A prominent governor running in the Democratic primary is at serious risk of getting shut out of the party’s first presidential debates — while a meditation guru and obscure tech entrepreneur take the stage for the most important event of the race so far.
That’s the state of play less than a week before the deadline to qualify for the June 26 and 27 debates under the set of rules set by the Democratic National Committee.
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Presidential hopefuls have until June 12 to cross one of two thresholds to qualify for the primary debates, and 13 of the 20 slots available are set in stone. And Montana Gov. Steve Bullock is currently on the outside looking in, one of the foremost candidates in danger of missing the stage after what his campaign calls the DNC’s 11th-hour “unmasking” of “arbitrary” polling rules.
Bullock’s status isn’t the only question remaining in the final week of qualifying, but the latest update comes after the Democratic National Committee provided POLITICO with additional guidance about its polling criteria — the first time the party committee has publicly addressed questions surrounding the previously announced guidelines.
The DNC declined to comment, as it has done in the past, on the qualifications for any individual candidate. POLITICO’s analysis for who has (and has not) qualified for the debate is based off public polling and public comments from the campaigns about their donor counts.
But if Bullock does manage to qualify before next Wednesday’s deadline, it could throw the status of other second-tier candidates into doubt, unleashing a complicated set of DNC-written tiebreaker rules that could leave another currently officeholder high and dry.
In order to be eligible for the debates, candidates must cross one of two thresholds: earning 1 percent in three polls approved by the Democratic National Committee, or receiving donations from 65,000 people, with 200 in 20 different states. A baker’s dozen have met both thresholds and have clinched their spots. But there are at least 10 credible candidates bidding for the final 7 spots — a list that includes two sitting senators, three congressmen, a governor, a former governor and the mayor of New York City.
Next week’s deadline is a make-or-break moment for these second-tier candidates, who risk fading into irrelevance if they aren’t among the 20 candidates on the stage in Miami.
The 13 candidates who can book their tickets to Miami include the race’s top figures. Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Beto O’Rourke, Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar and Julian Castro are the top-polling candidates; following a random drawing, they will be split across the two nights, with five on one night and four on the other.
But also meeting both the polling and fundraising thresholds are Tulsi Gabbard, Jay Inslee and two lesser-known figures: Marianne Willamson, best known for authoring spiritual, self-help books, and Andrew Yang, a first-time candidate who wears a baseball cap that says “MATH” on the front as he touts his proposal for a universal basic income.
After those 13 candidates, the rest of the field gets murky. According to a POLITICO analysis, an additional seven candidates have hit the polling threshold: Michael Bennet, Bill de Blasio, John Delaney, Kirsten Gillibrand, John Hickenlooper, Tim Ryan and Eric Swalwell.
That list does not include Bullock — who POLITICO has previously believed to have qualified. On Thursday, the DNC told POLITICO that a pair of Washington Post/ABC News polls would not be considered eligible polls that candidates can use to qualify. One of the three polls Bullock would have relied on to qualify was a Post/ABC poll taken in January.
Bullock’s campaign was sharply critical of the announcement. “While Gov. Bullock was expanding Medicaid to one in ten Montanans despite a two-thirds Republican legislature, the DNC was making arbitrary rules behind closed doors,” Jenn Ridder, Bullock’s campaign manager, said in a statement. “The DNC’s unmasking of this rule singles out the only Democratic candidate who won a Trump state — and penalizes him for doing his job.”
A DNC official said to POLITICO that Bullock’s camp was aware of the rule before it was made public.
The rules, initially announced in February, list ABC News and The Washington Post as qualified poll sponsors, but did not give any guidance on methodology. ABC/Post polls stood out from the rest of the qualified polls because, unlike every other poll that can qualify candidates for the debate stage, the ABC/Post poll asked respondents about the Democratic primary in an open-ended question, as opposed to reading off a list of candidates.
But there was nothing laid out in the original set of rules that explicitly ruled out open-ended polling from counting for the first and second debates. Arguably, earning 1 percent in a poll in which respondents have to volunteer a candidate’s name instead of repeating it from an interviewer’s list is an even higher bar to meet. And the initial set of rules were announced after the first ABC/Post poll was already publicly released.
POLITICO was not alone in its assessment believing that Bullock has passed the threshold, before the DNC announced the Post/ABC poll will not count. Other media outlets — including MSNBC (one of the media partners for the first debate), ABC News, The Washington Post, FiveThirtyEight, and New York magazine — had all previously published analysis saying Bullock has crossed the polling threshold. Bullock is the only candidate whose debate prospects currently are hinging on the ABC/Post poll.
The DNC also publicly announced how to count a Reuters poll that had multiple samples, which affirms de Blasio as a qualifying candidate — something POLITICO’s analysis could not originally confirm.
The Reuters/Ipsos poll presented results among several samples. In one sample of all Americans, de Blasio has crossed the 1 percent bar. In another sample included in the poll, a slightly more restrictive screen of registered voters, de Blasio has not.
POLITICO had long opted to use the sample of registered voters from the May poll in its analysis as opposed to the all Americans sample, but several other outlets previously listed de Blasio as a qualifying candidate, using the all Americans sample. The DNC affirmed to POLITICO that it is counting the all Americans sample, definitively giving de Blasio his third qualifying poll.
A de Blasio campaign official told POLITICO Wednesday that de Blasio asked DNC chairman Tom Perez which sample would count in the past and was personally told that the adult sample counted. Until Thursday, the DNC had not publicly clarified which sample to count. The Reuters/Ipsos polls were also conducted online, the only qualified polls to do so.
The DNC has moved to address these disputed polls, which have long vexed those trying to forecast the debate stage, for later debates. For the debates that will be hosted in the fall, Reuters was struck as an approved poll sponsor, and a rule was instituted to explicitly disallow open-ended questions from counting.
The DNC has said they will allow no more than 20 candidates across the two nights in June — leaving no room to spare with 20 candidates having qualified, by POLITICO’s updated analysis. The DNC, is the final arbiter for who has or has not qualified for the debate.
But all hope for making the first debate stage is not lost for Bullock. There’s still six more days to go for candidates to qualify, and more polls may still come out in that time period.
If Bullock does ultimately qualify, that would make 21 candidates who have met at least one of the two criteria. The DNC has repeatedly said it would limit the first two debates to 20 participants, and it has outlined a series of tiebreakers to trim the field.
Candidates who have not crossed both thresholds will be sorted by their polling average — which is calculated by taking a candidate’s top three-highest polls, so long as those polls are from different pollsters, or the same pollster in different regions. So far, no candidate who has only crossed the polling threshold has a polling average higher than 1.5 percent.
Three of these candidates have an average of 1.3 percent: Gillibrand, Hickenlooper and Ryan. The remainder — Bennet, de Blasio, Delaney and Swalwell — have a polling average of 1 percent (Bullock could join this group).
Rep. Seth Moulton, Wayne Messam and former Sen. Mike Gravel has not crossed either threshold. They appear unlikely to hit the polling threshold, based off past results, and because 20 candidates have hit the polling threshold, it is impossible for them to qualify through donors alone.
To break any tie among candidates with identical polling averages, the DNC previously announced that it will then look at the number of qualifying polls in which a candidate received 1 percent. Delaney has four polls, but the remaining 1-percent candidates only have three polls, the bare minimum to get on stage.
If the DNC determines that more than 20 candidates have crossed the polling threshold, the difference between the 20th candidate on the stage and the 21st candidate left off could — theoretically — be determined by one candidate getting 1 percent in one more poll than the other candidate. Every single poll for lower-tier candidates could be crucial.
But with many of the lower-tier candidates frequently posting zeroes in qualified polls, it is also plausible that there’s a tie in both the polling average and in the number of qualified polls between the 20th and 21st candidate. The DNC did not answer questions about what would happen in that situation.
After the DNC confirms which 20 candidates qualified next Wednesday, there will be a random drawing — expected on June 14 — to determine the debate lineups.
The candidates will be split into two groups: one of high-polling candidates (those whose average is at or above 2 percent) and one of the lower-polling candidates. Those two groups will then be evenly and randomly divided across the two nights.
Sally Goldenberg in New York contributed to this report.