It will also launch the beginning of an unprecedented two-tier Democratic nomination fight, as many of the candidates who did not make the stage, including the Montana governor, the mayor of New York City and the senior senator from Colorado, promise to continue their campaigns by focusing on early state voters while voicing concerns about the debate qualification process.
“Our rules have ended up less inclusive . . . than even the Republicans,” Montana Gov. Steve Bullock said in a Wednesday morning MSNBC interview.
A formal party announcement of qualifiers for the Sept. 12 debate is expected Thursday.
Besides former vice president Joe Biden, who has been leading almost all recent polls, those who have qualified for the September stage include Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.); South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg; former housing and urban development secretary Julián Castro; Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.); Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.); former congressman Beto O’Rourke (Tex.); Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.); Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.); and tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) announced Wednesday that she was leaving the race after it became clear that she would not make the September debate stage. She joined former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who announced he was ending his campaign to run for the U.S. Senate after the last debate, when it became clear he would not qualify either, and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.). All have quit since mid-August.
Candidates can continue to campaign for inclusion in the October debates, when the qualification rules will be the same: They must reach 2 percent or higher in four party-approved polls and attract 130,000 donors.
Billionaire activist Tom Steyer, who entered the race in July and has since spent about $12 million on advertising, needs one more qualifying poll to make the October debate. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii) needs two and author Marianne Williamson needs three. Others have a tougher road to making the cut, as they have not yet acquired more than a single poll and have failed, in most cases, to attract enough donors.
An adviser to Steyer said he would continue to campaign to get a spot on the October stage. Bullock, Sen. Michael F. Bennet (Colo.), New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, Rep. Tim Ryan (Ohio) and former Rep. John Delaney (Md.) have also pledged to continue their campaigns if they miss the September cut.
A senior Bennet adviser, Craig Hughes, sent party chairman Tom Perez a letter Wednesday with 11 questions that challenged the transparency of the party’s debate rules.
“To date, the DNC has not provided information on how or why its unprecedented debate qualification requirements were set nor what the criteria will be for the eight future debates,” Hughes wrote.
Perez defended the rules he had put in place in an interview with The Washington Post at the party’s summer meeting in San Francisco.
“It’s up to the candidates, at a certain point, to demonstrate that they’re gaining traction,” Perez said. “There’s been an unprecedented amount of earned media opportunities for candidates. Some like Mayor Pete used it. And after his CNN town hall, he hit the threshold. Andrew Yang hit it. Julián Castro had a very good first debate and that was all she wrote.”
Two polls released Wednesday morning did not help any additional candidates qualify for a spot on the stage in Houston.
The USA Today-Suffolk University Poll and the Quinnipiac University Poll both showed Biden leading the pack with 32 percent of the probable Democratic primary vote. Warren and Sanders followed with double-digit support under 20 percent. Everyone else who has qualified for the debate stage received single-digit support. Those who have not qualified for the debate stage have not received more than 1 percent support.
Polls this early in a campaign cycle are indicators of campaign strength but are not necessarily good predictors of the voting results. In November 2007, there was one poll — the widely read USA Today-Gallup survey — that put Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), who went on to win the presidency, 28 points behind Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) nationally.
David Weigel contributed to this report.