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Silver Bulletpoints: Who’s In Danger Of Missing The Third Debate?

Welcome to a special edition of Silver Bulletpoints, where today we’ll fire all three of our bulletpoints at one topic: the DNC’s decision to substantially tighten the qualifying criteria for the third presidential debate, which will take place on Sept. 12 and 13 on ABC News.1

For the third debate, candidates will need to meet both a polling threshold and a fundraising threshold to qualify — previously it was just one or the other. And those thresholds have been raised from what they were before:

  • Instead of needing 65,000 unique donors to qualify, candidates will need 130,000.
  • Instead of needing to achieve 1 percent in each of three polls, candidates need to hit 2 percent in each of four polls released between June 28 and August 28. The criteria for which polls qualify has also been amended slightly.

This is an important change, one that could serve to quickly winnow the field from 22 candidates to a dozen or fewer. Of course, candidates can still run their campaigns even if they can’t debate … but it will deprive them of a lot of oxygen.

Bulletpoint No. 1: 6-8 candidates look pretty safe for the third debate. Then it gets dicey.

Technically, no candidates have yet qualified for the third debate because only polls released beginning on June 28 count toward it. However, we can make some good guesses about who’s likely to make it. Five candidates — Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke — already had at least 130,000 unique donors as of their first-quarter fundraising reports. Joe Biden had almost 97,000 donors in his first 24 hours, so it’s safe to assume he’ll hit 130,000 soon if he hasn’t already. (The Biden campaign did not respond to a request for an updated donor count.) Andew Yang said on Wednesday that he had only about 20,000 more donors to go, which should also be no problem.

The polling criterion might be harder for some candidates, including Yang. Only eight candidates — Biden, Sanders, Warren, Harris, Buttigieg, O’Rourke, Amy Klobuchar and Cory Booker — have routinely polled at 2 percent or higher. And the relatively narrow time frame from when polls are considered will make it harder for candidates to get lucky.

Here’s my overall assessment of everyone’s chances, keeping in mind again that the polling number in the chart reflects all polls since Jan. 12 and not yet the ones that will actually count toward the third debate.

Which candidates are good bets to make the third debate?
Candidate Qualifying polls* Unique donors Nate’s assessment
Sanders 9 525,000 as of 3/31 Almost certain
Warren 9 135,000 as of 3/31 Almost certain
Harris 9 138,000 as of 3/31 Almost certain
Biden 9 96,926 as of 4/26 Almost certain
Buttigieg 8 158,550 as of 3/31 Almost certain
O’Rourke 9 163,000 as of 3/31 Almost certain†
Klobuchar 8 65,000 as of 5/3 Probable
Booker 8 65,000 as of 5/3 Probable
Yang 1 110,000 as of 5/29 Tossup
Castro 2 65,000 as of 5/3 Tossup
Gabbard 1 65,000 as of 4/10 Tossup at best
Gillibrand 1 Tossup at best
Inslee 0 65,000 as of 5/24 Tossup at best
Hickenlooper 1 Tossup at best
Williamson 0 65,000 as of 5/9 Leaning against
Ryan 1 Lots of work to do
Bullock 0 Lots of work to do
Delaney 0 Lots of work to do
Swalwell 0 Lots of work to do
de Blasio 0 Lots of work to do
Bennet 0 Lots of work to do
Moulton 0 Lots of work to do

* Qualifying polls at 2% since Jan. 1. Only polls released from June 28 to August 28 count toward the third debate. This column reflects how many polls released since Jan 1. would have qualified under the rules that will be used for the third debate.

† Barring further polling collapse

The eight candidates I mentioned in the previous sentence all look reasonably safe to qualify, although Klobuchar and Booker have some work to do on the fundraising side, and O’Rourke needs to avoid a further polling slump. After that, Yang and Julián Castro probably have the next-best chances, although they’re far from guaranteed of inclusion. If I were anyone else, I’d be feeling pretty nervous.

Bulletpoint No. 2: The change helps the sorts of candidates that the DNC probably likes

There’s nothing better than being the last person in line to make the roller coaster before the amusement park shuts down for the day. The debate equivalent is being one of the last candidates who safely meets the qualification threshold. That probably means O’Rourke, Booker and Klobucahar, who are behind frontrunners such as Biden and Sanders, but nonetheless reasonably safe bets for inclusion. Polling surges often begin in debates, and there are usually only one or two of them at a time. With fewer opponents on stage, folks like Klobuchar will have better odds of being the flavor-of-the-month.

It may not be entirely coincidental that it’s candidates like these who benefit from the DNC’s decision. Booker and Klobuchar are traditionally well-credentialed candidates who have compiled a fair number of endorsements, signaling party support. O’Rourke isn’t as well-credentialed, but his ability to raise money from grassroots donors is something the party probably wants to reward.

Yang and Castro are somewhere in between, both in terms of whether the rules change helps them and how “party elites” probably feel about them. I’d imagine Democrats probably do want Castro, the only Latino candidate, at the debate — but if not then maybe he could turn around and run for Senate. Yang may be unorthodox, but brings a lot of policy substance and a different kind of voter to the table.

Who’s hurt? Well, everyone below Yang and Castro, but also any candidates such as Stacey Abrams who might seek to enter the race later on. Sanders, who has a high floor but perhaps a low ceiling, would probably want the field to remain as fragmented as possible for as long as possible, so any move to encourage winnowing hurts him too.

Nate’s not-to-be-taken-too-seriously presidential tiers

For the Democratic nomination, as revised on May 30, 2019

Tier Sub-tier Candidates
1 a Biden
b [this row intentionally left blank]
c Harris, Warren, Sanders, Buttigieg
2 a O’Rourke
b Booker, Klobuchar
3 a Yang, Castro, Abrams* ↓
b Inslee ↓, Gillibrand ↓, Gabbard
c Bullock ↓, Hickenlooper ↓, Ryan ↓, de Blasio ↓, Bennet ↓, Williamson ↑

* Candidate is not yet officially running but may still do so.

Bulletpoint No. 3: Which of the third-tier candidates is most poised for a debate-related surge? Maybe Jay Inslee and Kirsten Gillibrand.

Of course, odds are that at least one of the candidates currently in what I think of as the third tier — that is, everyone behind O’Rourke, Klobuchar and Booker — will have surged by the time we get to September, most likely based on their performance in the first two debates. It’s probably a fool’s errand to guess at the most likely surgers, but I’m a fool so let’s run the errand. My wild guess is: Kirsten Gillibrand and Jay Inslee.

As discussed here, I tend to see debates as resetting the race toward the “fundamentals.” In particular, they tend to reset or reverse media narratives, which can often drive short-term surges or slumps in the polls. So one view on which candidates are most likely to be helped are those that have reasonably good credentials, but who have been underachieving so far because they’re ignored by the media or are getting largely negative coverage. My list of underachieving candidates — the ones where I really can’t figure out why they’re not doing better — is headlined by Gillibrand, Inslee and Castro.

Another answer is candidates who have relatively distinct messages or viewpoints. Candidates high on that list probably include Inslee again, with his focus on climate change, along with Yang and Tulsi Gabbard. Gillibrand, who has distinctive messaging around women’s issues, might qualify here as well.

FInally, although it’s a very rough prior, you might give a little bit of credit to candidates who have experience as lawyers, especially as prosecutors or litigators, and who therefore have had to do a lot of thinking on their feet in contentious settings. Inslee is a former prosecutor, and Gillibrand has an impressive legal resume. Harris and Klobuchar (although they’re not in the third tier) also come to mind, of course.

From ABC News:

1-on-1 with 2020 candidate Gov. Jay Inslee


  1. ABC News owns FiveThirtyEight.

  2. As compiled by my colleagues Derek Shan and Geoffrey Skelley.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.