Washington (CNN)What now?
The lack of inclusion for more than half the field is an inflection point in a 2020 race that, up until now, has been more inclusive than exclusive. And it has the 11 Democrats who are now on the outside looking in asking questions about whether they can press on without getting the primetime attention that is about to be directed toward their already better funded, more supported opponents.
Publicly, many of these candidates — like Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and former Rep. John Delaney — are pledging to forge ahead and downplaying the impact of missing the media moment. But privately, nearly every campaign that has missed the debate stage is worried about staying relevant with both voters and donors while not being part of the contest.
And the lack of an invite has already contributed to the thinning of the field. Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee both dropped out — in part — because they weren’t going to qualify for the debate, according to people close to the two Democrats.
In order to qualify for the September debate in Houston, candidates must receive contributions from at least 130,000 individuals, coming from at least 400 unique donors in 20 or more states, and reach 2% in at least four DNC-approved polls. The deadline to meet those qualifications is the end of the day on Wednesday.
Any donations or polls that come before midnight on Wednesday count toward meeting the thresholds, according to a DNC aide. The campaigns have until 11 a.m. Thursday to submit proof that they have met both thresholds to the DNC.
So far, 10 Democrats — according to CNN’s count — have met those thresholds: former Vice President Joe Biden, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, California Sen. Kamala Harris, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and businessman Andrew Yang.
Three candidates – Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, billionaire Tom Steyer and author Marianne Williamson — have reached the fundraising threshold, but — barring any last-minute polls — have failed to reach the polling threshold.
For Steyer, the candidate who came closest with three qualifying polls out of four, missing the debate came at a cost. The billionaire financier has spent $10.3M on TV since he announced his campaign, according to data from Advertising Analytics, much of which was aimed at garnering enough recognition of qualify for the September debate.
But the toughest questions may be for the candidates who came nowhere near making the debate but opt to stay in the race anyway: How do you run for president when you aren’t able to face off with people leading that race?
‘Detrimental’ to miss the debate stage
According to Matt Corridoni, Moulton’s spokesman, it’s likely that all the campaigns will underestimate the negative impact missing the debate stage will have on them.
Moulton failed to make either the June or July debates. Corridoni told reporters, including CNN, in June that missing the debate stage was not a big deal and that debates in the summer of 2019 would not decide the 2020 election.
Corridoni tells CNN that the Moulton campaign’s calculation was wrong.
“When I said that in June for that July debate, I believed it,” he said. “To be candid, we didn’t realize how detrimental it would be until it happened.”
He added: “At a certain point you have to weigh viability and, like it or not, polls follow media coverage, media coverage follows polls and voters are using these debates to help them figure out and pare down candidates. So if you are not on that stage, you have to really be able to penetrate the media cycle. It is a near impossible task.”
An Inslee aide echoed Corridoni.
“It was clear that he wasn’t going to make the debate and it is very difficult to stay in the race if you aren’t going to make the debate stage,” the aide said.
Few campaigns are looking at things like Moulton or Inslee — instead, they are choosing to attack the DNC as a way to undercut the debate.
Delaney, who made the first two debates but is resigned to the fact that he won’t make the third, told CNN in an interview that the DNC rules are the committee saying “we want to be able to decide what the field is.” Delaney took it a step further by championing the way the Republican National Committee handled the 2016 debates, where top polling candidates were on one debate stage, while lower tier candidates were on another — something the DNC expressly wanted to avoid.
“I just assumed that the debate process would probably be like the Republican debate process,” Delaney said, “which I think now in the fullness of time has proven to be a more thoughtful approach.”
Delaney admitted he would “rather be on the debate stage,” but said not making the third one is not “the end of the world.” And as for whether he thinks missing the debate will sink his campaign, Delaney was blunt: “I’m not going anywhere.”
Some of these candidates have taken the message directly to the DNC.
“If we wanted to be the party that excluded people, we’d be Republicans,” Sen. Michael Bennet said at a recent DNC meeting with chairman Tom Perez seated right next to him. “These rules have created exactly the wrong outcome and they will not help us beat Donald Trump.”
Others have accused the DNC of creating a system that is unfair to lesser known candidates, others say they are relying too heavily on unreliable polling and even more are noting that their threshold forces campaigns to spend a disproportionate amount of money to drum up small donations and reach the fundraising threshold.
“We plan to keep making inroads in Iowa where we now have almost 30 staff and keep gaining support,” a Bullock aide said in response to the near certainty they will miss the debate. “While we are working towards making the fourth debate, the DNC shouldn’t forget that it’s voters who elect our next president — not their arbitrary rules.”
A Delaney aide said that while it is difficult to fully know what happens after they don’t make the debate, their plan is to “wait until the field narrows and then strike.”
“We’ve always planned on being the last moderate standing,” the aide said, even if that means missing two straight debates.
And New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, according to an aide, plans on forging ahead despite not making the debate.
“He’s going to continue spreading his message,” an aide said. “There is plenty of time before any voting happens. We always knew the third debate would be a challenge. But we are getting a great response to our message as more and more people hear what the Mayor offers to our country. We will continue to make that case directly to voters.”
Their problem for these candidates, though: One of the most effective ways to bring that message “directly” to a large group of voters is on a nationally televised debate.