Democrats excluded from debate face battle for survival

Democratic presidential candidates who are still struggling to introduce themselves to early-state voters face a critical inflection point over the next several weeks, as they battle to keep their campaigns funded and operating even without the chance to participate in next month’s debate.
 
Some have acknowledged that their hopes of mounting a strong campaign ended when they failed to meet the threshold to make the debate stage.

In the past 10 days, three Democratic candidates — Washington Gov. Jay InsleeJay Robert InsleeO'Rourke ends presidential bid Sunrise Movement organizer: Sanders, Warren boast strongest climate change plans Overnight Energy: Farmers say EPA reneged on ethanol deal | EPA scrubs senators' quotes from controversial ethanol announcement | Perry unsure if he'll comply with subpoena | John Kerry criticizes lack of climate talk at debate MORE, Rep. Seth MoultonSeth MoultonWe still owe LGBT veterans for their patriotism and service It's time for Congress to establish a national mental health crisis number Bill introduced to give special immigrant visas to Kurds who helped US in Syria MORE (Mass.) and Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandSenate panel clears controversial Trump court pick Advocates step up efforts for horse racing reform bill after more deaths Harris proposes keeping schools open for 10 hours a day MORE (N.Y.) — have suspended their campaigns.

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But others are soldiering on in hopes of qualifying for future debates, and of winning converts among voters in Iowa and New Hampshire who will be the first to allocate delegates.

“I think that the debate is missing something without me in it. But you know, we still know that we’re five and a half months from the Iowa caucuses, which is the first time that actual voters get to express a preference,” Montana Gov. Steve BullockSteve BullockPress: Another billionaire need not apply Obama's former chief economist advising Buttigieg The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump says Dems shouldn't hold public hearings MORE (D) told The Hill in an interview. “Actual voters are still off on summer vacation. We’ve got a long way to go.”

Bullock said he has not considered ending his campaign, which he launched in April. His campaign has hired 25 staffers in Iowa, and he has several multi-day swings through the first-in-the-nation caucus state in the works.

Former Rep. John DelaneyJohn Kevin DelaneyBloomberg run should push Warren to the center — but won't The Hill's 12:30 Report: Impeachment fight enters new stage Biden hits Warren over 'Medicare for All' plan MORE (D-Md.), who has poured more than $23 million into his own presidential campaign, said he had “no intention of leaving the race” before Iowa’s February caucuses.

“I don’t have any pressure — financial pressure or political pressure — to drop out of the race,” Delaney told The Hill. “There’s nothing between now and the Iowa caucus that is going to change my opinion.”

Democratic strategists said candidates who miss the debate stage will face inevitable questions of whether they can — or should — continue their campaigns.

The most existential challenge any low-polling campaign faces is financial. If donor doors close, a campaign’s ability to continue functioning closes, too.

“A lot of time the decision is made for you because you are faced with laying off staff or not being able to make key hires. If the money is gone, so is the election,” said Corey Platt, a Democratic strategist who ran a super PAC backing Inslee. 

Missing the debate stage also gives candidates a moment to reflect on their own experience, Platt said.

Running for president is a grueling ordeal, both for the front-runners and those polling at the bottom of the pack. Whether the candidate is having fun on the trail, and whether their message is actually resonating with early-state voters, can determine how long the campaign continues.

“It’s hard to have fun, but if you are, then you should definitely stay in the race,” Platt said. “If you are in rooms, even small rooms, and you can feel the energy and connect with voters then you know that you might have a path to still be successful when more voters in early states start tuning in to the campaign.”

A handful of campaigns whose candidates failed to make the September debate stage have been quietly discussing alternative plans, according to people familiar with the talks. Delaney suggested there would be other “organized opportunities” going forward.

The candidates are wary, however, of participating in any unsanctioned debates, aware that it could mean being banished from official debates should they qualify in the future.

Several candidates say they are positioning themselves as an alternative to the shaky front-runner, former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenFive landmark moments of testimony to Congress Democrats sharpen their message on impeachment Biden: 'I'm more of a Democrat from my shoe sole to my ears' than anyone else running MORE, who leads two more progressive candidates, Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersTech firms face skepticism over California housing response Press: Another billionaire need not apply Ex-Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick mulling 2020 run: report MORE (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenBiden: 'I'm more of a Democrat from my shoe sole to my ears' than anyone else running Press: Another billionaire need not apply Saagar Enjeti dismisses Warren, Klobuchar claims of sexism MORE (D-Mass.) in most public polls.

If Biden’s campaign comes unhinged, they hope to position themselves as the rightful heirs to the vast middle.

“I think it has become right now a three-way race with the vice president and Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. But I think most voters are looking for an alternative to the vice president,” Delaney said. “The vice president is effectively squatting on the more moderate voters in the party and I think that’s going to change.”

Bullock, Sen. Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetPress: Another billionaire need not apply Democrats debate how to defeat Trump: fight or heal Overnight Energy: EPA watchdog slams agency chief after deputy fails to cooperate in probe | Justices wrestle with reach of Clean Water Act | Bipartisan Senate climate caucus grows MORE (D-Colo.) and others are banking on the same voters looking for alternatives to Biden.

Every candidate left off the stage chafes at the rules by which the Democratic National Committee (DNC) decides who qualifies for a debate, rules that require them to earn donations from 130,000 individuals across dozens of states and reach a polling threshold.

Bullock and others have lamented how much they have to spend to attract a single donor online — sometimes as much as $50 or $60 just to earn a $1 donation.

“They may have had good intentions, but they’re certainly keeping good candidates off the stage just when the voters are starting to pay attention,” Bullock said of the DNC. “If we’re serious about being a party of more than just DC and the coast, we should actually be disappointed that we’re relying on these arbitrary guidelines.”

Michael Morley, a senior adviser to Rep. Tim RyanTimothy (Tim) RyanStrategists say Warren 'Medicare for All' plan could appeal to centrists Trump mocks O'Rourke after Democrat drops out of race The Memo: What the leading 2020 Dems need to do MORE’s (D-Ohio) campaign, said in a statement that there were “more constructive ways for us to connect to voters than a mad dash to spend $50 to get a $1 contribution.” 

Change is the one constant in presidential nominating contests. At this point in 2007, both parties’ eventual nominees, John McCainJohn Sidney McCainLindsey Graham basks in the impeachment spotlight Sanders proposes expanded Veterans Affairs services, B to rebuild infrastructure Cindy McCain says husband John McCain would be 'disgusted' by state of GOP MORE and Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaSaagar Enjeti dismisses Warren, Klobuchar claims of sexism Pennsylvania's other election-night story Buttigieg praises Obama after Los Angeles Times corrects misquote MORE, trailed front-running rivals, albeit with higher levels of support. In September 2011, then-Texas Gov. Rick PerryRick PerryOvernight Energy: BLM may boost staff numbers at new Colorado headquarters | Perry backers reportedly got Ukraine gas deal after he met with president | Paris exit toughens US path to green future Perry backers secured lucrative Ukraine gas deal after his meeting with new president: report The Hill's Morning Report - Impeachment drama will dominate this week MORE (R) was riding a wave of support over Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyClub for Growth extends advertising against House Dems over impeachment Pennsylvania's other election-night story This week: House kicks off public phase of impeachment inquiry MORE, the eventual GOP nominee.

“Look,” Bullock said. “This is a marathon, not a sprint.”

— Jonathan Easley contributed to this report.