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Tiebreakers Could Decide Who Makes The Second Democratic Debates

This week, all eyes are on the first Democratic presidential debates, which feature 20 candidates, 10 each on Wednesday and Thursday. Here at FiveThirtyEight, we’re already looking ahead to who will make the stage in the second set of debates, taking place next month. According to our research, things might get complicated: 21 candidates have already qualified (and more could make the cut in the coming weeks), so the Democratic National Committee might have to turn to its tiebreakers to reduce the field to its maximum of 20 debaters.

The 20 candidates on stage this week have already qualified for the next set of debates by meeting at least one of the two thresholds that the DNC laid out for the June and July debates: A candidate must earn either 1 percent support in at least three qualifying national or early-state polls or 65,000 unique donors.1 And since the DNC announced who made the first debates, one more candidate has met the polling requirement: Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, who fell one poll short the first time around. This means that we could find ourselves in a situation for the July debates in which the DNC’s tiebreaking rules are needed.

Below is a table showing whether a candidate2 has qualified for the second debates by hitting both the polls and donor requirements or by meeting only the polls threshold. (Currently, there are no candidates who have qualified by the donor requirement alone.) At this point, we count 14 candidates who have met both requirements, and according to the DNC qualification rules, as long as no more than 20 candidates hit both, those 14 have a guaranteed spot at the second debates.3

Who will make the second Democratic debates?

Democratic presidential candidates by whether and how they have qualified for the second primary debates, as of June 24, 2019

Qualifies for debates via …
Candidate Polls and donors Just polls
Joe Biden
Cory Booker
Pete Buttigieg
Julian Castro
Tulsi Gabbard
Kirsten Gillibrand
Kamala Harris
Jay Inslee
Amy Klobuchar
Beto O’Rourke
Bernie Sanders
Elizabeth Warren
Marianne Williamson
Andrew Yang
Michael Bennet
Steve Bullock
Bill de Blasio
John Delaney
John Hickenlooper
Tim Ryan
Eric Swalwell
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 have to prove to the DNC that they have met the donor requirements.


As for the remaining slots, this is where the tiebreaker rules could come into play. If the number of people who have qualified by both polls and donors remains fewer than 20 (as it is now), the DNC’s rules say that to fill the rest of the slots, it will turn to a polling average for each candidate based on the three qualifying polls in which each performed best. Currently, we count seven candidates who have qualified for the July debates by polls alone and are competing for the last six debate spots based on their polling average.

But here’s the thing, the DNC could still end up with a tie it can’t break. If the deadline for debate qualification were today, for example, four of the seven candidates who’ve qualified via the polls alone would be tied with a polling average of exactly 1 percent: Michael Bennet, Bill de Blasio, Eric Swalwell and Bullock. (The other three — John Delaney, John Hickenlooper and Tim Ryan — would all make the stage because their respective polling averages are above 1 percent.4) This would trigger the next tiebreaker: the total number of qualifying polls in which a candidate earned 1 percent or more in support. By our count, that would push de Blasio, who has seven of these polls, and Bennet, who has four, onto the debate stage, leaving Bullock and Swalwell to compete for the final spot. But those two candidates have the same number of qualifying polls: three. And the DNC has not specified what would happen in that scenario.

The DNC did not respond to FiveThirtyEight’s request to clarify how it will determine its debate participants should its tiebreakers be unable to narrow the field to 20 candidates. But of course, this exercise could all be for naught, as new polls or donor information may change the situation between now and the mid-July deadline for qualifying for the second debates. After all, the first debates are an opportunity for low-level candidates to gain support.

Nonetheless, a tiebreaking dilemma may be unavoidable, especially if the bottom of the field gets more crowded: Former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel just got his first qualifying poll; Miramar, Florida, Mayor Wayne Messam — who is not yet a “major” candidate under FiveThirtyEight’s criteria — now has two qualifying polls; and former Pennsylvania Rep. Joe Sestak just jumped into the race. So there might be more candidates in the mix by the time the second debate field is decided. Time will tell if the DNC will need to figure out additional steps to handle debate tiebreakers. In the meantime, we’ll be keeping a close eye on the first debates to see how they shake up the Democratic race.

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  1. The polls must be conducted by different pollsters or in different geographies, and the donors must include at least 200 individuals in at least 20 states. For the fundraising numbers, we rely on self-reported figures from the campaigns, and we assume that candidates who’ve reported having at least 65,000 donors also have at least 200 donors from each of 20 states, although it’s possible that some of them haven’t hit that mark yet.

  2. Limited to candidates deemed “major” by FiveThirtyEight.

  3. If more than 20 candidates meet both the polling and donor requirements, the DNC will use a polling average based on candidates’ three strongest qualifying polls to determine who will make the stage. If that doesn’t narrow the field to 20 candidates, the total number of qualifying polls in which a candidate earned 1 percent or more will be used to break any outstanding ties.

  4. According to my calculations, these three candidates all have an average of 1.3 percent.

Geoffrey Skelley is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.