Gabbard, Steyer inch toward making third Democratic debate

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) and Tom Steyer, the billionaire who launched an effort to pressure Congress to impeach President Trump, are the closest to making the cut for the next Democratic presidential debate.

Only 10 candidates have qualified for the Sept. 12 debate so far, which will not extend to two nights unless at least 11 candidates qualify.

Steyer, the billionaire philanthropist, just needs to register 2 percent support in one more poll to qualify, while Gabbard needs at least 2 percent in two more surveys.

ABC News, the outlet hosting the Houston debate, said on Wednesday that if more than 10 candidates qualify, they will be divided into two groups. The first debate would be Thursday, Sept. 12, with the second the following night.

Debating on Friday night - and on a Friday the 13th nonetheless - will be considered unlucky by any candidates who fall to the second night. Audiences for the Thursday night debate would be expected to be much larger.

To make the stage in September, candidates have to collect contributions from at least 130,000 unique donors and register at least 2 percent in four polls approved by the Democratic National Committee (DNC). The deadline to meet those requirements is Aug. 28.

The 10 candidates who have already met those requirements are former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), former Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-Texas), former tech executive Andrew Yang, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

Steyer surpassed the donor threshold last week, following an aggressive - and hugely expensive - advertising campaign urging people to help him make the debate stage.

Steyer's early fundraising success is due in no small part to his willingness to spend big.

When he announced his candidacy last month, he said that he would spend at least $100 million of his personal fortune on his presidential bid. In his first month on the campaign trail, he dropped roughly $4 million on Facebook and Google advertisements alone, according to digital advertising data compiled by the Democratic digital firm Bully Pulpit Interactive.

He also spent more than $3.7 million on television ads in the first month of his campaign, according to an analysis of Federal Communications Commission filings by the Center for Responsive Politics

Gabbard, who has already hit the 130,000-donor mark and scored her second qualifying poll on Tuesday, is angling to hit 2 percent in two more surveys before the Wednesday qualifying deadline. 

None of the 10 other candidates in the Democratic primary field appear particularly close to making the cut.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) is nearing the DNC's donor mark, and has spent roughly $2 million in recent weeks on television and digital advertising in an effort to boost her over the threshold. In an email to supporters on Thursday, her campaign said she was 15,000 donors away from meeting the benchmark. She still needs three more polls to qualify. 

For nine other candidates, the debate stage in Houston is even further from their reach. None have reached the 130,000-donor threshold nor have they registered enough support in even a single approved poll. 

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who had reached the donor mark but not the polling threshold, dropped out of the presidential race on Wednesday amid increasingly bleak prospects of making the next primary debate. And John Hickenlooper, the former governor of Colorado, exited the primary field last week amid similar struggles.

To be sure, the DNC's debate qualifications have not gone without criticism. Some candidates have argued that the committee's emphasis on amassing donor support has created a dynamic in which the wealthiest or best-financed candidates can essentially purchase small-dollar contributions by pumping large sums of money into advertising and building vast lists of potential donors.

Among the most vocal critics of that requirement is Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, who has previously suggested that debate participation should be based primarily on polling support.

"The thought that you could spend $10 million to get on a debate stage, I don't think that's really good for democracy," Bullock said on "Fox News Sunday" this week, referring to the millions of dollars spent by Steyer in the early weeks of his largely self-funded campaign.

"We should be actually talking to voters," Bullock added. "Not spending money just trying to get individual donors."