Seth Moulton may be one of a few candidates who don’t make the first debates. Will it matter?
There are two Democratic presidential candidates from Massachusetts — but it’s looking increasingly likely that only one will make the party’s first round of debates next month.
Senator Elizabeth Warren, Cambridge Democrat, long ago met the criteria for one of 20 slots on stage for the first two debates in late June. Representative Seth Moulton, of Salem, has until June 12 to meet certain criteria — and even if he does reach those qualifications, it’s possible he still won’t be on the stage.
If that’s the case, Moulton would be one of just a few Democrats in the 24-candidate field not to make the debates — although it’s unclear just how damaging it would be for his campaign.
“I only announced the campaign about four weeks ago, so we are moving in that direction and we are getting closer,” said Moulton when asked about making the debate stage during a weekend appearance on MSNBC.
After the Democratic National Committee faced criticism that it rigged the debate process in 2016 in favor of Hillary Clinton, the party said they wanted to be more inclusive and host more debates in 2020. But while Democrats expected a large field, few expected it would swell to its current size — the largest of any presidential nomination race in modern US history.
So when the DNC announced the debates for June 26 and 27 in Miami, the party also set the criteria for inclusion: candidates must receive at least 1 percent in at least three pre-approved local or national polls and have 65,000 contributors, including at least 200 from 20 different states. If more than 20 candidates qualify, the DNC will determine who makes the cut by looking at candidates who met both criteria followed by who has the highest polling averages.
So far, 18 candidates have qualified for the debates under at least one criterion, including New York entrepreneur Andrew Yang and spiritual guru Marianne Williamson. Warren has qualified under both criteria.
Moulton is among a group of those still in limbo, including New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, Montana Governor Steve Bullock, Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado, Mayor Wayne Messum of Miramar, Fla., and former senator Mike Gravel of Alaska.
Bullock and de Blasio entered the race earlier this month. But other candidates who announced their campaigns just a couple weeks before Moulton have qualified, such as US Representatives Tim Ryan of Ohio and Eric Swalwell of California.
And while Moulton had received 1 percent in a Florida poll and a national Rasmussen poll, the DNC has not approved those polls as qualifying. Moulton’s campaign has not said whether they’re close to hitting the 65,000 contributors mark, and when asked about his progress, the congressman’s aides referred to his weekend comments on cable news. But, as of Wednesday, Moulton was actively seeking donations on Facebook with the stated aim of making the debate stage.
“Does 65,000 individual contributions to make the national debate stage sound like a lot? Well, it is,” reads an online ad from Moulton’s campaign. “It’s designed to make it difficult for leaders like Seth to get on the debate stage and compete against establishment candidates.”
If history is precedent, a candidate’s exclusion from the debate stage usually signals to voters that they are not running a serious campaign. But the practical implications for 2020 contenders are less clear — at least for now.
Logistically, each of the 10 candidates on stage will only get a few minutes of camera time at the debates. Candidates who don’t make the cut could try some counter-programming in one of the states that comes first on the presidential nominating calendar, or even go for a one-on-one interview on another network or digital channel.
Democratic consultant Joe Trippi, who once advised Moulton but is not working for any 2020 candidate, said that while it would be best for a candidate to be on the stage it is likely too early in the campaign to matter in the long run.
“My sense is that there will be a candidate that breaks out of the field in a big way, but it is really hard for them to do it on a debate stage with that many candidates,” said Trippi. “At some point not making the stage will be a problem, but we aren’t there yet.”