Democrats to Raise Qualification Bar for Third Debate

The party's presidential wannabes have until September 12 to demonstrate a pulse.

The nation’s oldest political party is going to make it harder for every Tom, Dick, and Harry to get on the debate stage. But not for several more months.

ABC News, in partnership with Univision, will host the third Democratic presidential debate in September, the Democratic National Committee announced Wednesday, saying it was raising both the polling and fundraising bars for candidates to qualify.

The debate is set for Sept. 12 and could extend to a second night, Sept. 13, if enough candidates meet the threshold to participate. The location and moderators have not yet been announced.

Like the first two Democratic presidential debates — which are set for next month on NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo and for July on CNN — the September debate and a fourth, to be held in October, will cap participants at 10 per night.

But it will be more difficult for the nearly two dozen 2020 Democratic hopefuls to make the stage.

POLITICO, “DNC makes it more difficult to qualify for 3rd debate

That’s more than reasonable. As the absurdly large field demonstrates, simply leaving it up to the judgment of the candidates clearly isn’t sufficient. And allowing all of them to participate turns an already thin “debate” into an exercise in sound bytes.

Still, the particulars are a mite odd:

Unlike the first and second rounds of debates, when candidates must cross either a donor or polling threshold to qualify, candidates will need to surpass both bars to make the stage for the third and fourth debates. For the September event, candidates will have to hit 2 percent in four qualifying polls, versus 1 percent in three polls for the first debates, and they will need 130,000 individual donors, up from 65,000.

Although the polling threshold increase is modest, it could represent a significant barrier for many candidates who have struggled to hit that mark in early polling.

According to a POLITICO analysis, just eight candidates have received more than 2 percent of support in four early polls: former Vice President Joe Biden, Sens. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar and Cory Booker, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas.

Only polls published between June 28 (the day after the first round of Democratic debates) and Aug. 28 will count toward qualifying for the third debate in September.

The polling threshold seems logical: it’s the best evidence we have of where the candidates stand with the people who matter: the voters. And literally no candidate who has even a snowball’s chance of getting the nomination would be eliminated if we applied the standard now.

But why in the world are we using fundraising numbers—which can easily be gamed—as a metric? What does it tell us that the polls don’t?

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2020
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. EddieInCA says:

    Good. I’d prefer to have it even stricter. And I’d make one large, non-negotiable caveat: YOU HAVE TO BE A DEMOCRAT!!!

    The large group is a joke. And most of them KNOW they have zero chance. Feels like it’s a grift for more than one of them.

  2. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    For the first debate, I would leave the top 3 to 5 candidates out altogether. We already know who they are, they don’t need any edge. With the second debate, I would do random selection of candidates to whatever number of participants was deemed workable. Under this kind of a system by the third debate, if you’re not polling, maybe, 5-10%, you only add confusion to a crowded field and should exit it; you’re not going to be a factor.

    The marginals get the first debate all to themselves to make their name and stake their position. Additionally, the second debate may well disproportionally favor them as well. If Biden and Bernie become unelectable from missing out on the first two debates, well, that’s just Karma being the beeyotch that she is. Too bad, so sad. 😉

  3. An Interested Party says:

    The large group is a joke. And most of them KNOW they have zero chance. Feels like it’s a grift for more than one of them.

    If some of them worried a little bit more about the Senate and a little bit less about the presidency they would be doing themselves and their party a favor…what difference does it make if a Democrat wins the White House but has to deal with the perfidious Chief Turtle in the Senate…unless the Dems are able to also win a majority in the Senate they aren’t going to be able to get much done…

  4. Gustopher says:

    I’m not sure the traditional debate format is the right way to work with a crowd this large. The town halls that I have seen or listened to have been mostly excellent (Harris was great last night, and it might have been the first time that I have heard her say more than a few sentences), but the town halls really only pull people in to hear from the established candidates.

    How about a mixture town hall and bake-off?

    Candidates answer questions, and discuss among themselves, while preparing their signature dishes, in quantities large enough that the audience of a dozen primary voters can each sample. Four candidates per ninety minute episode, with the judges scoring on both policy and food.

    I’m envisioning Joe Biden ordering Dominoes.

  5. Gustopher says:

    @An Interested Party: Super Tuesday is March 3rd. I expect a whole lot of candidates will be reassessing the Senate on March 4th. Some candidates might be done before then.

    A little late, but Senate Primaries tend to be in June or so, at least based on some 2018 dates. If there are Senate races with weak candidates, some of the 20-30 Democrats running for President will find their love of the Senate.

  6. Kylopod says:

    @Gustopher: It’s essentially what Rubio did in 2016. He was unable to run for both the Senate and presidency under Florida law, so right before he announced his presidential run in early 2015 he said he wasn’t going to run for reelection as Senator. It wasn’t until June 2016 that he finally dropped out of the presidential race and entered the Senate one, which of course he went on to win.

    In most states it is possible to run for president and Senate simultaneously (Obama did), but practically that only applies to incumbent Senators. Candidates like Beto, Abrams, Bullock, and Hickenlooper are basically forced to choose, as Rubio did. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t still plenty of time for them to change their minds.