For presidential candidates, failing to qualify for presidential debates has historically been a fatal setback, limiting much-needed exposure for campaigns struggling for attention and resources.
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"I've got these 130,000 [donors], I've got the money rolling in,” Williamson told ABC News last week. “This love train is on a roll."
The self-help author-turned-White House hopeful isn’t alone: Nearly two-dozen Democrats remain in the race for the White House, including several candidates in the middle and lower tiers of the field who plan to plow ahead without a podium on the debate stage in September.
“My strategy is really simple: stay in the race, the field’s really big, it will get smaller,” former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland said on MSNBC on Sunday.
Unlike Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass. and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, both of whom suspended their presidential campaigns after failing to gain traction, and pivoted to their respective reelection bids, Delaney, who is not on track to qualify for the debate, doesn’t have a day job dividing his attention. In 2017, the multi-millionaire and former businessman decided not to run for reelection to Congress to focus on his moderate and pragmatism-themed White House bid.
“I think it will be the [former] vice president [Joe Biden] and myself in that lane, and then it will be a question of who has better ideas,” Delaney said on MSNBC.
Instead of debating next month, Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., said he plans to spend his time barnstorming the early voting states.
“I’m not going to be on the debate stage next month, but I am going to be out in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina and Nevada building the constituency for change this country needs,” he said at the Democratic National Committee summer meeting in San Francisco on Friday.
Of the 21 Democrats still running for president, 10 have qualified for the fall debates by meeting the thresholds for donors (130,000 unique donors) and polling (at least 2 percent support in four qualifying national or early state polls). Candidates need to hit both by Wednesday to qualify for the September debate.
Willamson, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, and billionaire Tom Steyer have each hit the donor benchmark, but haven’t qualified on polling ahead of the Wednesday deadline. Other candidates, like Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, and Bennet, are on the bubble in both categories.
Bullock, Bennet and Steyer - who is one poll away from qualifying for the next debate - have swiped at the party’s debate requirements, calling on the DNC to expend its polling criteria to include more national and state-specific surveys. Some are determined to continue running through the fall in the hopes of making the cut for the October debate.
And then there’s Joe Sestak. The retired Navy admiral and former congressman, who entered the race in June, told ABC News he hasn’t had enough time to register in the national conversation.
“We’re going to stay, no matter what, through these initial states,” he said. “I’m just beginning.”
Struggling to attract enough attention to appear on cable news, Sestak is trying to promote his campaign by sitting for interviews with outlets across the political spectrum, from the conservative Breitbart to the liberal “Chapo Trap House” podcast.
“I think they appreciate that I’m talking to all Americans,” Sestak said.
Despite the vows from some Democrats to push past any debate setbacks, party officials and voters are confident that the field will thin out in the coming weeks, narrowing the range of options for primary voters ahead of early voting next year.
“It’s narrowing. And I think it’s going to happen,” Joanne Sullivan, a DNC member at the party’s summer meeting in San Francisco, told ABC News last week. “This party will come together. We’ll be in a good place.”