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The Bottom Of The Democratic Field Is Making Moves, Too

Sen. Michael Bennet and former Sen. Mike Gravel might be long shots for the Democratic nomination, but a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. And in FiveThirtyEight’s eyes, both of them cleared important hurdles this week. Meanwhile, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock experienced a significant setback.

First, Gravel became the 23rd Democrat to count as a “major” candidate by FiveThirtyEight’s definition when he met six of the 10 criteria that we laid out back in March:

  1. He is an official candidate for president (and not just exploring a run).
  2. He is running to win — or at least his campaign says so. Originally, Gravel said that he was just running in an attempt to qualify for the first two Democratic debates, where he could give his ideas a wider platform. But on April 29, he tweeted that he is running to win — apparently a response to FiveThirtyEight’s and the Democratic National Committee’s standards for assessing campaign viability. Although Gravel hasn’t taken any other actions — like actually campaigning in any early states — that suggest he is serious about winning, we take candidates at their word on this.
  3. He has at least three full-time staffers, according to the campaign. Gravel’s campaign initially made a splash because it was organized and led by teenagers, including campaign manager and recent high school graduate David Oks. But Oks told FiveThirtyEight that the campaign now has six full-time staffers who are paid a stipend — four soon-to-be or current college students who are working full-time on the campaign at least through the summer1 and two staffers who are already in the workforce.
  4. A majority of pollsters (nine out of 16) have included Gravel in their polls of the 2020 Democratic field over the last 30 days. Specifically, Change Research, Denno Research, Emerson College, Florida Atlantic University, Fox News, Harris, McLaughlin & Associates, Monmouth University and YouGov have done so.
  5. He has held public office before. (He served as Alaska’s junior senator from 1969 to 1981.)
  6. The office he held was a major one by our criteria. (Our list of major offices is president, vice president, governor, U.S. senator, U.S. representative, mayor of a city of at least 300,000 people and Cabinet member.)

So, what does being a major candidate get Gravel? We’ll cover his campaign more regularly now — including figuring out what his path to the nomination could look like — but it doesn’t mean much more than that. With such a sprawling field, our list of major candidates is mostly just an effort to draw a line somewhere, though our list is purposefully inclusive. However, Gravel still has a ways to go before he achieves his goal of qualifying for the first two Democratic debates — unlike Bennet.

Bennet qualified on Tuesday when CNN/SSRS released a national poll showing him with 1 percent support in the Democratic primary (even though he got 0 percent among the voters who had heard of him!). It was the third poll to give Bennet that magical 1 percent, after an Ipsos/Reuters national poll from May and a CNN/Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll of Iowa conducted by Selzer & Co. in March. Qualifying for the first two debates requires getting either 1 percent support in at least three qualifying polls (conducted by different pollsters or in different geographies) or 65,000 unique donors (including at least 200 individual donors in at least 20 states).2

Bennet wasn’t the only candidate whose debate fate changed this week. On Thursday, we found out that the DNC told Politico that two ABC News/Washington Post polls that asked respondents an open-ended question about whom they supported in the primary would not count for debate inclusion. (Previously, the DNC had not responded to multiple inquiries from FiveThirtyEight about how they would handle these polls. Like many news outlets, we had treated them as qualifying polls based on the fact that the DNC’s initial debate rules said that polls from ABC News and the Washington Post would count.) As a result, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, who was previously thought to qualify for the debates in part because he got 1 percent in three polls — including one of those ABC News/Washington Post polls — now has only two qualifying polls and therefore is still on the bubble for the first two debates.

Which candidates are in line to make the primary debates?

Democratic presidential candidates by whether and how they have qualified for the first two primary debates, as of June 6, 2019

Qualifies for debates via …
Candidate polls donors both
Joe Biden
Cory Booker
Pete Buttigieg
Julián Castro
Tulsi Gabbard
Kamala Harris
Jay Inslee
Amy Klobuchar
Beto O’Rourke
Bernie Sanders
Elizabeth Warren
Marianne Williamson
Andrew Yang
Michael Bennet
Bill de Blasio
John Delaney
Kirsten Gillibrand
John Hickenlooper
Tim Ryan
Eric Swalwell
Steve Bullock
Mike Gravel
Seth Moulton

For candidates deemed “major” by FiveThirtyEight.

To qualify via polling, a candidate must reach 1 percent in at least three national or early-state polls from qualifying polling organizations. To qualify via donors, a candidate must have at least 65,000 unique donors with at least 200 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 65,000 donors but did not say whether it had at least 200 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

With Bennet in and Bullock out, that makes 20 Democrats, by our count, who are now qualified for the first two primary debates. That’s a significant milestone, because the debates are capped at 20 total participants.3 That means if one more candidate qualifies, the DNC will need to go to its tiebreaker rules.


  1. Oks said he may take a year off between high school and college if the campaign takes off.

  2. We rely on self-reported figures from the campaigns for the fundraising numbers, and we’ve assumed that candidates who’ve reported having at least 65,000 donors also have at least 200 donors from each of 20 states, though it’s possible that some of them haven’t hit that mark yet.

  3. The debates will include up to 10 people on stage over two nights.

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

Geoffrey Skelley is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.