Candidates face make-or-break moment in Democratic debates

Candidates face make-or-break moment in Democratic debates
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The second round of Democratic primary debate is expected to force a handful of struggling candidates to reevaluate their 2020 presidential ambitions, unless they can grab a breakout moment. 

Though there are about two dozen candidates running for president, the bulk of attention — and money — has so far gone to the top five candidates. The rest have largely seen lackluster fundraising numbers and are trailing behind in the polls, while clinging onto hopes that a breakout moment in the debate this week will revive or jump-start their campaigns.

The debates on Tuesday and Wednesday will be critical for these lower-polling candidates, giving them a last chance to stand out as they look to make the debate stage in September, under much tougher criteria.

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So far seven candidates have qualified, and those who make it will have additional time to plead their case with primary voters.

But candidates who do not make it in the fall could see the beginning of the end of their presidential bids as fundraising could dry up and they could find themselves struggling to climb in the polls.

“If you don’t make the September debate stage, then it’s going to be really hard to rebound from that,” former Democratic National Committee (DNC) official Deshundra Jefferson said in an interview with The Hill. 

Jefferson said a breakout moment in Tuesday and Wednesday’s debates will prove to be essential in reaching the threshold in polling and fundraising for the fall debates. 

“Some people don’t get their breakthrough moment, they’re going to have to seriously sit down, talk to their staff, talk to their donors, and see, you know, how long are you with me?” she said. “So I think the second debate really is critical for a lot of these candidates who may be struggling or may not have seen the numbers that they’d like to see.”

Jon Reinish, a Democratic strategist and former aide to Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandPaid family leave proposal at risk Which proposals will survive in the Democrats' spending plan? Proposals to reform supports for parents face chopping block MORE (D-N.Y.), said that some poor-performing candidates could exit the race as soon as August unless they see a substantial boost in momentum after the second debate.

“If people who are not having a lot of luck fundraising and are less than 2 percent in the polls, I think that if they don’t see a concerted bump, you’re going to see in the dog days of August, before Labor Day, a lot of people dropping out,” he said.

Brad Bannon, another Democratic strategist, said that voters were starting to narrow their view of the candidates, which could make it harder for lower-tier contenders to gain the momentum they’ll need to sustain their campaigns.

“Democratic primary voters are definitely in the process of making some cut decisions about the candidates,” he said. “It seems to me you got two separate races going on here: One race between Sanders and Warren for the progressive wing, then you have a separate race going on between Biden, Harris and Mayor Pete [Buttigieg] for the pragmatic liberal wing of the party.”

Candidates have already begun to announce that they have qualified for the third and fourth set of debates. 

Sen. Cory BookerCory BookerBlack Caucus pushes for priorities in final deal Cory Booker to campaign for McAuliffe in Virginia Senate Democrats call for diversity among new Federal Reserve Bank presidents MORE (D-N.J.), who is in need of a breakout performance in the debates, announced Monday that he had met the donor threshold for the third and fourth debates. 

He joins former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden invokes Trump in bid to boost McAuliffe ahead of Election Day Business lobby calls for administration to 'pump the brakes' on vaccine mandate Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by Boeing — Afghanistan reckoning shows no signs of stopping MORE, Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersOvernight On The Money — Senate Democrats lay out their tax plans Overnight Health Care — Presented by Altria — FDA advisers endorse Pfizer vaccine for kids Manchin: 'I think we'll get a framework' deal MORE (I-Vt.), Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenSenate Democrats propose corporate minimum tax for spending package The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Budget negotiators: 72 hours and counting Democrats face critical 72 hours MORE (D-Mass.), Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisRNC targets McAuliffe, Biden campaign event with mobile billboard Obama looks to give new momentum to McAuliffe Kamala Harris engages with heckler during New York speech MORE (D-Calif.), South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden, Democrats inch closer to legislative deal Republican spin on Biden is off the mark Unanswered questions remain for Buttigieg, Biden on supply chain catastrophe MORE (D) and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas).

However, the risk is higher for long-shot candidates like former Rep. John DelaneyJohn DelaneyDirect air capture is a crucial bipartisan climate policy Lobbying world Coronavirus Report: The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews Rep. Rodney Davis MORE (D-Md.) and author Marianne WilliamsonMarianne WilliamsonMarianne Williamson: Steven Donziger sentencing is meant to have a 'chilling effect' on environmentalists Marianne Williamson calls federal judge's handling of Steven Donziger case 'unconstitutional' Marianne Williamson calls on Biden to drop efforts to extradite Assange MORE who have struggled to gain traction in the polls and fundraising. 

Not all strategists are sold on the idea that a breakout moment will determine a candidate’s decision to drop out and instead say the decision is based mostly on fundraising. 

“I don’t think anyone drops until they’re completely out of money,” Kelly Dietrich, the founder of the National Democratic National Training Committee, told The Hill.  “There’s no downside for staying in longer. So it may be after the first couple of primaries.” 

Still, 10 hopefuls are spending money at a faster pace than they are bringing it in, according to an analysis of the candidates’ most recent federal filings.

Delaney, for instance, spent more than seven times as much as he raised in the second quarter, though his campaign’s finances are padded by substantial loans from the candidate himself. In that same period, Gillibrand dropped nearly twice as much as she brought in.

Despite some concerns over the size of the field, most strategists say the wide array of candidates benefits general sentiment among Democrats. 

“I think coming out of ’16, we needed to have more choices, not to say that this field isn’t huge,” Jefferson said. 

Dietrich said the field’s size makes it more difficult for President TrumpDonald TrumpJan. 6 panel plans to subpoena Trump lawyer who advised on how to overturn election Texans chairman apologizes for 'China virus' remark Biden invokes Trump in bid to boost McAuliffe ahead of Election Day MORE and Republicans to home in on one candidate in particular, like Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe real reason Biden is going to the COP26 climate summit Super PACs release ad campaign hitting Vance over past comments on Trump I voted for Trump in 2020 — he proved to be the ultimate RINO in 2021 MORE in 2016. 

“If we only had one, the nominee crowned from the start, Donald Trump and the Republicans would be bashing him 24-7 and defining them well in advance of the general election,” he said.

“With a field this large, it’s very difficult for Republicans to try to define anyone, although we can see their latest tactic coming, it doesn’t matter who gets through, they’re going to call them a socialist.”