The Democratic debates in Miami just became more important for most 2020 candidates

The first Democratic presidential debates will be held June 26 and 27 at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County.
The first Democratic presidential debates will be held June 26 and 27 at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County. Miami

Less than a month away, the Democratic Party’s presidential debates in Miami are already going to be an inflection point for a massive field of candidates jockeying for attention from news outlets, donors and voters.

But the Democratic National Committee just increased the significance of the first debates of the young 2020 campaign by making it more difficult to qualify for subsequent debates planned in September and October.

By requiring Wednesday that candidates improve their showing in polls and register donations from at least 130,000 people in order to make the party’s third and fourth debates, DNC Chairman Tom Perez also made it more important that the lesser-known of the current 23 presidential hopefuls make a splash in Miami next month. That could make for more aggression on stage, and more aggression on the campaign trail from third-tier candidates trying to ensure they get a spot in the debates.

“In a 23-person Democratic primary, debates offer some of the only opportunities for an underdog campaign like ours to break through — to get a chance to compete on a level playing field with those other campaigns that are raising tens of millions of dollars,” New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker said Wednesday in a fundraising email released shortly after the DNC announced the new debate requirements.

Booker has met both the polling and threshold requirements to make the Miami debates and a second round hosted in July by CNN, so he’s not likely worried about missing the summer’s events. But even making the first debates is becoming more difficult as the presidential field grows larger.

The June 26 and 27 debates at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts have been capped at 20 candidates, and Perez set the bar so low for the event that already 19 of the 23 candidates in the race have qualified through polling, according to Nate Silver’s 538.

To earn a spot on the stage in Miami, candidates need only register at 1 percent in three national or early state polls, or secure 65,000 individual donations across a large swath of the country. Marianne Williamson’s campaign says that she’s hit the donation threshold, to put the qualified field at 20.

But should a 21st candidate qualify under one of the basic benchmarks, it would complicate the formula used by the DNC to separate the top 20 and make it more difficult to make it onto the stage. The DNC updated its process this month, explaining that it will give priority to candidates with better polling numbers and better grassroots fundraising if more than 20 candidates qualify.

A second debate using the same criteria is scheduled in July prior to a debate break in August, so missing the Miami debates isn’t necessarily fatal for long-shot candidates. But with the stakes increasing in September, it will be that much more important for candidates struggling for attention to make a splash in Miami and carry that momentum into the summer doldrums.

“June is an interesting time to start, and it’s going to define which candidates decide that their strategy is partly to elevate themselves by drawing clearer contrasts,” said Christian Ulvert, a Miami-based consultant who recently ran Philip Levine’s campaign for governor in Florida, a state that will play a large role in the general election. “For the presidential candidates, it’s their opportunity to show they’ll be connected to a swing state early on. But it’s also important for the DNC hosting the debates to make sure the first one goes off strong.”