Quick Hit Friday: Four Debates Down. With the Fifth, It’s About to Get Real.

With the fourth Democratic debate behind us, it’s time to look forward to what I think will be a new phase of this race. With my Wednesday morning debate review, I lamented, “For months now, the race has settled into a relatively stable pecking order — we have two dominant candidates, three candidates in a second tier, then a bunch of candidates who net between 0 and 2 points in most polls.”

Why so stable?

One of my leading theories is that Warren and Biden supporters — especially the latter — are too worried that if they jump ship to a different candidate, their chief opponent would look too strong and might run away with it. For example, I’d wager there are plenty of Biden supporters out there who have reacted to the elderly Biden’s missteps and gaffes with some version of “Uh oh,” and they’d love a viable second option. They might briefly consider Buttigieg, Harris, Klobuchar, or Bennet as center-left alternatives, but if Biden’s support diffused to several other candidates, Warren would tower above the field with 25 to 30 percent while these moderate candidates split 40 points in five different directions. To an establishmentarian centrist, including the pragmatic African American community, where the former Vice President continues to dominate, it feels like Biden or Bust at least until a clear moderate rival to Warren emerges.

Starting with the fifth debate, however, I expect the dynamic of the race, so long stuck in its current paradigm, will shift.

Importantly, the field will be considerably winnowed. It’s sad days over here at PPFA HQ, as I don’t think Amy Klobuchar will make the fifth debate. (Since at least April, Klobuchar and Buttigieg have been my preferred candidates in this field, though handsome Cory has since sprinted into a respectable third. Klobuchar, in particular, seems far too overqualified to be denied a podium.) Like they were between the second and third debates, the thresholds between the fourth and fifth are raised. The fifth debate’s qualifying criteria requires 165,000 donors (which the fourth debate’s 12 candidates have already met) and three percent in four DNC-approved national and/or early state polls OR five percent in two early state polls. Importantly, those polls must occur between September 13 and November 13 — a week before the fifth debate.

For those polling thresholds, here’s where the candidate stand after 14 DNC-approved surveys:


Though we still have nearly four weeks to go before the qualifying window ends, it’s looking like an eight-candidate debate. Beto O’Rourke on down need timely polling surges. Perhaps O’Rourke, who’s sniffing around three percent in most national polls, can find three more at that number, or perhaps Klobuchar can get a couple five-percenters in Iowa or Gabbard a couple five-percenters in New Hampshire. But that’s a lot to ask, particularly without being able to control how many polls will even be conducted.[1] While I hope Klobuchar’s strongest debate yet will inch her up, I’m not holding my breath.

A smaller field will impact the race. It’ll be the first time we see a debate with fewer than ten people. Just eight debaters allows much more substantive dialogue. Meanwhile, though none of the ten or so individuals in the field’s bottom half polls too well, all of them combine for a not irrelevant number. In the latest national polling average, the eight qualifying candidates combine for 84 percent support. That’s 16 percent to win over as the field crystallizes into those top candidates. If you consider just Iowa polls, the eight likely debaters combine for just 80 percent, leaving a fifth of Iowa voters up for grabs. (I have so much Iowa info scheduled for Monday that you’ll want to throw up all the corn you’ve ever eaten.)

You’d have to assume everyone still supporting people outside of the top eight haven’t moved to Biden or Warren for a reason, so it’s reasonable to think the other six candidates can benefit from anyone looking for a viable alternative to the big two, particularly if they have a good fifth debate. If someone like Buttigieg or Harris starts to pick up some momentum, that should attract moderates and/or African American voters away from Biden if he still looks shaky.

These developments — more time for debaters to speak, fewer candidates from which to choose, and new available voters — will all converge in November as more voters educate themselves before holiday conversations and the subsequent early states contests. We will see movement heading into Iowa.

Speaking of Iowa… see you on Monday.


[1]For the record, even if we lose Klobuchar, I am most certainly not in the camp of a Tulsi Gabbard, who thinks the DNC and corporations are picking and choosing winners. Every polling threshold has been reasonable — basically one percent, then two percent, and now three percent, inching up every two months. To not earn more support is a campaign’s own fault, particularly in the age of 24/7 news and social media.

Consider that no threshold at all would allow the nearly 300 official Democratic candidates to be on the debate stage. What then? And if one allowed just the networks to choose, rather than the DNC, then a party truly would turn over power to corporations.

A line must be drawn somewhere, and wherever a threshold does end up is arbitrary. The only people who would be annoyed by it are those on the wrong side of the qualifying marker. If Gabbard and Castro get in, then Michael Bennet and Steve Bullock are the ones trying to make news complaining. If the DNC made a 20 percent threshold to freeze out Bernie Sanders, the whiners would be on to something, but it’s just three percent in just four polls across two months — after nearly a year of campaigning!

There is a broader argument to be made by Gabbard and other critics, however: it sucks that one needs to seek the nomination of these two parties to become a viable presidential candidate. Still, that’s not the fault of committee-enforced debate qualifications. It’s the fault of the two-party system writ large.


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