Many of the 10 candidates who didn’t make the cut for the third Democratic presidential debate, now face a big decision — drop out or keep running at the end of the pack.
Losing a spot on the stage means more than just being deprived of a powerful platform. It’s a signal to donors, supporters and primary-state voters that an already-struggling candidate has failed to break out. So what’s that candidate to do?
“Drop out,” said Rebecca Katz, a Democratic strategist and founder of New Deal Strategies. “These candidates have had months, and in many cases two separate debates, to make their case to the American people.”
On Thursday the Democratic National Committee announced that Tom Steyer, Michael Bennet, Tulsi Gabbard, Marianne Williamson, Steve Bullock, Bill de Blasio, Tim Ryan, John Delaney and Joe Sestak will have to sit out of the Sept. 12 debate in Houston.
The culling is no accident: The DNC set more stringent criteria for the September debate in hopes of winnowing an unprecedented field of more than 20 candidates. To make the stage this time candidates needed to attain 130,000 individual donors and register 2% support in four DNC-approved polls. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York dropped out hours before the qualification deadline on Wednesday, when it became clear she wouldn’t meet either threshold.
Three other candidates left the race in recent weeks — John Hickenlooper, Jay Inslee and Seth Moulton. Hickenlooper has since launched a bid for Colorado’s U.S. Senate seat and Inslee has said he will run for a third term as governor of Washington state.
DNC Chairman Tom Perez dismissed candidates’ complaints that the polling and fundraising requirements were unfair. He said the DNC helped candidates clear the bar by working with TV networks to offer “an unprecedented amount of free earned media” through hour-long town halls.
“With all due respect, the notion that we created burdens for candidates — no, we gave opportunities to candidates and we will continue to give opportunities to candidates,” he told Bloomberg. “Then it’s up to them to take advantage to those opportunities.”
The end of a campaign doesn’t mean the candidate won’t serve in the next administration. Those who do not become the eventual party nominee often go on to Cabinet positions or other executive-appointed roles. After the 2016 election, for example, Donald Trump picked former rivals Ben Carson and Rick Perry to serve as as secretaries of housing and energy. They might also become the nominee’s running mate.
Democratic strategists like Lynda Tran, a partner at 270 Strategies, expects to see more drop out.
“If they don’t end up in the debate stage, they know I think in their heart of hearts that that is not a good sign of their campaign,” Tran said. “At some point people will start paying attention primarily to the front-runners.”
And voters should question the motivation of some candidates for sticking around after they didn’t make the grade, Katz said.
“Why are the candidates who can’t get more than 2% staying in the race? Is it about issues or is it about ego?”
One candidate is pledging to stay on. Steve Bullock, the Montana governor, is a Democrat running a state Trump won in 2016.
“There are over 150 days before voters express their preference in Iowa and New Hampshire. It’s those voters in early states and across the country who will decide this election,” he said.
If the September debate isn’t the campaign-ending breaking point for candidates, Tran predicts the fourth one in October will be. Many of the lower-polling candidates like Gabbard, and even those who made the cut like Beto O’Rourke, have begun to dance around the growing possibility that they won’t be the nominee.
On stage in Houston will be Joe Biden, along with Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar. They will be joined by Pete Buttigieg, Andrew Yang, O’Rourke and Julián Castro.