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Who’s In — Steyer! — And Who’s Out Of The January Debate

Although there have been six debates in the 2020 Democratic primary already, next Tuesday’s clash in Iowa is the first to actually take place in 2020. And, barring any wild, last-minute changes (we’ll get to Thursday’s flurry of polls in a second), it will be the most exclusive event yet — with only six candidates making the cut (the deadline for qualifying polls to drop is midnight tonight, so a couple more polls may still drop today).

We’re fairly confident in the debate roster at this point, though, because no one else is close to qualifying. Although, never say die — maybe Bloomberg surprises us with a donor announcement — as two polls from Fox News dropped late Thursday, putting billionaire activist Tom Steyer on the debate stage. In the end, he qualified for the debate via the early-state polling method (at least 7 percent in two early-state polls), picking up a startling 15 percent in South Carolina (he’d hit 4 percent previously in October) and 12 percent in Nevada (5 percent previously in November). So far, he’s the only candidate to have qualified solely via the early-state method.

As for the five other candidates who have made it, four of them sit above 5 percent in the national polls: former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. As for Sen. Amy Klobuchar, she, like Steyer, is polling below 5 percent nationally (she’s at 3 percent, on average; Steyer’s at 2 percent), but she’s still managed to crack 5 percent in six polls (a mix of early-state and national surveys) to qualify.

Six candidates made the January debate

Democratic presidential candidates* by whether and how they have qualified for the January debate, as of Jan. 10 at 6 a.m.

Joe Biden 16 12
Bernie Sanders 16 12
Elizabeth Warren 16 12
Pete Buttigieg 15 9
Amy Klobuchar 6 2
Tom Steyer 3 2
Michael Bloomberg 5 0
Andrew Yang 1 0
Cory Booker 0 0
Michael Bennet 0 0
John Delaney 0 0
Tulsi Gabbard 0 0
Deval Patrick 0 0
Marianne Williamson 0 0

*For candidates considered “major” by FiveThirtyEight.

To qualify for the seventh debate, a candidate must reach 5 percent support in at least four national or early-state polls, or 7 percent support in at least two early-state polls from qualifying polling organizations. Candidates must also have at least 225,000 unique donors, including at least 1,000 donors in at least 20 states or territories. Information released by campaigns is used to determine whether a candidate has hit the donor threshold. If a campaign announced it had reached 225,000 donors but did not say whether it had at least 1,000 donors in 20 states or territories, we assumed that it had met the latter requirement as well.


Just to refresh, the Democratic National Committee’s qualification rules require candidates to earn 5 percent support in at least four national or early-state polls, or 7 percent support in at least two early-state polls, from qualifying polling organizations released between Nov. 14 and Jan. 10.1 Candidates must also have at least 225,000 unique donors, including at least 1,000 donors in at least 20 states or territories.2

As for the other major candidates still in the race, only billionaire and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has reached the polling threshold. But because he isn’t seeking donations, he’s unlikely to attract enough individual contributors to qualify for the debate. But that probably doesn’t faze Bloomberg much, as he’s said making the debates isn’t really part of his strategy. Tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang and Sen. Cory Booker have enough donors to qualify (though Rep. Tulsi Gabbard is also close to the donor threshold), but have likely come up short on the polling front. Yang was the only other candidate to pick up a qualifying poll, but he needs three more to make it (or to hit at least 7 percent in two early-state polls). Meanwhile, the rest of the field didn’t pick up a single qualifying survey, including Booker and Gabbard.

Until Thursday, there had been a pronounced dearth in polling since late December, with only two qualifying polls released since the Dec. 19 debate. The lack of polling prompted Yang to ask the DNC to sponsor some surveys, but the DNC declined to do so, telling the New York Times that the organizations on the DNC’s polling list “should conduct more independent polling.” Of course, many pollsters avoid polling during holiday periods because of depressed response rates, which is one reason there are fewer qualifying polls this time around. But another culprit for the lack of polls may be the ongoing impeachment of President Trump. Conducting high quality polls is expensive, and some pollsters may have prioritized surveys on that question over horse-race polls of the Democratic primary, as impeachment — not Iowa — was the political story of December. But then it started raining polls on Thursday, when three new surveys came out. At least one more poll is expected Friday, though that wouldn’t be enough to change things for any of the candidates on the outside looking in.

The Iowa caucuses are now only roughly three weeks away, and Tuesday’s debate — held in Des Moines, Iowa — is the last debate before the voting starts. A lot is at stake in this debate, too, especially considering a recent CBS News/YouGov poll found that a majority of potential caucus-goers still haven’t “definitely” decided on their candidate choice (although 57 percent said they “probably” had). But next week, they and the rest of the country will get one more look at these six candidates before the voting starts, and with more voters likely paying attention, it’s possible that this debate could shake things up headed into Iowa.

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  1. For the early-state threshold, multiple polls from the same pollster in the same state count.

  2. We rely on self-reported figures from the campaigns for candidates’ fundraising numbers, and we’ve assumed that candidates who have reported having at least 225,000 donors overall also have at least 1,000 donors from each of 20 states or territories.

Geoffrey Skelley is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.