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The DNC just upped the threshold for its third presidential debate

Some candidates are struggling to qualify for the first presidential debate. The DNC just made the third one more difficult to get into.

DNC Chair Tom Perez speaks to a crowd of supporters at a Democratic unity rally at the Rail Event Center in Salt Lake City in 2017.
George Frey/Getty Images

Facing a massive 24-candidate field for president, the Democratic National Committee has come up with a plan to help narrow it.

In addition to its standing requirements for candidates to get into the first debate, the DNC announced Wednesday that it will raise the threshold for candidates to qualify for the third debate — held in September and hosted by ABC and Univision. To be eligible, candidates will need higher poll numbers and more grassroots support than they did to make it into the first two debates.

Even now, there’s no way all 24 candidates will see the debate stage. There’s a cap at 20 spots waiting to be filled, and the DNC is planning to spread the first summer debates across two nights, with 10 candidates on each stage. Democrats are planning a total of 12 debates, and DNC Chair Tom Perez told me recently he’s trying to model them quite differently than the large, chaotic GOP debates of 2016.

“It was all too frequently a circus on the Republican side where they were simply engaged in name-calling and distractions that didn’t allow viewers to understand what they stood for,” Perez said.

Democratic debate criteria, briefly explained

Here are the lower criteria for the first two debates, which will be held June 26 and 27, and July 30 and 31 (hosted by NBC and CNN, respectively). In order to get on that debate stage, candidates will need:

  • To register 1 percent or more support in three polls between January 1 and two weeks before the debate. These polls don’t necessarily have to be national; public polls in the first four primary and caucus states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and/or Nevada also qualify. But they have to be done by major news organizations or qualifying universities.
  • Showing their campaign has received donations from at least 65,000 unique donors and a minimum of 200 unique donors per state in at least 20 US states.

It’s important to note that candidates can get on the debate stage by meeting one of these criteria. But that gets tricky now there are more candidates than available slots. The top 20 candidates will be selected using a methodology that favors candidates who meet both the polling and grassroots donations thresholds. That will be followed by the highest polling average, which will be followed by the most unique donors, according to the DNC.

Now here are the debate criteria for the third and fourth debates in September and October. The principles of polling and grassroots fundraising are the same, but the thresholds are higher. In order to qualify, candidates will need both of these things:

  • To register 2 percent or more support in four qualifying polls.
  • To garner 130,000 individual donors for grassroots support — double the number they needed to get into the first debates.

For the top-tier candidates, these will be easy thresholds to meet. But a number of lower-level candidates have been struggling to meet the criteria even for the first debates. In order to be seen by a national audience this fall, they will have to work a lot harder to get onstage for the September debate.

The inclusion of a threshold for grassroots support is new, and Perez said it was used to make sure candidates were thinking of the grassroots from the moment they start their campaigns.

“That was designed with an understanding that if you want to win the presidency, you’ve got to have a grassroots strategy,” he told me.

Perez understands the logistical challenges posed by such a large field, but he said the DNC has worked hard to make sure all candidates feel they are being given a “fair shake.”

“I have had the privilege of working with the vast majority of the candidates, and they’re really great people in their own right,” he said. “I want to make sure the American people get to see what I’ve had the privilege of experiencing. So, fair shake for everybody and inclusive process.”