'Clarifying': The Democratic debate stage narrows and candidates quit the race

The overcrowded Democratic primary for the right to take on Trump is entering a new phase.
Image: The 10 candidates who have qualified are: Beto O'Rourke, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders, Julian Castro, Andrew Yang, Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar.
The 10 candidates who have qualified are: Beto O'Rourke, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders, Julián Castro, Andrew Yang, Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar.Chelsea Stahl / NBC News

Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
SUBSCRIBE
By Alex Seitz-Wald

WASHINGTON — The deadline passed at midnight Wednesday for candidates to qualify for the next Democratic presidential debate and only 10 made it, narrowing the largest field in history to a more manageable size.

Gone, for now at least, are the two-night debates of June and July, since everyone can fit on one stage, one night, for next month's debate in Houston.

The only real suspense came in the form of billionaire Tom Steyer, who fell one poll short of qualifying even after spending nearly $12 million on advertising to boost his campaign.

Gone, too, are the earlier, wilder days of the campaign when anyone seemed like they could be the next breakout star (remember Michael Avenatti?).

"The field is cut in half overnight, basically. That's clarifying. It's important to get all the major candidates on stage together," said David Brock, a Democratic fundraiser who runs a collection of major Democratic super PACs. "But on the other hand, there's a lot of chatter about the candidates who got boxed out, they would say unfairly. I think it's really tough if you're not in the debate to have any hope."

As the summer winds down, the 2020 race has settled into a more predictable rhythm, with a clearly stratified field that includes a few front-runners, a wider second-tier and a larger crop candidates barely registering in the polls who are still praying for a Hail Mary.

While more than 20 candidates are staying in the race, fewer and fewer are staying relevant.

Let our news meet your inbox. The news and stories that matters, delivered weekday mornings.

Only three candidates are polling at double digits (Joe Biden, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders). Just five are averaging support above 2 percent (California Sen. Kamala Harris; Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana; New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker; former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke; and entrepreneur Andrew Yang). Everyone else has just around 1 percent or less in polling averages.

At least 26 candidates declared their intention to seek the Democratic presidential nomination over the past year, the largest in history for either party. But five recently dropped out, including Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York on Wednesday evening, and more are expected to follow as the prospect of making future debate stages dims.

The 10 candidates for next month’s debate include all the best-known names in the field ― those polling above 2 percent and former Housing Secretary Julián Castro and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

ABC News, the sponsor of the Sept. 12 debate at Texas Southern University, a historically black university, said the event would be extended to three hours and run from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. ET.

Several of the candidates who have not qualified for the debate have complained bitterly about the Democratic National Committee's rules, arguing that the party is artificially culling the field and squelching debate.

"They’re kind of like Thanos, snapping their finger and trying to get rid of half the field,” former Maryland Rep. John Delaney, referring to the Marvel supervillain, said on MSNBC Wednesday. "I mean we have sitting Democratic governors who are not in the debate. We have sitting members of Congress who are not in the debate. And we need a debate."

But many Democratic voters seem to disagree with that sentiment.

Three-quarters of likely Iowa caucuses said in a Des Moines Register survey that they wished some or most of the candidates would drop out. Only 18 percent saying they "like considering all the possibilities."

The DNC has said the rules were intended to make candidates demonstrate the high levels of support they would need to take on President Donald Trump in the general election next year.

"The September threshold is inclusive, transparent and low," said DNC spokesperson Adrienne Watson. "Candidates were given more time and more opportunities to hit the polling threshold than they have had in previous cycles. They had 21 chances to hit just 2 percent support in 4 polls."

To qualify for the September debate, candidates needed to show they had received at least 2 percent support in four polls and received donations from at least 130,000 people. That was big jump from the 1 percent in three polls and 65,000 donors needed to make the June and July debates.

Candidates who entered the race late seemed to have an especially difficult time building the large online fundraising lists and name recognition necessary to make the stage.

Aside from Biden, all nine other candidates who entered the 2020 race in April or later did not make September stage, including Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet and Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan.

Candidates who entered the race earlier in the year fared better, with nine out of 16 earning a spot in Houston.

Still, many low-polling candidates say they’ll stick it out, at least for a while, since they’ll have another chance to make the debate stage in October, giving one final sliver of hope.

But insiders say the race might move beyond them either way.