Presidential primary debates are a major media spectacle in American politics, so candidates, naturally, want to participate lest they become irrelevant. And with a historically large Democratic field in the 2020 cycle, the race is on to qualify for the first two debates, which are taking place this summer.1
Democratic hopefuls have two ways of getting onto the debate stage, according to a February news release from the Democratic National Committee. They can earn at least 1 percent of the vote in three different national or early-state polls conducted by qualifying pollsters, or they can receive donations from at least 65,000 unique donors, with at least 200 individual donors in at least 20 different states. And as you can see in the table below, of the 16 major candidates FiveThirtyEight is tracking — plus former Vice President Joe Biden, who hasn’t yet entered the race but is widely expected to — 15 have already met at least one of those two criteria, according to our research.
|Qualifies for debates via …|
Of the major candidates we’re tracking, only U.S. Reps. Tim Ryan of Ohio and Eric Swalwell of California have not yet qualified, but working in their favor is that they announced their campaigns in the past two weeks. Also considering that they both received 1 percent in a recent Iowa poll by Monmouth University (one of the qualifying pollsters), it’s not implausible that they could hit that mark in two more qualifying polls by early June, ahead of the first debate.
And remember that our tally above doesn’t include 2020 hopefuls whom FiveThirtyEight doesn’t consider “major.” Some of those candidates, including author Marianne Williamson, Miramar, Florida, Mayor Wayne Messam and retired Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel, could end up qualifying for the debates, as could candidates who have up to now been pondering a run but end up getting into the race in the next couple of months. Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, for example, have not officially declared their candidacies, but each has already received 1 percent in at least one qualifying poll. So the number of candidates meeting the criteria to participate in the first debates could grow.
This means we could end up in a situation in which more than 20 candidates qualify to participate in the first debate. The Democratic National Committee indicated in its release that it will cap the debate at 20 candidates and that if more than 20 qualify, the candidates who meet both thresholds will be given preference. Based on our tally, which relies on self-reported figures, six currently do.2 But we don’t have a complete picture of who has met the donor criteria. (The DNC said in its release that candidates will be required to provide evidence of how many donors they’ve had.) So, theoretically, we could end up with more than 20 candidates who hit both marks.
What happens then? The party indicated in the release that it would then give debate spots to the candidates with the highest polling averages. So let’s suppose that the DNC needs to create a polling average to narrow the field to 20 participants — where do the candidates fall currently? Since late February, there have been four qualifying national surveys and three early-state polls (two from Iowa and one from New Hampshire).3 If we average these polls together, we can get a sense of how a polling average might help some candidates — and not others. As you can see in the table below, only eight candidates are polling above 2 percent, on average.
|Candidate||Number of polls included in||Polling Average|
Seven candidates are polling at less than 1 percent, which could signal that they might be in trouble if the polling average comes into play. Granted, if there are more than 20 qualifiers by June, there will be more polls to include, which could boost — or hurt — a candidate’s standing. Not to mention that it’s unclear how the DNC would calculate a candidate’s polling average. FiveThirtyEight reached out for clarification, but the DNC wouldn’t specify how it would handle such a situation.
Additionally, the process for averaging polls could mean that tenths of a percentage point might determine which lower-tier candidates make or don’t make the stage, so Democrats could find themselves mired in controversy because pollsters don’t always ask about the same list of candidates and surveys have margins of error much larger than a tenth or two of a percentage point.4
If the polling averages aren’t enough — and the DNC has need for further tie-breakers to determine a final list of debaters — it said in its release that the number of “unique donors” would be taken into consideration (although it declined to specify how this would work). It’s no wonder then that candidates are also very focused on increasing their total number of donors. For example, former Maryland Rep. John Delaney is trying to hit the donor threshold by promising to donate $2 to charity every time someone new donates to him. His campaign said Delaney’s “debate challenge” will remain in place until he has 100,000 new donors, which could help him in the event of a tie-breaker.
Time will tell, but Democrats could very well have more than 20 candidates qualify for the debates. And if that happens, get ready for a debate about the debates, similar to what Republicans experienced in the 2016 presidential cycle.