2020 candidates face a critical debate deadline. Here's what happens if they miss it

Key Points
  • Days before Wednesday's deadline to qualify for the fall presidential primary debates, Democratic candidates teetering below the threshold are scrambling to make the grade.
  • Candidates need at least 2% support in at least four polls approved by the Democratic National Committee and 130,000 unique donors to secure a spot.
  • So far, 10 candidates have qualified for next month's debate.
Democratic presidential hopeful Mayor of New York City Bill de Blasio participates in the first Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, Florida, June 26, 2019.
Jim Watson | AFP | Getty Images

Days before Wednesday's deadline to qualify for the fall presidential primary debates, Democratic candidates teetering below the threshold are scrambling to make the grade.

Missing the debate could cripple campaigns struggling to survive in the crowded field — 23 are still vying to become the 2020 nominee.

Candidates need at least 2% support in at least four polls approved by the Democratic National Committee and 130,000 unique donors to secure a spot.

So far 10 candidates have qualified:

  • Former Vice President Joe Biden
  • Sen. Cory Booker
  • Sen. Kamala Harris
  • Sen. Amy Klobuchar
  • Sen. Bernie Sanders
  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren
  • South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg
  • Former HUD Secretary Julian Castro
  • Former Rep. Beto O'Rourke
  • Businessman Andrew Yang

The debates provide a national platform on which presidential hopefuls can make their case to the public ahead of the early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.

So far, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, former Sen. Mike Gravel and Rep. Eric Swalwell have suspended their campaigns.

The third and fourth rounds of debates are scheduled for Sept. 12-13 and October.

The good news for the low-polling hopefuls: They still have a chance to make the October debate. That's because the requirements are the same for both debates, so candidates who fail to qualify for September's see no reason to drop out just yet.

"While we continue to see positive momentum, we always knew the third debate would be a challenge and we will work toward the October debate goal," said Jaclyn Rothenberg, national press secretary for New York Mayor Bill De Blasio's campaign.

It also means there will likely be more Democrats on the stage in October than in September.

Some campaigns aim to soldier on through the presidential primary, even if they miss the fall debates entirely.

John Delaney's campaign announced he would remain in the race until at least the Iowa caucuses in February, despite currently polling at 0.4% in national Democratic polling. Seth Moulton, another long shot, is also dismissive of the notion of dropping out this fall.

"Our campaign isn't focused on the horse race," said Matt Corridoni, Moulton's national press secretary. "Early fall is not the time to be picking winners and losers."

But according to operatives of past elections, missing the debates means the campaign won't ever get off the ground.

"The reality is that if you're not in the debates, you're not in the campaign," said Christian Ferry, campaign manager for Sen. Lindsey Graham when he ran in a crowded GOP presidential primary field in 2016.

The debates overall might not be changing voter preference much, but in today's political climate candidates who are able to capture media attention are the ones who survive the longest.

"There's no better opportunity, no bigger opportunity than the debates," said Mike DuHaime, who served as senior strategist for Chris Christie's 2016 GOP presidential campaign.

"You need media attention and/or money," DuHaime said. "If you're not on the debate stage, you're not getting either of those two."

Many candidates have been pressured to drop out and run in key Senate races instead. With the GOP defending more than 20 seats next year, Democrats hope running strong candidates can give them control of the chamber for the first time since 2014.

Gov. John Hickenlooper's departure last week was accompanied by an announcement that he would consider challenging Republican Sen. Cory Gardner for his seat in Colorado in 2020. Indeed, Thursday morning Hickenlooper said he would do just that.

Gov. Steve Bullock has been goaded to run for a Republican-held seat in Montana, and O'Rourke has faced calls for him to recapture the magic of his failed but close 2018 bid to oust Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas by running against Sen. John Cornyn in 2020.

So far, that call is falling on deaf ears.

"I will not in any scenario run for the United States Senate," O'Rourke said on MSNBC. "I'm running for president. I'm running for this country. I'm taking this fight directly to Donald Trump, and that is what I am exclusively focused on doing right now."