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 Inslee2020 Democrats defend climate priorities in MSNBC forum Overnight Energy: Trump officials formally revoke California emissions waiver | EPA's Wheeler dodges questions about targeting San Francisco over homelessness | 2020 Dems duke it out at second climate forum Yang floats nominating Inslee as 'climate czar' MORE, Rep. Seth MoultonSeth MoultonMarkey fundraises ahead of Kennedy primary challenge The Hill's Campaign Report: De Blasio drops out | Warren gains support from black voters | Sanders retools campaign team | Warning signs for Tillis in NC Young insurgents aren't rushing to Kennedy's side in Markey fight MORE (Mass.) and Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten Gillibrand Gillibrand relaunches PAC to elect women Analysis: 2020 digital spending vastly outpaces TV ads Two years after Maria, Puerto Rico awaits disaster funds 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 BullockIowa Steak Fry to draw record crowds for Democrats The Hill's Campaign Report: De Blasio drops out | Warren gains support from black voters | Sanders retools campaign team | Warning signs for Tillis in NC New poll finds Biden, Warren in virtual tie in Iowa 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 Delaney2020 Democrats defend climate priorities in MSNBC forum The Hill's Campaign Report: De Blasio drops out | Warren gains support from black voters | Sanders retools campaign team | Warning signs for Tillis in NC Analysis: 2020 digital spending vastly outpaces TV ads 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 BidenJulián Castro: It's time for House Democrats to 'do something' about Trump Warren: Congress is 'complicit' with Trump 'by failing to act' Sanders to join teachers, auto workers striking in Midwest MORE, who leads two more progressive candidates, Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders to join teachers, auto workers striking in Midwest Krystal Ball tears into 'Never Trump' Republicans 2020 Democrats defend climate priorities in MSNBC forum MORE (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenWarren: Congress is 'complicit' with Trump 'by failing to act' Sanders to join teachers, auto workers striking in Midwest Pelosi wants to change law to allow a sitting president to be indicted 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 BennetThe Hill's Campaign Report: De Blasio drops out | Warren gains support from black voters | Sanders retools campaign team | Warning signs for Tillis in NC Williamson: Climate change result of an 'amoral' economic system Bennet: 'This generation has a lot to be really angry at us about' 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) John RyanThe Hill's Campaign Report: De Blasio drops out | Warren gains support from black voters | Sanders retools campaign team | Warning signs for Tillis in NC Williamson: Climate change result of an 'amoral' economic system Overnight Energy: Top presidential candidates to skip second climate forum | Group sues for info on 'attempts to politicize' NOAA | Trump allows use of oil reserve after Saudi attacks 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 McCainAmerica's newest comedy troupe: House GOP Michelle Malkin knocks Cokie Roberts shortly after her death: 'One of the first guilty culprits of fake news' Arizona Democratic Party will hold vote to censure Sinema MORE and Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaKrystal Ball tears into 'Never Trump' Republicans Sanders campaign announces it contacted over 1 million Iowa voters Iowa Steak Fry to draw record crowds for Democrats MORE, trailed front-running rivals, albeit with higher levels of support. In September 2011, then-Texas Gov. Rick PerryJames (Rick) Richard PerryGas prices could rise 15 to 30 cents following Saudi attack Trump envoy presses Saudi Arabia to allow nuclear inspections Perry confident energy market 'will rebound positively' after Saudi oil attack MORE (R) was riding a wave of support over Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyBipartisan group of senators urges FDA to pull most e-cigarettes immediately Trump judicial picks face rare GOP opposition Overnight Health Care — Presented by Partnership for America's Health Care Future — Pelosi unveils signature plan to lower drug prices | Trump says it's 'great to see' plan | Progressives pushing for changes MORE, the eventual GOP nominee.

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

— Jonathan Easley contributed to this report.