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 calls on Trump to ‘stay out of Washington state’s business’ Seattle mayor responds to Trump: ‘Go back to your bunker’ Trump warns he will take back Seattle from ‘ugly Anarchists’ if local leaders don’t act MORE, Rep. Seth MoultonSeth MoultonEx-CBO director calls for more than trillion in coronavirus stimulus spending Overnight Defense: Trump’s move to use military in US sparks backlash | Defense officials take heat | Air Force head calls Floyd’s death ‘a national tragedy’ Democrats blast Trump’s use of military against protests MORE (Mass.) and Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandWarren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases Warren, Pressley introduce bill to make it a crime for police officers to deny medical care to people in custody Senate Dems press DOJ over coronavirus safety precautions in juvenile detention centers MORE (N.Y.) — have suspended their campaigns.
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 BullockKoch-backed group launches ad campaign to support four vulnerable GOP senators Overnight Energy: US Park Police say ‘tear gas’ statements were ‘mistake’ | Trump to reopen area off New England coast for fishing | Vulnerable Republicans embrace green issues Vulnerable Republicans embrace green issues in battle to save seats 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 DelaneyThe 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 Minnesota AG Keith Ellison says racism is a bigger problem than police behavior; 21 states see uptick in cases amid efforts to reopen The Hill’s Coronavirus Report: Singapore Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan says there will be consequences from fraying US-China relations; WHO walks back claims on asymptomatic spread of virus 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.
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“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 BidenHillicon Valley: Biden calls on Facebook to change political speech rules | Dems demand hearings after Georgia election chaos | Microsoft stops selling facial recognition tech to police Trump finalizing executive order calling on police to use ‘force with compassion’ The Hill’s Campaign Report: Biden campaign goes on offensive against Facebook MORE, who leads two more progressive candidates, Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Hill’s 12:30 Report: Milley apologizes for church photo-op Harris grapples with defund the police movement amid veep talk Biden courts younger voters — who have been a weakness MORE (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenWarren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Joint Chiefs chairman says he regrets participating in Trump photo-op | GOP senators back Joint Chiefs chairman who voiced regret over Trump photo-op | Senate panel approves 0B defense policy bill Trump on collision course with Congress over bases with Confederate names 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 BennetSome realistic solutions for income inequality Democratic senators kneel during moment of silence for George Floyd 21 senators urge Pentagon against military use to curb nationwide protests 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) RyanMinnesota AG Keith Ellison says racism is a bigger problem than police behavior; 21 states see uptick in cases amid efforts to reopen Congress must fill the leadership void Pelosi pushes to unite party on coronavirus bill despite grumbling from left 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 McCainThe Hill’s Campaign Report: Bad polling data is piling up for Trump Cindy McCain ‘disappointed’ McGrath used image of John McCain in ad attacking McConnell Report that Bush won’t support Trump reelection ‘completely made up,’ spokesman says MORE and Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaHarris grapples with defund the police movement amid veep talk Five ways America would take a hard left under Joe Biden Valerie Jarrett: ‘Democracy depends upon having law enforcement’ MORE, trailed front-running rivals, albeit with higher levels of support. In September 2011, then-Texas Gov. Rick PerryRick PerryCoronavirus Report: The Hill’s Steve Clemons interviews Ernest Moniz Trump issues executive order to protect power grid from attack Why we need to transition, quickly, from fossil fuels to clean energy MORE (R) was riding a wave of support over Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyMilley discussed resigning from post after Trump photo-op: report Trump on collision course with Congress over bases with Confederate names Attorney says 75-year-old man shoved by Buffalo police suffered brain injury MORE, the eventual GOP nominee.
“Look,” Bullock said. “This is a marathon, not a sprint.”
— Jonathan Easley contributed to this report.