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 BidenDonald Trump Jr. to self-publish book 'Liberal Privilege' before GOP convention Tom Price: Here's how we can obtain more affordable care The Memo: Democrats feel rising tide in Florida MORE; Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersBiden wins Louisiana primary Oh, Canada: Should the US emulate Canada's National Health Service? Trump glosses over virus surge during Florida trip MORE (I-Vt.); Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenTrump defends Roger Stone move: He was target of 'Witch Hunt' Democrats blast Trump for commuting Roger Stone: 'The most corrupt president in history' Pharma pricing is a problem, but antitrust isn't the (only) solution MORE (D-Mass.); Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisHillicon Valley: Facebook considers political ad ban | Senators raise concerns over civil rights audit | Amazon reverses on telling workers to delete TikTok Senators raise concerns over Facebook's civil rights audit Biden's marijuana plan is out of step with public opinion MORE (D-Calif.); South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegBiden campaign hires top cybersecurity officials to defend against threats Biden strikes populist tone in blistering rebuke of Trump, Wall Street Buttigieg's new book, 'Trust,' slated for October release MORE; Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerDemocrats blast Trump for commuting Roger Stone: 'The most corrupt president in history' Koch-backed group urges Senate to oppose 'bailouts' of states in new ads Data shows seven Senate Democrats have majority non-white staffs MORE (D-N.J.); Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharThe Hill's Coronavirus Report: Fauci says focus should be on pausing reopenings rather than reverting to shutdowns; WHO director pleads for international unity in pandemic response State election officials warn budget cuts could lead to November chaos Biden strikes populist tone in blistering rebuke of Trump, Wall Street MORE (D-Minn.); former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas); former tech executive Andrew YangAndrew YangBiden campaign to take over 'Supernatural' star's Instagram for interview Hillicon Valley: Justice Department announces superseding indictment against WikiLeaks' Assange | Facebook ad boycott gains momentum | FBI sees spike in coronavirus-related cyber threats | Boston city government bans facial recognition technology The Hill's Campaign Report: Progressives feel momentum after primary night 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 SteyerThe Hill's Campaign Report: Jacksonville mandates face coverings as GOP convention approaches Steyer endorses Markey in Massachusetts Senate primary Celebrities fundraise for Markey ahead of Massachusetts Senate primary MORE; Rep. Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardFinancial firms facing serious hacking threat in COVID-19 era Gabbard drops defamation lawsuit against Clinton It's as if a Trump operative infiltrated the Democratic primary process MORE (D-Hawaii); Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandDemocrats seek to tie GOP candidates to Trump, DeVos Democratic lawmakers call for expanding, enshrining LGBTQ rights The Hill's 12:30 Report: Fauci 'aspirationally hopeful' of a vaccine by winter MORE (D-N.Y.); Sen. Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetHillicon Valley: Facebook considers political ad ban | Senators raise concerns over civil rights audit | Amazon reverses on telling workers to delete TikTok Senators raise concerns over Facebook's civil rights audit House Democrats chart course to 'solving the climate crisis' by 2050 MORE (D-Colo.); Montana Gov. Steve BullockSteve BullockInternal poll shows tight battle in Montana House race The Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic Unity Taskforce unveils party platform recommendations The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Trump backs another T stimulus, urges governors to reopen schools MORE; Rep. Tim RyanTimothy (Tim) RyanDemocrats see victory in Trump culture war House Democrat calls for 'real adult discussion' on lawmaker pay The Hill's Coronavirus Report: San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus Artistic Director Tim Seelig says choirs are dangerous; Pence says, 'We have saved lives' MORE (D-Ohio); former Rep. John DelaneyJohn DelaneyCoronavirus Report: The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews Rep. Rodney Davis Eurasia Group founder Ian Bremmer says Trump right on China but wrong on WHO; CDC issues new guidance for large gatherings The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas says country needs to rethink what 'policing' means; US cases surpass 2 million with no end to pandemic in sight MORE (D-Md.); New York City Mayor Bill de BlasioBill de BlasioThe Hill's Coronavirus Report: Fauci says focus should be on pausing reopenings rather than reverting to shutdowns; WHO director pleads for international unity in pandemic response Trump calls New York City 'hellhole' after court upholds subpoena from city prosecutors NYPD retirements surge over 400 percent amid tensions with mayor MORE; bestselling author Marianne WilliamsonMarianne WilliamsonMarianne Williamson touts endorsements for progressive congressional candidates The Hill's 12:30 Report: Warren becomes latest 2020 rival to back Biden The Hill's Campaign Report: Biden looks to stretch lead in Tuesday contests 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.