Why the Democratic debates could grow after they shrink

Candidates who miss the cutoff for the September debate will still have a chance to make the October stage, the DNC told them Monday.

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By Ben Kamisar and Alex Seitz-Wald

WASHINGTON — The 2020 Democratic debate lineup could get bigger after it’s expected to get smaller this autumn, thanks to a clarification of rules issued by the Democratic National Committee.

The massive field of candidates is racing to meet the stepped-up threshold to qualify for the mid-September debate in Houston, but campaigns who miss the deadline for that event will still have a chance to make the stage in October, the DNC told the field on Monday.

“We've recently received a number of questions about the deadline for qualifying polls for the October debate,” DNC senior adviser Mary Beth Cahill said in a message to candidates, obtained by NBC News. "For the October debate, qualifying polls must be released between June 28, 2019, and two weeks prior to the October debate."

A date has not been set for the October debate, but Monday's announcement makes clear that candidates have extra time to try to boost their polling and attract more donors between the September and October debates. Politico was first to report the news of the clarification.

The extra time could be a lifesaver for the two-thirds of candidates who have yet to qualify for the September debate and might convince some low-polling candidates to stay in the race a bit longer.

For instance, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock missed the cut for the first Democratic debate in Miami in June but qualified for the second debate in Detroit a month later.

The rules to qualify for both autumn debates are the same: Candidates need to register 2 percent support in at least four polls and get at least 130,000 people to contribute to their campaign, even if it’s just $1 apiece.

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The cutoff to meet both thresholds for the September debate is Aug. 28. The cutoff for the October match will be two weeks before the date of event, which is yet to be determined. Once a candidate qualifies for the September debate, they've essentially qualified for the October one.

So far, only eight candidates appear to have done so: Former Vice President Joe Biden; New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker; Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana; California Sen. Kamala Harris; Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar; former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke; Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders; and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

A few others have enough donors, but still need another poll or two: Former Housing Secretary Julián Castro, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and entrepreneur Andrew Yang.

The rest of the historically large field, meanwhile, needs both more donors and more support in the polls.

The stakes are high for candidates looking to make a debate — a strong performance on the national stage can inject new life into a struggling candidate or fill the coffers of an already lush campaign.

That reality was made clear after the DNC’s first round of debates in June, according to new data from the donation-processing company ActBlue, which handles virtually all of the Democratic candidates’ online donations.

While Castro raised less than $7,000 through ActBlue the day before the debates began, he raised more than $320,000 the day after his first debate appearance — a 4,600 percent increase — when he was lauded by many progressives for challenging fellow Texan O’Rourke on immigration policy.

And while Harris wasn’t struggling for cash before her first debate, she raised more than $1.6 million through ActBlue the day after her debate, when she tangled with Biden on race.

That increase was 3,000 percent higher than her daily haul the day before the debates started.

That’s why candidates are pulling out all the stops to help get them onto the stage, acutely aware that the difference between hitting the debate’s polling threshold and missing out could be thanks to just a handful of respondents.

Gabbard sent her supporters an email on Tuesday that asked them to be sure to answer any phone calls from an unknown number, in case it’s a pollster calling. And she directed them to sign up for YouGov’s surveys in the hope that they get selected to participate in one of the organization’s surveys, since CBS News is partnering with the organization for its polling.

Eight-in-10 Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters said they watched last week’s debate in Detroit or closely followed media coverage of it afterward, according to a new Quinnipiac national survey.

Among those who watched, Warren was deemed the winner, with a plurality of 28 percent of respondents picking her, followed by Biden (15 percent), Sanders and Harris (8 percent), and Booker (7 percent).

"Sen. Elizabeth Warren's policy heavy presentation and former Vice President Joseph Biden's ability to handle the heat from all corners put them on top," said Tim Malloy, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll.

CORRECTION (Aug. 6, 9:56 p.m.): A earlier version of this article misstated the title of DNC official Mary Beth Cahill. She is senior adviser, not CEO.

CORRECTION (Aug. 8, 3:07 p.m.): A earlier version of this article misstated the number of polls candidates need to qualify for the autumn Democratic debates. It is four polls, not three.

Melissa Holzberg contributed.