Key questions in final hours before Democratic debate deadline

With just hours left to qualify for the third Democratic presidential debate in Houston, 11 candidates are at serious risk of failing to make it to the stage.

Ten candidates have already qualified for the debate, set for Sept. 12. But the clock is ticking for those that haven’t yet made the cut, and they’re aware of the risks that being shut out from the debate would likely carry.

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The candidates have until 11:59 p.m. on Wednesday to meet the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) requirements for participating in the debate, though for many it appears all but certain they’ll fall short.

What’s different this time?

Unlike the qualifying rules for the first two debates, which required candidates to amass support from 65,000 unique donors or notch at least 1 percent in three DNC-approved polls, the candidates face a steeper climb to make the stage in Houston.

The qualifying minimums have essentially been doubled: candidates have to collect contributions from 130,000 unique donors and register 2 percent in four approved polls.

The third debate could also be the first of the cycle to take place on a single night. Both the first and second debates spanned two days due to the large number of candidates that made the stage. But if the number of qualified candidates stays at 10, the third debate will be a one-night event.

If that number creeps up to 11 or more, however, the third debate will take place on Sept. 12 and 13.

Who’s already qualified?

So far, 10 candidates have made the cut for the September debate: former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenJill Biden campaigns for McAuliffe in Virginia Fill the Eastern District of Virginia  Biden: Those who defy Jan. 6 subpoenas should be prosecuted MORE; Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders, Manchin escalate fight over .5T spending bill Sanders blames media for Americans not knowing details of Biden spending plan Briahna Joy Gray: Proposals favored by Black voters 'first at the chopping block' in spending talks MORE (I-Vt.); Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenMisguided recusal rules lock valuable leaders out of the Pentagon Biden's soft touch with Manchin, Sinema frustrates Democrats Hillicon Valley — Presented by LookingGlass — Congress makes technology policy moves MORE (D-Mass.); Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisDemocrats' reconciliation bill breaks Biden's middle class tax pledge We have a presidential leadership crisis — and it's only going to get worse Blinken pressed to fill empty post overseeing 'Havana syndrome' MORE (D-Calif.); South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegButtigieg hits back after parental leave criticism: 'Really strange' The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by The Conference of Presidents of Major Italian American Organizations - US opens to vaccinated visitors as FDA panel discusses boosters Tucker Carlson mocks Buttigieg over paternity leave MORE; Sen. Cory BookerCory BookerDefense & National Security — Military starts giving guidance on COVID-19 vaccine refusals Senators preview bill to stop tech giants from prioritizing their own products Blinken pressed to fill empty post overseeing 'Havana syndrome' MORE (D-N.J.); Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharOn The Money — Progressives play hard ball on Biden budget plan Schumer, McConnell headed for another collision over voting rights Hillicon Valley — Presented by LookingGlass — Congress makes technology policy moves MORE (D-Minn.); former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas); former tech executive Andrew YangAndrew YangYang says he has left Democratic Party Yang says presidential bid 'messed with my head' Yang in new book: Trump might have won in 2020 'if not for the coronavirus' MORE and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro.

Who’s at risk of missing it?

Eleven candidates have yet to meet the DNC’s qualifications: billionaire philanthropist Tom SteyerTom SteyerYouth voting organization launches M registration effort in key battlegrounds Overnight Energy: 'Eye of fire,' Exxon lobbyist's comments fuel renewed attacks on oil industry | Celebrities push Biden to oppose controversial Minnesota pipeline | More than 75 companies ask Congress to pass clean electricity standard Celebrities push Biden to oppose controversial Minnesota pipeline MORE; Rep. Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardThe perfect Democratic running mate for DeSantis? Progressives breathe sigh of relief after Afghan withdrawal Hillicon Valley: US has made progress on cyber but more needed, report says | Democrat urges changes for 'problematic' crypto language in infrastructure bill | Facebook may be forced to unwind Giphy acquisition MORE (D-Hawaii); Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandOvernight Energy & Environment — Biden makes return to pre-Trump national monument boundaries official Biden signs bill to help victims of 'Havana syndrome' Lawmakers using leadership PACs as 'slush funds' to live lavish lifestyles: report MORE (D-N.Y.); Sen. Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetBuilding back better by investing in workers and communities Biden signs bill to help victims of 'Havana syndrome' Colorado remap plan creates new competitive district MORE (D-Colo.); Montana Gov. Steve BullockSteve Bullock65 former governors, mayors back bipartisan infrastructure deal Arkansas, New Jersey governors to head National Governors Association Biden 'allies' painting him into a corner MORE; Rep. Tim RyanTimothy (Tim) RyanTim Ryan's campaign raises .5 million in third quarter Internal poll shows Mandel leading crowded Ohio Senate GOP primary Tim Ryan's Senate campaign staff unionizes MORE (D-Ohio); 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.); New York City Mayor Bill de BlasioBill de BlasioEMILY's List announces early endorsement of Hochul More than 200 women, transgender inmates to be transferred from Rikers Island Achieving equity through mediocrity: Why elimination of gifted programs should worry us all MORE; bestselling 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; former Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.) and Miramar, Fla., Mayor Wayne MessamWayne Martin MessamKey moments in the 2020 Democratic presidential race so far Wayne Messam suspends Democratic presidential campaign 2020 primary debate guide: Everything you need to know ahead of the November forum MORE.

While most of those candidates are all but certain to fall short when the Wednesday qualifying deadline hits, at least three of them have already met the donor requirement.

Who’s close to qualifying?

Out of all the candidates who haven’t yet made the stage, Steyer is undoubtedly the closest. He’s already surpassed the 130,000-donor threshold and needs to meet the minimum 2 percent support in only one more poll to qualify.

Two other candidates, Gabbard and Williamson, have also met the donor requirements. The polling benchmark may be a bit harder for them to achieve, however. Gabbard needs to score two more qualifying surveys to make the cut, while Williamson is still three polls short.

Gillibrand is the only other candidate with at least one qualifying poll under her belt. She hasn’t yet hit the donor threshold, but she’s close; in an email to supporters on Tuesday, her campaign said she needed fewer than 15,000 unique donors to hit the DNC benchmark.

What’s at stake for the candidates who miss the debate?

In short: opportunity.

The debates are a chance for candidates to pitch themselves to voters nationwide and distinguish themselves from their competitors, all without having to pay for airtime on television.

Some candidates have gotten boosts from the debates in the past. Harris, for example, soared in the polls after she confronted Biden over his past opposition to school busing in the first round of Democratic debates in June. Castro also jolted his campaign in that debate with a well-received performance on immigration.

Several candidates have also reported fundraising swells in the wake of the first two debates. After a standout performance in last month’s debate in Detroit, Booker saw his best day of fundraising of the 2020 cycle, according to his campaign. Delaney’s campaign said the same after the second debate.

Are there any complaints with the qualifying requirements?

A handful of candidates have raised concerns with the DNC’s handling of the primary debates, voicing frustration with everything from the donor requirement to the committee’s list of approved pollsters.

No candidate has been more vocal in his criticisms than Bullock. He vented anger with the DNC in the lead-up to the first debate in June after the committee announced that it would not count a specific Washington Post/ABC News poll that showed him at 1 percent support, because it was based on an open-ended question.

More recently, he has griped that the DNC’s donor requirement essentially allows wealthy or better-funded candidates to purchase unique donors using pricey digital operations, pointing to Steyer as an example. In the less than two months since he launched his campaign, Steyer has spent more than $10 million on digital and television advertisements.

Gabbard has also complained about a lack of “transparency” in the DNC’s process for selecting which pollsters will count toward the qualifying criteria. In an email to reporters last week, her campaign insisted that she had registered 2 percent in 26 national and early state polls, but that the DNC’s rules meant that only two of them would count.

Can candidates who miss the third debate still make the fourth?

Candidates who fail to make the September debate will likely get a few extra weeks to qualify for the fourth debate in October.

The qualifying window for both events opened on June 28, but a DNC memo sent to the campaigns earlier this month said that the deadline to qualify for the fourth debate will be two weeks before it begins.

That means that candidates who haven’t yet made the cut will have some extra time to rack up donations and polling support, while those who have already qualified for the September debate will automatically qualify for the one in October.