More than half of the Democratic presidential field will get bounced from the party’s high-profile debate circuit Wednesday night, but they’re not meekly exiting stage left.
Candidates are redoubling efforts in Iowa and unleashing a blizzard of TV and digital ads to change the race. And quietly, staffers for several candidates amongthe 10 on the bubble are exchanging their frustrations about the Democratic National Committee’s increasingly strict debate rules in private conversations, discussing how their campaigns might push back against the party committee.
Those conversations have yet to yield any formal plans, but the options discussed include everything from public statements by campaigns to participation in unsanctioned debates or other events, which the DNC has banned as a condition for inclusion in the party-approved debates.
It’s a new phase of high-risk, high-reward campaigning ushered in by the DNC’s debate criteria (2 percent showings in four polls and money raised from 130,000 donors), which threaten to push a number of struggling candidates even farther from the national spotlight. Candidates are spending more money and time in early states and are growing bolder about criticizing DNC Chairman Tom Perez. But their senior staffers are also starting to kick around more desperate options as their candidates hold out hope of qualifying for the October debate despite missing the September cut.
“There’s a high likelihood that candidates will band together to make a clear statement to the DNC that these rules are unfair,” said Dan Sena, a consultant who led the House Democratic campaign committee in 2018 and now advises Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet. “That could manifest itself into putting a ton of pressure on the DNC — talking to donors, influencers, and building a case against the process. Maybe even other events.”
The reason is clear: The party debates have the potential to be campaign-changing moments, bumping poll numbers, donations and interest in early-state campaign stops. Candidates not involved could lose what momentum and donor engagement they have.
And now, the effects of getting left off the debate stage will stretch even farther. Other entities putting on major events for Democratic candidates — including CNN, which is holding a forum on climate change, and March for Our Lives and Giffords, which are having a gun-control forum — will only invite candidates to attend “who are eligible to participate in [the] Democratic presidential debates this fall,” according to a statement from the two gun-control groups.
But struggling candidates do have an on-ramp back to the big stage — which could delay any dramatic action by their campaigns. While the DNC debate criteria have escalated, they will be the same for the October debate as they were for September, giving candidates additional time to meet the same threshold.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is spending millions of dollars in early-state TV and digital ads to boost their polling numbers, after receiving her first 2-perecent poll this month. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock has hired more staff, signaling that he’s not going anywhere. And no one has spent more to get themselves on stage than Tom Steyer, who has poured in more than $12 million into ad spending. (Two more national polls will be released Wednesday morning.)
“There is another bite at the apple in October,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio told MSNBC on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Bennet slammed the DNC at its own summer meeting, as campaigns grow more vocal about attacking the process of the campaign, which the Colorado senator called “undemocratic.” In an interview, Bennet pledged to “continue to spend time in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.”
“I don’t expect them to change the rules right now, but I hope they’ll give some consideration to it going forward,” Bennet said. “For me, I’m going to have to live off of the land [and] I’m going to have to run an insurgent campaign.”
Chief among the complaints for campaigns: polls. Campaign aides noted that there weren’t as many DNC-approved polls conducted in the weeks following the second debate as there were after the first debate. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s (D-Hawaii) and Steyer’s campaigns have criticized the committee for not accepting certain polls that put them at the 2-percent threshold, for reasons including methodology and sponsorship.
But Carol Fowler, the former South Carolina Democratic Party chairwoman, warned candidates about taking their complaints too far and potentially participating in non-DNC-sanctioned debates. They “should think twice,” Fowler said. “I think voters here, who are quite focused on this race, would pay attention if they did their own event, but it’s not worth the risk of not getting to return” to a future debate if the candidate successfully bumped up in the polls.
“It’s tempting to create an alternative to the DNC debate, but by doing that, you’re basically creating a kiddie table,” said Erik Smith, a Democratic consultant who worked on President Barack Obama’s campaigns. “You’re acknowledging you couldn’t make it, and I don’t think that goes over with voters.”
For its part, the DNC’s polling criteria have been broader and have taken in polls over longer periods of time than in the past.
“The debate rules have been public for months, and candidates have been given more opportunities and more time to qualify for debates than in previous cycles,” DNC spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said in a statement to POLITICO.
Other observers noted that so far, the debates have had little impact on polling outside the group of front-runners, meaning the debates may be less do-or-die for those candidates than some say.
Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster unaffiliated in the primary race, agreed that there “hasn’t been a ton of movement” in national polling following the two debates. But “the less exposure you have, the harder it is to raise money, to get coverage, to be visible, to generate excitement,” he said.
“Does [not making the September debate] keep you out of the primary completely? No. But does it do a lot of damage? Yes,” Mellman continued.
Rather than continue facing long odds in a shortening campaign window, some candidates have simply dropped out. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper departed the race this month, returning home to run for reelection and for Senate, respectively. Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) never appeared on the debate stage, and he, too, called it quits last week, returning home to run for another House term.
For those sticking around, many are focused on beefing up operations and visits to Iowa and New Hampshire. The strategy was once considered a staple in long-shot presidential politics — simply “go to Iowa,” said Matt McKenna, a Democratic strategist who is advising Bullock.
“I’m old enough to remember that’s how people actually won and lost these things — talking to voters,” McKenna said about Bullock’s plans, now that he is unlikely to appear on the third debate stage. “The debates aren’t the only place to hear from these candidates.”
Polk County, Iowa, Democratic Party Chairman Sean Bagniewski said it’s possible for a candidate who misses the debates to “bet it on Iowa” and “pull it off.”
“Can you do it fast enough? Do you have the money to do it?” Bagniewski said. “Those are the key questions.”
Several presidential staffers pointed to Bullock — who failed to reach the first debate but qualified for the second — as a blueprint for how to take advantage of a debate stage miss. The Montana governor, who didn’t enter the race until late April, generated early-state and national attention by making appearances on Stephen Colbert’s CBS late-night show and at events in Iowa and New Hampshire.
But for the next debate night on September 12, many of the campaigns looking in from the outside don’t yet know where they’ll spend it. “If you think of anything, let me know,” Bennet joked.