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Three events this summer that could shrink the Democratic presidential primary field

Eric Swalwell. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images/Getty Images

Enough, already? In the coming weeks, the largest field of presidential candidates in US history may slim down significantly — thanks to some upcoming events and benchmarks that will force the more than two dozen Democrats running for president to examine their chances.

Indeed, by the time the third debates arrive in September, there could be fewer than 10 candidates on stage for a single night (Last month, 20 candidates debated over the course of two nights).

And the winnowing of the field may already be progress. On Monday afternoon, Representative Eric Swalwell left the race. Former senator Mike Gravel of Alaska asked last week where he should donate the remaining balance of his campaign account when he drops out. And earlier this month, John Hickenlooper, the former governor of Colorado, reportedly overruled his senior staff, who told him to drop out and run for US Senate instead.

Then again, one day after Swalwell dropped out, another Democrat from Northern California, billionaire Tom Steyer, jumped into the race.


Going forward, the top factor in the slimming of the field will be the Democratic National Committee’s rules about how to qualify for the September debates.

There were two ways for candidates to secure a spot in the June and July debates. They needed either to show they had 65,000 donors contribute to their campaigns or receive at least 1 percent in three local or national polls.

But to make the stage in September, candidates will need to show they have both 130,000 contributors and at least 2 percent in four different local or national polls taken from June 28 through August. A FiveThirtyEight analysis found only six to eight candidates are on track to meet those standards.

In other words, for many White House hopefuls, this could be a long, hard summer. Here are three key dates that will drive changes to the field:


The deadline for second quarter campaign fundraising reports (July 15)

In previous presidential races, fundraising reporting deadlines served as a barometer for who raised the most money or who did or didn’t meet expectations. While that is still important, what really matters this early in the race are the number of contributors to each campaign (see above on debate rules). If, for example, Hickenlooper only has 13,000 contributors, as was reported last week, it is hard to see how he can quickly get 10 times that many contributors before the September debate.

All will be clear in the second-quarter fund-raising reports, which are due at midnight on July 15. If a candidate’s fundraising is lackluster — either for number of donors or the overall figure — the dreaded negative feedback loop begins. And few donors want to give to a campaign that looks like it could end soon.

The second set of debates on July 30 and 31

But, even if the wake of a disastrous fund-raising quarter, there’s a reason some struggling campaigns may stick around for a few more weeks — the next round of debates. After all, a good debate performance from former US Housing secretary Julian Castro meant he now has 130,000 contributors, a stunning feat given how hard it was for him to get 65,000 to make the first debate stage.


A number of candidates could stick around in the race long enough to put their hopes on a viral moment in Detroit. But if that doesn’t happen, the moment after the debate is over, it’s hard to see how several of the lowest-tier contenders could make up significant ground to qualify for the next round debates.

When the DNC announces who makes the third debate in September (date TBD)

Then again, in the internet age of politics, sometimes you never know. Viral moments can happen at any time, and maybe the next one is recorded on a cell phone at a gathering with five people in northern New Hampshire.

If that happens in time for a boost in the polls and donations, then a candidate will be glad they stayed in the race. If it never happens, then at least they know they gave it their best shot.

James Pindell can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell or subscribe to his Ground Game newsletter on politics: