Ground Game

Why this week could be a (sneakily) important week in the Democratic presidential race

Democratic presidential candidates at the Democratic Presidential Debate on Nov. 20.
Democratic presidential candidates at the Democratic Presidential Debate on Nov. 20.Alex Wong/Getty Images/Getty Images

The 2020 Democratic presidential contest is about to undergo its greatest winnowing yet this week, as the party announces who will make next Thursday’s televised debate. It’s a narrowing of the race sure to spark criticism of the Democratic National Committee, which crafted debate rules that excluded nearly all remaining candidates who are people of color. And the tapered television field is likely to furnish diminish the campaign odds of those left out.

Here’s everything you need to know about why this is a surprisingly important week in the Democratic race for president.

Debate deadline

By the end of the day Thursday, the 15 remaining Democratic candidates for president must demonstrate they have 200,000 individual campaign donors with a minimum of 800 contributors coming from at least 20 states. In addition, they must meet a polling threshold of at least four surveys with at least 4 percent support, or two polls showing at least 6 percent support in early primary states. The DNC stated in the spring which polls they deem credible enough to include.

The December debate will be held next Thursday in Los Angeles and is hosted by Politico and PBS. CNN will also broadcast the event, which will air at 8 p.m.


■  Seven candidates have qualified for it: former vice president Joe Biden, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, billionaire Tom Steyer of California, and entrepreneur Andrew Yang of New York

■  One candidate needs just one more qualifying poll to make the debate, Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii. However on Monday night Gabbard announced she wouldn’t participate in the debate even if she did qualify.

■  Six candidates have no shot at making the debate (or, potentially, any future ones). This group includes Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, former Obama Housing and Urban Development secretary Julian Castro, former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, author Marianne Williamson, Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado, and former representative John Delaney of Maryland.


■  One candidate is bypassing the debate criteria entirely. Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg is spending just his own money and therefore wouldn’t meet the donor threshold of the debates. For what it is worth, he also wouldn’t meet the polling requirement, at least not for this debate.

Missing a debate seems to be a campaign death sentence

While debate qualification metrics might seem in the weeds, it turns out that they matter a great deal for who will be considered to be the Democratic nominee. In the summer, some candidates who didn’t qualify for debates said it didn’t matter, that they would hit the early states hard and make a comeback.

They didn’t.

No one who has failed to make a debate stage at any point this year is above 1 percent in early state or national polls. In fact, a good number of them dropped out after not making the debate stage. Indeed, the first person to do that was Representative Seth Moulton of Massachusetts.

All of this is to suggest that the stakes for the Thursday deadline aren’t just a big deal for a debate to be held six days before Christmas, but for the whole 2020 campaign.

One person of color for a party that espouses diversity?


Should the situation remain unchanged, it will mean that the Democratic presidential contest went from a record 25-person field with 20 candidates qualifying for the first two rounds of summer debates, to 12 on one stage in October, to 10 in November to just seven in December — two white women, four white men, and one Asian man.

Activists and some candidates have lamented that just one person of color on the stage for president doesn’t represent the Democratic Party today, which demographically speaking is true. Yang only qualified on Tuesday afternoon with a Quinnipiac University national poll giving him exactly 4 percent. Prior to that, no people of color were in the debate.

In fairness to the DNC, there have been 25 qualifying polls for this debate and Booker, who is African-American, hasn’t received 4 percent in any of them; in fact, he only received 3 percent in just two of those polls. For Castro, who is Latino and has been very vocal about the possible lack of diversity on the debate stage, the poll numbers have been even worse: his best showing was 2 percent in two polls out of 25.

Patrick, who was Massachusetts’ first black governor, has one poll where he had 1 percent, and the rest with 0 percent support. And Senator Kamala Harris of California, the daughter of an Indian mother and Jamaican father, had qualified for this debate, but dropped out of the contest.

James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com.