Tulsi Gabbard and Andrew Yang could get more airtime than ever to introduce themselves to America with just one more poll — or they could spend the December debate sitting at home.
Right now, six candidates — four white men and two white women — are set to take the stage for the Democratic primary debate co-hosted by POLITICO and PBS NewsHour on Dec. 19: Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, Tom Steyer and Elizabeth Warren. Gabbard and Yang are not among them, with only one week left before qualification closes.
For both Gabbard and Yang, being excluded from the debate stage could starve their long-shot campaigns of the oxygen that comes with the nationally televised platform — which has helped sustain their small-dollar fundraising and marginal poll numbers — as the rest of the field continues to winnow.
But if one or both qualify, they are likely to get greater shares of the speaking time than ever before. No debate thus far has included fewer than 10 candidates — and even if both Gabbard and Yang qualify, this one would include just 8 participants.
Their fates, however, are stuck in suspended animation. Since the previous debate, on Nov. 20, there have been only two polls conducted by sponsors approved by the Democratic National Committee — a drought deepened by the Thanksgiving holiday, when pollsters typically go dark rather than try to call traveling Americans.
Candidates can qualify for the December debate stage by hitting 4 percent in four polls approved by the DNC (or 6 percent in two approved early state polls) and by having 200,000 unique contributors, with 800 in 20 different states, territories or the District of Columbia. Candidates’ qualification is based off POLITICO’s tracking of public polling and donor counts; qualification is not official until confirmed by the DNC after the deadline to qualify has passed.
Gabbard and Yang have already cleared the fundraising threshold, and each has received at least 4 percent in three polls approved by the Democratic National Committee. They have until 11:59 p.m. on Dec. 12 to get the fourth qualifying poll needed to make the debate stage.
Yang, in particular, has come tantalizingly close to qualifying for the December debate. He’s hit 3 percent in 11 different approved polls, both nationally and in early states, leaving him in some cases just a couple poll respondents away from that elusive fourth poll.
Gabbard recently cried foul after she hit 6 percent in a New Hampshire poll released by The Boston Globe and Suffolk University, arguing it should qualify her for the debate. The campaign argued that the DNC should recognize the poll because other Suffolk University polls, when conducted in conjunction with USA Today, count toward qualifying. But previous Boston Globe/Suffolk University polls have not counted toward qualification for the five previous debates, and the DNC has not given any public indication that it was considering otherwise.
Several other active candidates are also expected to miss the December debate. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who has passed the donor threshold and participated in the November debate, has not hit 4 percent in a single December qualifying poll.
Booker’s campaign released a memo to the public last week that called hitting the debate polling threshold the campaign’s “top priority” through Dec. 12, diverting resources “into a persuasion effort” designed to boost him in the polls. Booker, too, has been hurt by the Thanksgiving polling slowdown — in the memo released late last month, campaign manager Addisu Demissie projected that “up to a dozen qualifying polls” would be released before the deadline, but, since then, just two have been published.
All the polling organizations approved by the DNC are either independent media outlets or universities that dictate their own polling and release schedules.
Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro — who last participated in the October debate — will also almost assuredly not be on stage. In a fundraising video released Wednesday evening, Castro said he was just shy of the donor mark, but he’s unlikely to hit the polling threshold. He hasn’t scored higher than 2 percent in any approved polls for the December debate.
The two late entrants into the race, Mike Bloomberg and Deval Patrick, are virtually certain to be excluded. Patrick has registered at 0 percent in the three polls in which he’s been included. As an upstart candidate with a small national footprint before his launch, Patrick is likely nowhere near the requisite number of donors.
Bloomberg, meanwhile, functionally ruled himself out from participating in the debate when he said he wouldn’t accept campaign contributions. But he also has not broken 4 percent in the limited amount of polling since he joined the race. Three other candidates who are still in the race — Sen. Michael Bennet, former Rep. John Delaney and Marianne Williamson — have not participated in any sanctioned debates since the first two rounds held over the summer, and are miles away from clearing the thresholds to return to the stage in December.
While Bloomberg sits on the sidelines, Steyer, the other billionaire candidate, is assured a spot. He has poured north of $12 million into Facebook ads since his campaign launch in early July, almost exclusively to drum up small dollar donations to get on stage. Steyer cleared the donor threshold earlier this week, his campaign said.
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) had also qualified to participate in the December debate, but she suspended her campaign on Tuesday. Her absence — combined with Gabbard and Yang sitting just shy of clearing the polling threshold — means the six candidates that have qualified thus far are all white, even among what started as a historically diverse field.
“I’m a little angry, I have to say, that we started with one of the most diverse fields in our history, giving people pride,” Booker said in an interview with BuzzFeed News on Wednesday. “I don’t understand how we’ve gotten to this place where there’s more billionaires in the race than there are black people.”
The DNC’s debate rules have long drawn criticism from some candidates and Democratic activists that they were unnaturally winnowing the historically large field, something Booker and Castro have increasingly echoed since Harris’ departure from the race. But DNC chief Tom Perez has steadfastly defended the process in the past.
It remains to be seen how candidates potentially missing the December debate will affect the field. Over the past few months, some candidates have ended their campaigns after it became clear they wouldn’t be on stage for a debate, while others have soldiered on even after missing a debate stage.
Gabbard, for example, missed the September debate stage before returning for October and November. She has also announced that she won’t run for reelection for her seat in Congress, seemingly indicating she is in the race for the long haul.
Yang’s team, meanwhile, still publicly remains optimistic that he will be on stage, even as the days to qualify tick down. He continues to rake in funding from a dedicated, core group of supporters that could continue to power his outsider campaign even if he doesn’t make it on stage, but broadening his appeal would be more difficult without the exposure of the debate stage.
On Wednesday, Yang sought to calm the nerves of jittery supporters eagerly awaiting the next poll to see if it put him over the top.
“FYI #YangGang most polls likely didn’t run over the holidays,” Yang tweeted. “So we are probably looking at Friday for some new polls to resume coming out. Rest and relax until then.”