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From watch parties to doing their mayoral duties, here’s what the candidates who didn’t make the debates are up to

The Democratic presidential contenders who didn’t make the debate stage are making the best of a bad situation.

Marianne Williamson on stage surrounded by voters in Iowa.
Marianne Williamson didn’t make the September Democratic debates — so she’s doing some counterprogramming in California.
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Emily Stewart covers business and economics for Vox and writes the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

Marianne Williamson didn’t make the stage for this latest round of Democratic debates, but that doesn’t mean she’s spending her Thursday night sitting around. She’s hosting a debate party — and offering commentary after.

Williamson isn’t the only debate-barred 2020 candidate forced to make some alternate plans.

Just 10 contenders made the cut for the third Democratic debate in Houston, Texas, after failing to meet the fundraising and polling standards set by the Democratic National Committee. After finding out they’d miss out, a number of candidates dropped out of the race — Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, and Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA). Others are sticking around.

Williamson, the author and self-help figure who was a viral sensation during the first and second debates, hit the DNC’s 130,000-donor threshold but only got more than 2 percent support in one qualifying poll (candidates need four). So she’s hosting a watch party in Los Angeles during Thursday’s three-hour debate and afterwards will deliver commentary to attendees. Her remarks will also be live streamed.

Other candidates are taking a more low-key approach to the day, but still keeping their eyes on the prize (as in, the presidency) and on the debate.

Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO), one of the most vocal critics of the debate requirements (more on that later), is spending Thursday evening in Iowa meeting with workers, his campaign said, noting that he’s also watching the debate. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock is also in Iowa, where he campaigned with the state’s former first lady, Christie Vilsack, during the day. Billionaire Tom Steyer and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) are in Iowa, too, and former Congress member and three-star admiral Joe Sestak is campaigning in New Hampshire before flying to Iowa. Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) is taking part in a forum on civil liberties and the presidency at the University of New Hampshire’s law school, his alma mater.

Former Rep. John Delaney is in New York doing “press interviews,” his campaign said, though it’s not clear where. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is watching the debate in his home city. Wayne Messam, mayor of Miramar, Florida, is “performing his mayoral duties” by presiding over his city’s budget hearing, his spokesperson said.

The candidates who didn’t make the cut, obviously, aren’t happy about it, and some have complained that the rules laid out by the DNC are unclear or unfair. They say the committee is winnowing the field too early. It’s understandable: Failing to make the debate stage is an especially big deal for lower-tier candidates looking for a breakout moment. Sure, they can connect with voters at an ice cream social in Iowa, but that doesn’t reach the scale of a nationally televised debate.

How the DNC decided who did and didn’t qualify for the debate

How the DNC would deal with figuring out who would and wouldn’t be on the debate stage — especially in such a crowded field — has been a matter of contention.

As Vox’s Andrew Prokop laid out at the start of debate season, there is a broad sense among many Democrats that the DNC made the debate schedule extra-favorable to Hillary Clinton in 2016. The committee scheduled few debates and on odd days, and Bernie Sanders’s campaign accused the DNC of trying to grease the wheels for Clinton. Per Prokop:

So this time around, the DNC’s new chair, former Obama Labor Secretary Tom Perez, decided he would bend over backward to ensure lower-profile candidates had a fair shot. In February, he announced how candidates would be able to qualify and said there would be two main metrics.

For the first two debates, that meant candidates had to hit 1 percent support in three DNC-qualifying polls or have at least 65,000 unique donors. And for the third, it’s 2 percent in four polls and 130,000 donors. Those easier qualifying standards for the first two debates meant the stages were full at the DNC-capped number of candidates (20) and each had to be split into two nights.

This time around, 10 qualified. But for the next event in October, there might be more candidates sharing a stage or a second night of debate — Tom Steyer eked out over 2 percent in a recent poll and has now made the cut.

The candidates that didn’t make this debate haven’t been super happy about it

Some of the candidates that did not qualify for Thursday’s debate, obviously, were less than thrilled, and they cried foul. They argue the DNC is winnowing the field too quickly and not giving lesser-known candidates a chance to have a breakout debate moment.

Gabbard, who met the donor requirement and got two of four polls, in an appearance on Fox News in August complained that the DNC’s debate qualification rules were unclear. (To be sure, like them or not, the rules of the road have been generally consistent this time around.)

“Here’s the situation: there’s a whole bunch of different polls that have come out. The DNC has only recognized some of them as being qualifying polls for the debate,” she said. “The whole thing gets a little bit confusing. You’ve got to jump way down into the weeds of the numbers and statistics, but I think the bigger problem is that whole process really lacks transparency.”

Ahead of Thursday’s debate, Gabbard’s campaign sent out a press release announcing that it had reached the 2 percent threshold in a third poll, meaning she only has to hit one more poll before October 1 to make the next debate. In the same press release, Gabbard’s camp emphasized that she’s more focused on on-the-ground campaigning, not “the ridiculous 60-second time constraints of the debate stage.”

Bullock, who is under pressure to run for Senate in Montana, in an interview on MSNBC also complained that it was too early to cut him out of the debate conversation. “There’s a long way to go in a lot of this,” he said.

Bennet has been perhaps the most vocal critic of the DNC’s debate rules. His campaign distributed a memo in August making the case that voters haven’t yet decided and still aren’t paying attention, including in early primary state Iowa. Bennet’s also sent an open letter to Perez with a series of questions about the DNC’s decision-making, such as why the committee hasn’t laid out qualifications for the fifth debate and beyond, and which campaigns it’s consulting in its decision-making.

Not making the debate stage is a big deal for candidates, especially those who are lesser known and could use the airtime just to become more familiar to the public. De Blasio has said if he doesn’t make the October debates, he’ll drop out of the race — a move that many New Yorkers, annoyed that he’s running in the first place, would welcome. Whether others will follow the same path or stick with it remains to be seen.

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