The 20 podiums allotted for the first Democratic presidential debates are quickly filling up, and the decision about who gets on stage could soon become much more complicated.
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock became the 19th candidate to qualify for the debates just a week after joining the race, leaving one more slot and five announced candidates vying to fill it.
The five people still scrambling to get on stage include New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and Sen. Michael F. Bennet of Colorado. If both of them clear the low bar set to qualify, then the Democratic National Committee will switch to a ranking system to decide who’s in and who’s out.
The other three candidates who haven’t demonstrated enough support to claim a debate podium — either with grassroots fundraising or in the polls — are Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts; Mayor Wayne Messam of Miramar, Florida; and former Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska.
Failure to get into the first debates, set for June 26 and 27, in Miami, would deliver a potentially lethal blow to a presidential campaign.
“With a field that could easily swell to 30 candidates, it would be very difficult to make the case that you can compete in a general election if you can’t find enough support to qualify for the debates,” said Democratic strategist Zach Friend, who worked on Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign.
He noted the machinations by candidates and donors to meet the fundraising threshold of 65,000 individual donations spread across at least 20 states, which is easier to finagle than the alternative qualifier of getting 1% in at least three major polls.
“Many Democratic donors this cycle are donating to multiple campaigns, often with very small dollar donations, just to have candidates in the first debates,” he said. “Campaigns are getting creative, even trading merchandise for $1 and $5 donations, just to hit the minimum donor threshold to qualify for the debates.”
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, whose run is focused on fighting climate change, is one of the candidates who appealed for contributions specifically to get into the debates.
“I’m asking for $5. Here’s why: The June debate is our next best shot to put climate change front and center for 2020. And right now, we’re short of the 65,000 grassroots donors we need to be guaranteed a spot,” he said in a recent Facebook ad.
Since then, Mr. Inslee has qualified for a podium.
Those prime-time debates will provide the best chance for candidates to stand out from the crowd or to trip up the front-runner, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden.
“The way you cut through, the way you set yourself apart today, is not by waving your arms and trying to be the loudest. I think some of it will be in the ideas space,” South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg said Thursday at a forum hosted by The Washington Post.
He said Democratic candidates agree with one another on as much as 80% of the policy points, but the debates will provide a chance to connect with voters.
“What people will be looking for as they scan that debate stage is, of course, ‘Who can I see as president?’ But also ‘Who can I see really changing the channel from the show that we have right now in Washington?’” he said. “There has to be a sense that we can generate something that will speak to people who either have completely tuned out or who are so disgusted with everything they see that even though they are under no illusions that this president is a good guy would rather have that just to disrupt the system.”
The DNC put a 20-candidate limit on the debates. The first showdown will be held over two days with 10 candidates randomly selected for each day.
If more than 20 candidates qualify for the debates, which looks increasingly likely, then the DNC will pick the participants based first on who meets both fundraising and polling thresholds, followed by the highest polling average and then by the most unique donors.
Analysis by multiple news organizations identified 19 candidates who qualified for the debates. The DNC said it would not announce its list of participants until two weeks before the first debate.
After the debacle of the 2016 Democratic primary process that party officials skewed to help former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton beat Sen. Bernard Sanders, DNC Chairman Tom Perez developed the 2020 debate scheme to make it more transparent and give grassroots supporters a bigger voice.
The 2020 criteria cleared the way for some nontraditional Democratic candidates to compete in the debates.
Early this month, New Age author and activist Marianne Williamson announced that she netted the 65,000 donors needed to secure a podium.
Ms. Williamson has written 13 spiritual books, including four New York Times No. 1 best-sellers, but has barely registered in the polls. She credited her grassroots support with lifting her onto the debate stage.
“Ours has been — and will continue to be — a campaign of ideas that people care about and that they are willing to stand behind. It takes a certain kind of audacity to take a stand for something truly new,” she said.
Several hopefuls who have languished around 1% in the polls managed to qualify, including former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio and entrepreneur Andrew Yang.
Still, the process has not satisfied everyone, and more complaints are expected if the ranking system goes into effect.
Mr. Gravel, whose quixotic anti-war campaign has garnered scant attention in the news media, accused the DNC of shutting him out. In an email to supporters, he urged voters to pressure Mr. Perez to further open the process.
“The Democratic Party is not Thunderdome or Hunger Games or some other youthful fantasy,” he wrote. “DNC made-for-TV rules may be successful in switching the donor base of upstart campaigns and moderating the current government’s malign neglect. But these are real lives. Real deaths. Real debates.”
⦁ Seth McLaughlin contributed to this report.