Campaign

2020 Democrats who miss debate stage risk collapse

The four Democratic presidential candidates likely to miss out on the first debate of the primary season face a serious, and perhaps fatal, setback to their campaigns for the White House.

Missing out on the first debate, Democratic strategists said, would ordinarily mean the beginning of a death spiral from which recovery might not be possible.

The stakes are highest for Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D), who launched his campaign just last month and has yet to meet the threshold to make the debate. Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), former Sen. Mike Gravel (D-Alaska) and Wayne Messam, the mayor of Miramar, Fla., are also likely to miss the debates.

The Democratic National Committee (DNC) is set to announce on Friday who will make the debates on June 26 and 27. 

"A candidate who doesn't make the debate stage starts running on fumes. Donor doors close, media attention wanes, volunteers drift away. At that point it's tough to see how you reestablish momentum," said former Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.).

But this year, those candidates who are not present hope the sheer number of people who will crowd the debate stage over two nights in late June means their absence goes unnoticed - or, in the most optimistic scenario, being left off the debate stage could give them a chance to mount attention-grabbing counterprogramming.

Bullock has the most at stake. He pulled in more than $1 million in his first day as a candidate, an impressive haul for a low-profile governor of a sparsely populated state, and he has earned support from Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller (D), the most senior elected Democrat in the first-in-the-nation caucus state.

Bullock delayed entering the race until his state legislature adjourned for the year. He has cast his decision to launch his bid as the consequence of finishing the job he was elected to do; in the final days of session, he negotiated an extension of Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act that passed with Republican votes.

But the delay cost him the opportunity to collect the 65,000 individual donors needed to meet one of the DNC's two criteria for inclusion in the debate.

"Had I not actually done the job that I have to do I don't know that 100,000 Montanans would have gotten health care. If it comes to chasing 100,000 donors or getting health care for 100,000 Montanans, I would choose the health care every single day," Bullock told reporters in Iowa this week.

Bullock has narrowly missed meeting the other threshold, registering 1 percent support in three separate surveys; he has hit that mark in three polls, but the DNC informed Bullock's team in March that one of those surveys, a January poll by The Washington Post and ABC News, did not count.

Barring last-minute surveys released the day of the DNC's deadline, he will be excluded from the June debate. He has about a month to reach either or both thresholds to be included in a July debate to air on CNN.

Aides to Bullock's campaign say they see a silver lining in what might otherwise be a deadly blow to a campaign that has only just launched. They say Bullock plans to spend the days around the debate meeting voters.

"There's no other way to characterize this other than penalizing the only candidate in the field who has demonstrated he can win in a red state, a Trump state," said Matt McKenna, a longtime Bullock adviser. "Thank goodness the DNC does not choose our nominee, in this cycle or any other cycle. Voters in places in the country where people actually work for a living will."

None of the other three candidates who will also likely miss the debate stage - Moulton, Gravel and Messam - have registered in any national or early state polls

Some Democrats say the crowded field on stage - where a candidate may have as little as five minutes over the course of a two-hour debate in which to stand out - means missing the deadline may not be as deadly to a campaign as it would have been in the past.

"This is 20 people. It's not Obama, Hillary and [former Sen. John] Edwards," said Joe Trippi, a veteran Democratic strategist who guided Howard Dean's 2004 campaign. "Don't tell me who's going to win the debate. Tell me who's going to beat [Joe] Biden in Iowa."

Bullock has already indicated that a strong performance in Iowa is his path to relevance in the Democratic primary. He has held about three dozen events in the state over the past few years; he hit eight events over a three-day tour of rural Iowa counties this week.

But the idea of counterprogramming a national debate - leading to footage that will be aired in an endless loop on cable news for days or weeks to come - is a long shot at best, some Democrats said.

"I think all of the oxygen will be taken up by the debates and it is unlikely those excluded will be able to compete with counterprogramming," said John Lapp, a longtime Democratic strategist who has worked extensively in Iowa. "The counterprogramming would have to be something insanely viral and potentially counterproductive, involving cat videos or profanity or perhaps all of the above."

Those who do make the debate stage will face what is almost certain to be the largest audience to tune in to the Democratic nominating contest so far. The candidates will hunt for opportunities to stand out in the field in their first real opportunity to make an impression.

"There's nothing like that first presidential debate, and there's going to be nerves involved for everybody," said Dave Hamrick, a Democratic strategist. "First and foremost, you have to have a very specific goal in mind in terms of what you want to achieve."

But with 10 people crowding each night's debate, each contender will have only a few minutes to make themselves heard.

"I'm sure debate prep will be as much about one-line zingers as in-depth policy," Lapp said.

Hamrick, who managed former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley's (D) 2016 presidential campaign, said a successful candidate would have to strike a fine balance between demonstrating an authoritative grasp of the issues and conveying an authenticity to which voters relate.

"It's an art of preparing on all the issues, making sure you've mastered the substance, knowing the strategy, but also allowing yourself to know the moment," Hamrick said. "If you're overly scripted and overly prepared, you might miss that moment."

Max Greenwood contributed to this report.

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