates have surpassed the 130,000 donor mark — former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro and businessman Andrew Yang — although their polling situations are still up in the air. O’Rourke has hit at least 2 percent in three surveys, putting him right on the cusp of qualification, while Castro and Yang each have one qualifying poll. Granted, as I wrote earlier this week in my six-month review of primary polls, O’Rourke’s numbers have been trending in the wrong direction, but he should be able to get one more poll of 2 percent or more, while Castro and Yang are on thinner ice.

On the flip side, two senators have met — or are close to meeting — the polling requirement, but each still needs more donors. Sen. Cory Booker has hit 2 percent in at least four qualifying polls but is still 15,000 donors shy of the 130,000 requirement, according to a recent fundraising email. Meanwhile, Sen. Amy Klobuchar is just one survey away from meeting that threshold, but we know less about her donor count — all we know is that she had more than 65,000 donors at the time of the June debate. Still, the good news for Klobuchar is that she’s close to meeting the polling requirement, which may be a tougher hurdle than the donor threshold for many candidates.

Speaking of which, four other candidates seem to be on track to reach the donor threshold — although they might fall short of the polling requirement. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s campaign reportedly has nearly 100,000 donors and author Marianne Williamson recently said she was just 49,000 donors short, which works out to 81,000 contributors on her ledger. Gov. Jay Inslee said he had 80,000 donors just before the first debate, and a couple of weeks before that, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand announced that she had crossed the 65,000-donor threshold, though neither has provided more recent figures. And none of these candidates has a single qualifying poll for the third debate to their name. Yes, there’ll be many more surveys between now and late August, but Gabbard and Gillibrand each have hit the 2 percent mark in only one DNC-sanctioned poll in all of 2019, while Inslee and Williamson have failed to do even that, so this quartet has a hill to climb.

As for the remaining candidates, they’re all long shots to meet the third debate requirements at this point — none has a qualifying poll to his or her name or the necessary number of donors. True, most haven’t shared their updated donor tallies, but none reported meeting the 65,000-donor criterion for the first debate (and they haven’t reported reaching it for the second debate either). Former Gov. John Hickenlooper reportedly had only 13,000 donors at the start of July, and although Gov. Steve Bullock reported raising $2 million in the second quarter of 2019, he didn’t reveal the number of donors who gave to his campaign. Former Rep. John Delaney is largely self-funding, which might discourage people from giving to his campaign and make it difficult to reach 130,000 contributors — something billionaire Tom Steyer, who just announced his campaign, might want to keep in mind. And the polling standard also remains a high hurdle — for instance, Sen. Michael Bennet hasn’t attracted more than 1 percent in any 2019 polls, while Rep. Tim Ryan hit 2 percent in just one survey that counted toward the first two debates. Every one of these candidates clearly needs a seismic change in fortunes to make the September debate.

And lastly, there are the candidates who may need a miracle to get into the third debate as they didn’t make the first debate stage and look likely to miss the second, too: Rep. Seth Moulton, former Sen. Mike Gravel and former Rep. Joe Sestak2 — now a “major” candidate per our criteria. (We’ll have a write-up on him soon.)

If the goal of the third debate is to winnow the field, that mission will likely be accomplished, as the debate requirements are likely going to keep out more than a few candidates. And that could be the death knell for lower-tier campaigns.


  1. The four polls must be conducted by different pollsters or in different geographical locations, and we rely on self-reported donor figures from the campaigns, assuming that candidates who’ve reported having at least 130,000 donors also have at least 400 donors in at least 20 states, though it’s possible that some of them haven’t hit that mark yet.

  2. True, Sestak declared his candidacy June 23, just three days before the first debate and after the period to qualify had ended. But given his polling performance so far, and that many pollsters weren’t even asking about him until recently, it’s probably unlikely that he would have made the first debate had he declared earlier.

Geoffrey Skelley is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.