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Candidates scramble to qualify for third debate as deadline nears

More than a dozen Democratic presidential candidates are at risk of missing their party’s third primary debates in September and are clambering to make the cut ahead of a fast-approaching deadline in late August.

Nine candidates have already qualified for the fall debates and two others are getting close, an analysis of fundraising and polling data by The Hill found.

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But for the other 13, the prospects appear increasingly dim. None have met the 130,000-donor benchmark set by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and only three have at least one qualifying poll to their name.

The candidates have until Aug. 28 to qualify. And with less than three weeks to go, those who haven’t are scrambling for a spot on stage, acutely aware of the risks that failing to make the debate will run.

“You have less than 500 hours to suddenly change the dynamic of the race to either convince enough people they should vote for you in a poll that you hope they get called for, or give you money out of their pocket so that you can make the next debate stage,” said Kelly Dietrich, a former Democratic fundraiser and founder of the National Democratic Training Committee. “Every day gets harder.”

To qualify for the third and fourth debates this fall, candidates have to amass the support of 130,000 donors and register at least 2 percent support in four DNC-approved polls.

That’s a tougher standard than the one used to qualify for the first two debates, which required candidates to collect contributions from 65,000 unique donors or notch at least 1 percent in three polls.

So far, nine candidates have made the September debate: former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden says Beau's assessment of first 100 days would be 'Be who you are' Biden: McCarthy's support of Cheney ouster is 'above my pay grade' Conservative group sues over prioritization of women, minorities for restaurant aid MORE, Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersOvernight Health Care: CDC approves Pfizer vaccine for adolescents aged 12-15 | House moderates signal concerns with Pelosi drug pricing bill | Panel blasts COVID-19 response Briahna Joy Gray: Warren not endorsing Sanders in 2020 was 'really frustrating' House moderates signal concerns with Pelosi drug pricing bill MORE (I-Vt.), Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenWarren says Republican party 'eating itself and it is discovering that the meal is poisonous' Briahna Joy Gray: Warren not endorsing Sanders in 2020 was 'really frustrating' McConnell hits Democratic critics of Israel MORE (D-Mass.), Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisMcConnell: 'Good chance' of deal with Biden on infrastructure Democrat Nikki Fried teases possible challenge to DeSantis Pavlich: The border crisis Biden said we could afford MORE (D-Calif.), Sen. Cory BookerCory BookerPolice reform talks hit familiar stumbling block Almost 20 advocacy groups team up to pressure Congress to pass health care bill for immigrants Biden adds pressure to congressional talks with self-imposed deadlines MORE (D-N.J.), Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Klobuchar Klobuchar offers tribute to her father, who died Wednesday The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Cheney poised to be ousted; Biden to host big meeting Senate panel deadlocks in vote on sweeping elections bill MORE (D-Minn.), South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegGas shortages spread to more states Biden officials warn against hoarding gasoline amid shortages Republicans welcome the chance to work with Democrats on a bipartisan infrastructure bill MORE, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) and entrepreneur Andrew YangAndrew YangYang: Those who thought tweet in support of Israel was 'overly simplistic' are correct Ocasio-Cortez hits Yang over scrapped Eid event: 'Utterly shameful' Yang's tweet in support of Israel draws praise from conservatives MORE.

Two other candidates, Rep. Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardFox News says network and anchor Leland Vittert have 'parted ways' New co-chairs named for congressional caucus for millennials Tulsi Gabbard blasts new House rules on gender neutral language as 'height of hypocrisy' MORE (D-Hawaii) and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, are at least halfway there, having met the 130,000-donor benchmark but not the polling requirement of at least 2 percent support in four DNC-recognized polls. Castro is only one qualifying poll away from making the debate stage.

Tom SteyerTom SteyerTop 12 political donors accounted for almost 1 of every 13 dollars raised since 2009: study California Democrats weigh their recall options Why we should be leery of companies entering political fray MORE, the billionaire philanthropist and liberal activist, has so far registered at least 2 percent in three approved polls. But he hasn’t yet met the donor threshold, and has ramped up his digital ad spending over the past two weeks in an effort to pick up donations ahead of the deadline.

Between July 27 and Aug. 3, his campaign spent roughly $627,000 — more than any other candidate — on Facebook advertisements urging potential donors to help him make the debate stage, according to data compiled by Bully Pulpit Interactive, a Democratic digital firm that is tracking the candidates’ online ad spending.

In that same period, Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandAustin tight lipped on whether to take sexual assault cases out of commanders' hands Gillibrand touts legislation to lower drug costs: This idea 'is deeply bipartisan' A bipartisan effort to prevent the scourge of sexual assault in the armed forces MORE (D-N.Y.), who has not reached the donor threshold and has only one qualifying poll, spent nearly $400,000 on Facebook ads, the Bully Pulpit data shows. Her campaign said she passed 100,000 donors earlier this week.

That puts her among a handful of candidates who may be able to meet the DNC’s donor requirements by Aug. 28, but who face what may prove to be the more difficult challenge of racking up enough qualifying polls.

Best-selling author Marianne WilliamsonMarianne WilliamsonMarianne Williamson: Refusal to hike minimum wage is part of 'rigged economy' Rush Limbaugh dead at 70 Marianne Williamson discusses America's "soulless ethos" MORE has more than 115,000 donors and Washington Gov. Jay InsleeJay Robert InsleeWashington bans open carry of weapons at state capitol, public protests Washington state to provide free menstrual hygiene products in school bathrooms Cuomo signs legislation restoring voting rights to felons upon release from prison MORE has surpassed 110,000, though neither has registered above 1 percent in a single qualifying poll.

Candidates can drive up small-dollar online donations with relative ease by pumping money into digital advertising and expanding their email lists. But independent polls are largely out of the campaigns’ control, hinging more on a candidates’ momentum and name recognition than online outreach.

"I will be very surprised if anyone who is not on track with the polling already gets the polling to make the debate," Dietrich said.

At least one candidate has taken it upon herself to try to drive up polling support: Gabbard has met the 130,000-donor threshold but needs at least three more qualifying polls to make it into the September debate.

Her campaign has encouraged supporters in recent days to answer phone calls from unknown numbers — “remember that it could be a pollster,” one email reads — and to sign up to participate in surveys from YouGov, one of the few online pollsters approved by the DNC.

“Remember, the more online polls you take, the higher chance you have of being selected to take a poll on the 2020 Democratic Presidential Primary. So whenever you’re asked to take a poll, take it!” her campaign said in an email to supporters. “We have thousands of supporters in every state – if only a handful of us are selected for a poll, it can make a difference.”

Steyer, meanwhile, is on the cusp of completing the polling requirement. But it’s unclear how close he is to reaching the donor benchmark. His campaign did not respond to questions from The Hill about his current donor numbers.

Still, 12 other candidates are also racing to meet the donor threshold and are nowhere close to completing the polling requirement, leaving them with a massive hurdle to overcome before Aug. 28.

One of those candidates, Montana Gov. Steve BullockSteve BullockDemocratic Kansas City, Mo., mayor eyes Senate run Overnight Energy: Climate Summit Day 2 — Biden says US will work with other countries on climate innovation Biden announces picks to lead oceans, lands agencies MORE, spoke critically on Wednesday of the DNC’s emphasis on donors as a barrier for entry to the debates. That rule, he said, has incentivized candidates to spend large amounts of money to reach online contributors instead of “actually hiring people to talk to” voters.

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But, he added, “if you’re going to winnow [the primary field], I’d do it on polling numbers.”

Even if some candidates don’t make the September debate, there may still be some hope. The DNC sent a memo to campaigns this week noting that candidates will have until two weeks before the fourth debate in October to meet the requirements for the event, with the start of the qualifying period set at June 28. Politico first reported on the memo.

While the exact date of the fourth debate has yet to be announced, the qualifying period effectively gives campaigns more time to meet the thresholds, raising the possibility that the fourth debate could have more candidates on stage than the third.

That doesn’t mean qualifying for the fourth debate won’t be difficult, Dietrich said. The debates are an opportunity for candidates to pitch themselves to a national audience, and missing out on the third debate could deprive campaigns of much-needed exposure.

Still, he said, it’s not impossible.

“No one saw the St. Louis Blues winning the Stanley Cup halfway through the last NHL season,” Dietrich said. “But that’s not the norm. This is already an incredibly difficult process to qualify.”

“If your campaign hasn’t qualified for the third, you’re likely not getting a lot of national coverage already,” he added. “So now you’re missing out on the one chance to have national coverage; to have Democrat primary voters listening and seeing you on their TV screens.”