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 InsleeInslee, GOP's Culp advance in Washington governor's race Governors call for Trump to extend funding for National Guard coronavirus response Washington state officials confirm federal officers leaving Seattle MORE, Rep. Seth MoultonSeth MoultonPortland: The Pentagon should step up or pipe down House panel votes to constrain Afghan drawdown, ask for assessment on 'incentives' to attack US troops Overnight Defense: House panel votes to ban Confederate flag on all Pentagon property | DOD report says Russia working to speed US withdrawal from Afghanistan | 'Gang of Eight' to get briefing on bounties Thursday MORE (Mass.) and Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandProgressives soaring after big primary night Bill from Warren, Gillibrand and Waters would make Fed fight economic racial inequalities Biden should pick the best person for the job — not the best woman 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 BullockRepublicans uncomfortably playing defense 300 green groups say Senate has 'moral duty' to reject Trump's public lands nominee Lincoln Project targets Senate races in Alaska, Maine, Montana with M ad buy 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 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.), 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 BidenGOP chairmen hit back at accusation they are spreading disinformation with Biden probe Trump outraises Biden in July, surpasses billion for the cycle Duckworth: Republican coronavirus package would 'gut' Americans With Disabilities Act MORE, who leads two more progressive candidates, Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersProgressives soaring after big primary night 'Absolutely incredible': Ocasio-Cortez congratulates Cori Bush on upset victory over Lacy Clay Sanders supporters launch six-figure ad campaign explaining why they're voting for Biden MORE (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenBill from Warren, Gillibrand and Waters would make Fed fight economic racial inequalities The other reason Democrats want Biden to shun debates The Memo: Biden faces balancing act 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 BennetHow Congress is preventing a Medicare bankruptcy during COVID-19 Tom Cotton rips NY Times for Chinese scientist op-ed criticizing US coronavirus response Our national forests need protection — and Congress can help 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) RyanThe Hill's Coronavirus Report: HHS Secretary Azar says US plans to have tens of millions of vaccine doses this fall; Kremlin allegedly trying to hack vaccine research Democrats see victory in Trump culture war House Democrat calls for 'real adult discussion' on lawmaker pay 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 McCainCNN's Ana Navarro to host Biden roundtable on making 'Trump a one-term president' Mark Kelly clinches Democratic Senate nod in Arizona Prominent conservatives question Jerry Falwell Jr. vacation photo MORE and Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaHearing for Twitter hack suspect Zoom-bombed by porn, rap music Read: Sally Yates testimony Michelle Obama says she is managing 'low-grade depression' MORE, trailed front-running rivals, albeit with higher levels of support. In September 2011, then-Texas Gov. Rick PerryRick PerryOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Trump signs major conservation bill into law | Senate votes to confirm Energy's No. 2 official | Trump Jr. expresses opposition to Pebble Mine project Senate votes to confirm Energy's No. 2 official 4 Texas GOP congressional primary runoffs to watch MORE (R) was riding a wave of support over Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyNRCC poll finds McBath ahead of Handel in Georgia Unemployment debate sparks GOP divisions Senate GOP divided over whether they'd fill Supreme Court vacancy  MORE, the eventual GOP nominee.

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

— Jonathan Easley contributed to this report.