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What were the other 2020 Democrats doing on debate day?

These candidates were off the stage, but they’re not out of the race.

Entrepreneur Andrew Yang holds a rally at Iowa’s Drake University ahead of the seventh Democratic primary debate.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

The Iowa caucuses are in a little more than two weeks, and the Democrats who took part in the seventh Democratic primary debate worked hard to make their final pitches to voters Tuesday night. So did many candidates who failed to make the stage: Through tweeting, late-night TV, and even summits with former presidential candidates, they tried their best to claim a small portion of the political spotlight.

Former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg sought out another national stage in an interview on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, and his campaign drew attention for its Twitter antics.

Bloomberg faced some pointed questions about his unconventional primary path and “stop and frisk” policing from Colbert; the mayor first defended his record on policing as an attempt to “stop the carnage,” but went on to admit “we were getting out of control.”

The New York City Police Department’s implementation of a stop and frisk program was struck down as “a form of racial profiling” in 2013; throughout his candidacy, Bloomberg has faced criticism for championing the program, and until recently, had been vocal in defending it as a necessity.

During the debate, his campaign addressed lighter topics on Twitter with an aim to entertain, sharing a photo of a meatball with Bloomberg’s face superimposed; polling followers on what animal they would like to see released on the debate stage; and opining on the similarities between debate moderator Wolf Blitzer and an actual wolf.

The account tweeted more than 50 times, slowly segueing from genuine trivia about the candidate to much weirder topics:

Entrepreneur Andrew Yang had a somewhat quieter night, but the Yang Gang — Yang’s avid online fanbase — made his absence from the stage known online. For much of the debate, the hashtag #AmericaNeedsYang trended at second in the United States, boosted by Yang himself.

Unlike Bloomberg, Yang and his supporters are well known for their online presence, with Yang using Twitter to choose candidates to pilot the universal basic income proposal that’s at the heart of his campaign, and his supporters creating the sort of viral memes the Bloomberg campaign appeared to be trying to generate.

Yang didn’t just rely on his unparalleled online support; he held a rally at Drake University — the site of the debate — on Monday ahead of the event, and Tuesday promoted a volunteer initiative that was dubbed Yang National Visibility Day by his supporters as they headed out to knock on doors.

He also rolled out a very Andrew Yang endorsement on Tuesday morning: the comedian Dave Chappelle, who will perform in South Carolina to benefit the campaign later in the month. In December, Yang picked up support from another comedian: Donald Glover, who is also an actor, a Grammy-award winning rapper, and, most recently, a Yang 2020 “creative consultant.”

Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, whose campaign has been distinguished by the interest it has garnered among members of the far-right and attacks on the Democratic establishment, took advantage of debate night to focus on foreign policy in a conversation with former Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, who launched presidential bids in 2004 and 2008.

As she did in her debate appearances, Gabbard emphasized her military experience and unique foreign policy views, again vowing to end “long-standing regime-change wars,” a position she has been criticized for given the US is not currently waging any regime-change wars.

The debates are important platforms, but those that didn’t make the cut hope they’ve found another way to the nomination

The televised debates are seen as key ways for candidates to connect with voters and to both boost and sustain their candidacies. Sen. Amy Klobuchar credited what was seen as a strong showing for her campaign at the sixth primary debate with a boost in fundraising; her campaign reported raising more than a million dollars in the day after the debate. Similarly, a powerful response on the effects of segregation by Sen. Kamala Harris during the first Democratic primary debate in June helped give her the best poll numbers of her now-suspended campaign.

Failing to make the stage is seen as a blow that makes it more difficult to fundraise and to win new supporters. A number of former candidates, including Sen. Cory Booker and former Department of Housing and Human Services Secretary Julián Castro dropped out of the race following their inability to make the cut.

And that has led some candidates, like Yang, to criticize the Democratic National Committee’s qualifying standards.

Yang was onstage for the sixth Democratic debate in Los Angeles last month, and he’s been on his way up in the polls — just not quite quickly enough. He met the DNC threshold of 225,000 donors to qualify for the January debate but fell short of the polling target: either 5 percent in four qualifying national polls or 7 percent in two qualifying early-state polls.

Yang has argued that the DNC standards make it harder for minority candidates to qualify for debates and has recently mounted a campaign to have the DNC commission more qualifying polls. That effort has so far been unsuccessful.

Bloomberg, meanwhile, has deliberately eschewed the debates. The candidate, who is worth about $59 billion according to Forbes, has made a point of not accepting campaign donations, which, at least under the current DNC rules, precludes his participation in the debates. His nearly unlimited spending power, though, has yielded strong national poll numbers; his national polling average exceeds that of Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who qualified for the January debate.

In addition to skipping the debates, Bloomberg also hopes to chart a new path to the Democratic nomination: he’s skipping early-states contests like Iowa and New Hampshire in favor of betting big on Super Tuesday.

Bloomberg has a unique set of advantages — about 59 billion of them — that allow him to run an unconventional campaign, but for most campaigns, particularly in a crowded field, missing a debate stage and the media spotlight that comes with it can be fatal.

And attempts like those of Yang, Gabbard, and Bloomberg to provide alternatives to the debates have not been overly successful in the long term. For example, after failing to qualify for the November Democratic debate, Castro used the hashtag #JuliánDebates to stay in the conversation through Twitter; in the process, he raised more money than during either of the previous debates he participated in. However, Castro’s campaign eventually ran out of road, and he dropped out in early January.

All the candidates are at a critical point in their campaigns. By the time the next debate arrives, Iowans will have already chosen who they want to be the Democratic nominee. Without the momentum Tuesday’s debate provided, it is difficult to see how Yang or Gabbard, despite polling at 5 percent and 2 percent in the state, respectively, could pull out a strong enough showing to maintain the viability of their candidacies through Super Tuesday.

This is, of course, exactly what they hope to do. And there are reasons for them to be optimistic. The Yang campaign announced a banner fourth-quarter fundraising total, and polls in Iowa and New Hampshire show him as having high favorability ratings. Gabbard has polled higher in New Hampshire than she has in other contests, giving her campaign hope it can mount a turnaround there. And Bloomberg polled higher than anyone outside of the top four candidates in a recent Quinnipiac national poll. The spotlight may have been on the six candidates onstage in Des Moines Tuesday, but the other candidates aren’t done yet.


Correction: This article originally stated that the DNC polling qualification for the January debate was two national polls at 5 percent or four early-state polls at 7 percent. The standard is either four national polls at 5 percent or two early-state polls at 7 percent, and the article has been updated accordingly.

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