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Why It’s Tougher To Qualify For The December Democratic Debate

Throughout 2019, there have been a number of complaints that the Democratic National Committee’s thresholds for debate qualification are either too difficultor too easy. And looking ahead to the Dec. 19 debate, these thresholds might exact their worst toll yet. There are three candidates unlikely to make the cut: Sen. Cory Booker, former Secretary of Urban and Housing Development Julián Castro and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard. Each has cleared the 200,000 unique donor threshold, but are all short at least one (or more) qualifying poll.1

Understandably, these candidates aren’t happy about potentially missing the debate either. Booker told a crowd in Iowa this past weekend that he’s upset with the DNC for “trying to make the decisions” for the voters. And Gabbard’s campaign has once again taken the DNC to task for which polls count toward qualification, although Gabbard has now preemptively said she won’t attend the debate even if she does qualify. But Gabbard only needs one more qualifying poll so with a day to spare before the Dec. 12 deadline, it’s not impossible she makes the stage — assuming she’d reconsider participating. After all, Andrew Yang got his last qualifying poll on Tuesday in a Quinnipiac University survey in which he hit 4 percent. (Castro and Booker on the other hand, still need all four polls.)

There is one real challenge these candidates have faced, though. And that’s that far fewer qualifying polls have been released in the last two weeks than in the previous five debates. Only two polls have been released in the last two weeks compared to nine in the lead up to the last debate. In fact, the two national polls from Monmouth University and Quinnipiac University released on Tuesday marked the first surveys since a CNN poll came out on Nov. 27, the day before Thanksgiving.

Fewer qualifying polls dropped in the last two weeks

The number of debate-qualifying polls for each Democratic primary debate and those released within two weeks of the qualification deadline

Debate Length of qualification period Total No. polls No. Polls released in last two weeks
Jun. 26-27 >5 months 23 5
July 30-31 >6 months 37 5
Sept. 12 2 months 21 5
Oct. 15 >3 months 36 8
Nov. 20 2 months 32 9
Dec. 19* <2 months 26 2

* Data for the Dec. 19 debate includes all qualifying polls released as of 6 p.m. eastern on Tuesday, Dec. 10.

Source: Polls

Most debates have seen anywhere from five to nine polls released in the last two weeks, but for the upcoming debate, it seems as if there will be less than five. So what’s behind the dearth in polling? One obvious culprit is Thanksgiving. Pollsters try to avoid polling around the holidays because of concerns about response rates — people are often traveling or visiting family and friends. In that sense then, it’s not surprising that there weren’t any polls released right after the holiday weekend when few pollsters would’ve been in the field anyway. However, pollsters could have conducted surveys last week and then released them this past weekend — yet none did. But of course, the DNC doesn’t control when independent media organizations or universities choose to conduct their polls, so some of this is just bad luck for candidates like Booker, Castro and Gabbard. It’s also unclear, especially in the case of Booker and Castro, whether more polls would have helped them. Remember, neither has a single qualifying poll to their name.

However, the DNC does get to decide which polls count toward qualification. So that means some major national pollsters who have released surveys since Thanksgiving aren’t counted, including Morning Consult, The Economist/YouGov, and Reuters/Ipsos.2 But the DNC argues candidates have had a fair shot of making the December stage. “Candidates have had 26 opportunities to hit 4 percent, including multiple opportunities in all four early states,” Adrienne Watson, deputy communications director for the DNC told FiveThirtyEight.

But this, of course, hasn’t stopped candidates in danger of missing out from complaining — especially Gabbard — although it’s unclear whether more polls would have made the difference. What we do know though is that candidates haven’t gotten as many bites at the polling apple right before the deadline, so it’s likely the debate stage will now only feature seven candidates, which will be a pretty big departure from previous stages.


  1. Remember, to meet the polling requirement for the sixth debate, a candidate must reach 4 percent support in at least four national or early-state polls or 6 percent support in at least two early-state polls from qualifying polling organizations.

  2. It’s worth noting that Reuters was actually a DNC-approved polling organization for the first two debates but was removed prior to the third debate — one of the only changes the DNC has made to its list of sanctioned polling outfits.

Geoffrey Skelley is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.