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 BidenWinners and losers from the South Carolina debate Five takeaways from the Democratic debate Sanders most searched, most tweeted about candidate during Democratic debate MORE; Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersWinners and losers from the South Carolina debate Five takeaways from the Democratic debate Sanders most searched, most tweeted about candidate during Democratic debate MORE (I-Vt.); Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenWinners and losers from the South Carolina debate Five takeaways from the Democratic debate Sanders most searched, most tweeted about candidate during Democratic debate MORE (D-Mass.); Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisThis week: House to vote on legislation to make lynching a federal hate crime Juan Williams: Black votes matter Clyburn: Biden 'suffered' from not doing 'enough' in early debates MORE (D-Calif.); South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegWinners and losers from the South Carolina debate Five takeaways from the Democratic debate Sanders most searched, most tweeted about candidate during Democratic debate MORE; Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerDemocrats' Obama-to-Sanders shift on charter schooling This week: House to vote on legislation to make lynching a federal hate crime Juan Williams: Black votes matter MORE (D-N.J.); Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharWinners and losers from the South Carolina debate Sanders most searched, most tweeted about candidate during Democratic debate Democrats duke it out in most negative debate so far MORE (D-Minn.); former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas); former tech executive Andrew YangAndrew YangThe Hill's Morning Report - Sanders steamrolls to South Carolina primary, Super Tuesday Yang calls on someone to 'pull an Andrew Yang' and bow out of 2020 race Yang criticizes caucus voting method, says they don't encourage high voter turnout 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 Fahr SteyerWinners and losers from the South Carolina debate Five takeaways from the Democratic debate Sanders most searched, most tweeted about candidate during Democratic debate MORE; Rep. Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardButtigieg notes diversity on debate stage: We're '7 white people talking about racial justice' Sanders grows lead in new Hill/HarrisX poll Financial trade tax gains traction with 2020 Democrats MORE (D-Hawaii); Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandNow is the time for a US data protection agency The Hill's Campaign Report: Warren up, Bloomberg down after brutal debate Ginsburg, accepting lifetime achievement award, urges working fathers to take an active role in kids' lives MORE (D-N.Y.); Sen. Michael BennetMichael Farrand Bennet Biden proposes 0B housing plan Nevada caucuses open with a few hiccups Overnight Energy: EPA moves to limit financial pressure on 'forever chemical' manufacturers | California sues Trump over water order| Buttigieg expands on climate plan MORE (D-Colo.); Montana Gov. Steve BullockSteve BullockStates, cities rethink tax incentives after Amazon HQ2 backlash Democrats redefine center as theirs collapses Democratic governors worried about drawn-out 2020 fight MORE; Rep. Tim RyanTimothy (Tim) RyanDemocrats tear into Trump's speech: It was a 'MAGA rally' Democrats walk out of Trump's address: 'It's like watching professional wrestling' Trump set to confront his impeachment foes MORE (D-Ohio); former Rep. John DelaneyJohn Kevin DelaneyNevada caucuses open with a few hiccups Lobbying world The Hill's Campaign Report: Four-way sprint to Iowa finish line MORE (D-Md.); New York City Mayor Bill de BlasioBill de BlasioPlease bring back the old (pragmatic, centrist) Mike Bloomberg De Blasio to Buttigieg: 'Try to not be so smug when you just got your ass kicked' New York attorney general threatens to sue NYC over alleged taxi fraud MORE; bestselling author Marianne WilliamsonMarianne WilliamsonMarianne Williamson endorses Sanders at Texas rally Democrats: The road to kumbaya The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump, Pelosi take the gloves off; DNC wants Iowa recanvass 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.