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With 7 Candidates Debating In South Carolina, The Stage Is, Umm, Getting Larger ?

We’re at the point in the election cycle — after three states have voted — that the debate stage is supposed to shrink, not grow. But apparently the 2020 Democratic field didn’t get the memo. After six candidates debated in Nevada last week, seven have now qualified for this Tuesday’s showdown in South Carolina. The debate will reunite the six debaters from last week’s heated fracas and also welcome philanthropist Tom Steyer back to the stage.

Seven candidates have made the South Carolina debate

Democratic presidential candidates by whether and how they’ve qualified for the South Carolina debate, as of Feb. 24 at 10 a.m. Eastern

Biden 8 2
Sanders 8 2
Warren 7 1
Buttigieg 5 0
Bloomberg 6 0
Steyer 2 2
Klobuchar 0 0
Gabbard 0 0

To qualify for the South Carolina debate, a candidate must reach 10 percent support in at least four national or South Carolina polls or 12 percent support in at least two South Carolina polls from qualifying polling organizations. Separately, candidates can also qualify if they won at least one national delegate via the Iowa caucuses, the New Hampshire primary or the Nevada caucuses.

Sources: Polls, ABC News

The Democratic National Committee’s rules to qualify for the South Carolina debate were functionally the same as they were for the Nevada debate. Candidates could qualify in any of three ways: They could receive 10 percent support or more in at least four national or South Carolina polls conducted by a DNC-approved pollster1; they could receive 12 percent support or more in at least two such South Carolina polls2; or they could receive at least one pledged delegate from Iowa, New Hampshire or Nevada, the three states that have voted so far. To count toward qualification, polls must have been released between Feb. 4 and Feb. 24.

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There was not much suspense about who would make the debate, especially among the top candidates. Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden met all three criteria; Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg met two (the four-poll threshold and the delegate threshold). Sen. Amy Klobuchar will almost certainly fail to meet either polling criterion, but her spot on stage was secure when she won delegates in Iowa and New Hampshire.3 And former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg impressively surpassed 10 percent in six out of the six qualifying national surveys to be released during the short polling window.

Steyer was the only question mark, as his easiest path to the debate stage was getting at least 12 percent in two polls of South Carolina, where he has strong numbers. But state polls have been few and far between lately — in fact, unluckily for Steyer, only one was released during the entire qualifying period for the previous debate, making it impossible to make last week’s stage on the basis of state polls alone. However, this time around, two DNC-approved South Carolina polls were released between Feb. 4 and today, and Steyer got 15 percent in one and 18 percent in the other.

That leaves Rep. Tulsi Gabbard as the only “major” candidate (by FiveThirtyEight’s definition) who will not participate in Tuesday’s debate. Although the deadline to qualify is technically not until 11:59 p.m. Eastern tonight, Gabbard has gotten none of the qualifying polls she needs (or, for that matter, gotten any pledged delegates), so it’s next to impossible for her to qualify.

Still, seven candidates debating at this stage in the campaign is a very high number. Despite much higher polling thresholds, the same number of candidates will debate on Feb. 25 as debated on Dec. 19. Meanwhile, the Republican presidential debate on Feb. 25, 2016, featured just five candidates, and the Democratic presidential debate on Feb. 26, 2008, was just between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

And with Steyer likely to pick up at least some pledged delegates in South Carolina, and Bloomberg likely to do the same on Super Tuesday, seven candidates may soon meet the delegate threshold automatically, making the polling threshold obsolete. If the DNC wants to shrink the debate stage further for the March 15 debate or beyond, either the delegate threshold will have to get stricter, or candidates must start to drop out of their own accord.

Geoffrey Skelley contributed research.

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  1. As long as the polls were all conducted by different pollsters or, if conducted by the same pollsters, surveyed different geographies.

  2. These polls did not need to be by different pollsters or of different geographies.

  3. It looks like she won’t get any in Nevada, however.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.