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Who Will Make The Third Democratic Debate (And Who Could Miss It)

UPDATE (Aug. 13, 2019, 9:55 a.m.): Tom Steyer’s campaign announced Tuesday morning that it had hit the 130,000 donor mark. He now needs just one qualifying poll to make the third debate.

Time is running out for Democratic candidates to make the third presidential primary debate in September. There are about two weeks left to qualify, and because of the debate’s higher thresholds, it’s likely that there won’t be 20 candidates — although the debate may still span two nights. Nine candidates have already qualified by our count, and a handful of others could also make it. (In previous debates, the Democratic National Committee capped the stage at 10 participants each night, but it hasn’t yet specified what it will do for the third debate.)

However, it is unlikely that the debate field will grow much beyond 12 or 13 candidates, as it’s much harder to qualify this time than it was for the previous two debates. Not only do candidates have to meet both the polling and donor requirements, but they also must meet higher thresholds. To qualify, candidates must attract at least 2 percent support in four qualifying national or early-state polls released between June 28 and Aug. 28, and they must also have 130,000 unique donors (including at least 400 individual donors in at least 20 states).1

Tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang is the latest to join the ranks of those to make the stage, having gotten his fourth qualifying survey last week. (He already met the donor mark in early July.) And former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro is right on the cusp — he has hit the donor requirement and needs just one more poll.

Nine Democrats have made the third debate so far

Democratic presidential candidates* by whether and how they qualified for the third primary debate, as of Aug. 12

Met requirement for No. of
Candidate Polls Donors Polls Donors
Joe Biden 13 >130k
Pete Buttigieg 13 >130
Kamala Harris 13 >130
Bernie Sanders 13 >130
Elizabeth Warren 13 >130
Cory Booker 10 >130
Beto O’Rourke 8 >130
Amy Klobuchar 6 >130
Andrew Yang 4 >130
Julián Castro 3 >130
Tulsi Gabbard 1 >130
Tom Steyer 3 65-130
Kirsten Gillibrand 1 65-130
Jay Inslee 0 65-130
Marianne Williamson 0 65-130
John Hickenlooper 1 <65
Michael Bennet 0 <65
Steve Bullock 0 <65
Bill de Blasio 0 <65
John Delaney 0 <65
Seth Moulton 0 <65
Tim Ryan 0 <65
Joe Sestak 0 <65

*For candidates deemed “major” by FiveThirtyEight.

To qualify, a candidate must reach 2 percent in at least four national or early-state polls from qualifying polling organizations and must have at least 130,000 unique donors with at least 400 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 130,000 donors but did not say whether it had at least 400 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

Castro isn’t the only other candidate who’s close to making the third debate. There are three others who stand a reasonable chance of qualifying. Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard has already surpassed the 130,000 contributor mark, but she has just one qualifying poll to Castro’s three, so it will be tougher for her to get three more polls by Aug. 28. Not that this has stopped Gabbard from trying: In an email to supporters, she encouraged them to sign up for online survey panels and to answer calls from unknown numbers that might be a pollster dialing.

Meanwhile, despite jumping into the race only in early July, billionaire activist Tom Steyer may be in an even better position than Gabbard, having already hit at least 2 percent in three of the four qualifying polls he needs. Now it’s just a matter of hitting 2 percent in one more poll and clearing the donor requirement, which his campaign said in an email to supporters last week that it could do “as soon as” this week. It doesn’t hurt that Steyer has a huge organizing advantage — he can draw on the more than 8 million email addresses amassed by Need to Impeach, an anti-Trump group Steyer founded, not to mention additional contacts from NextGen, another Steyer organization.

The third candidate who seems to have a shot of making the stage (albeit a long shot) is New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who got her first qualifying poll last week. She still needs three more polls to qualify and, as of Aug. 7, approximately 30,000 more contributors to meet the donor requirement, but she’s still much further ahead than the other bottom-tier candidates.

In fact, the rest of the Democratic field will likely not make the cut. While former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper has one qualifying poll to his name, he reportedly had only 13,000 donors as of July 2. (He may also be exploring a possible Senate run back in Colorado.) Two other candidates, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and author Marianne Williamson, have reportedly surpassed 100,000 contributors but have yet to hit 2 percent in any qualifying surveys. As for the remaining seven candidates deemed “major” by FiveThirtyEight, none seems remotely close to 130,000 donors, and none has a single qualifying poll yet.

But failing to make the third debate isn’t necessarily all she wrote for some of the lower-tier candidates. According to an email sent by the DNC to the campaigns earlier this month, polls that count toward qualification for the third debate will also count for the fourth debate in October (date still TBD). In theory, that means a candidate who came up short of making the third debate might be able to pick up enough qualifying surveys and donors to make the fourth debate. However, failing to make the third debate might signal to potential supporters and prospective contributors that a candidate isn’t worth backing, thus making it harder to get the polls and donors necessary to qualify for the October event.

So don’t be shocked if some of the candidates who miss the third debate drop out of the race — recall that California Rep. Eric Swalwell withdrew not long after it became apparent that he would probably not qualify for the second debate. Time will tell, but the requirements for making the third and fourth debates will probably do more to winnow the sizable Democratic field than to help lower-rung candidates hang around.

The Sept. 12 and 13 debates in Houston will air live on ABC, ABC News Live and Univision, with a Spanish translation.


  1. We rely on self-reported figures from the campaigns for the fundraising numbers, and we’ve assumed that candidates who have reported having at least 130,000 donors also have at least 400 donors from each of 20 states, though it’s possible that some of them haven’t hit that mark yet.

Geoffrey Skelley is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.