Detroit could be last debate for lower-tier 2020 Democrats

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Detroit is likely the last debate for several lower-tier Democratic presidential hopefuls as more stringent qualification rules for the third showdown in Houston could more than halve the number of participating candidates to 10 or fewer. 

Analysts say seven candidates so far have made the September stage in Houston under rules set by the Democratic National Committee: former Vice President Joe Biden, Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and former U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke of Texas.

Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper watches as former Maryland Rep. John Delaney speaks during the first of two Democratic presidential primary debates hosted by CNN.

An eighth candidate, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, thought he had qualified this week until the DNC rejected one of the polls his campaign had submitted.

By contrast, 20 candidates are participating over two nights in Detroit.

To qualify, candidates must receive at least 2% support in four qualifying polls and win contributions from either 130,000 donors or 400 donors per state in 20 or more states. 

The tightening qualifications upped the stakes for the second night in Detroit, where candidates who haven't qualified hoped to boost their shot at the Houston stage. 

"This will be the last debate for many, and that increases the incentive to throw the kitchen sink at the front runners,” said Aaron Kall, director of debate at the University of Michigan.

“Last night showed the lower-tier candidates that I can be the next (Rep.) John Delaney if I am willing to take contrarian positions against the top-tier candidates, and I’ll get disproportionately more air time than I deserve," Kall added, referring to the former Maryland congressman who aggressively criticized Sanders and Warren.

"So the incentives are there for them to go on the attack and hope for the best.”

Author Marianne Williamson speaks during the first of two Democratic presidential primary debates hosted by CNN.

Three candidates have met one of the two requirements — Yang, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro. 

Others have so far met none of the requirements, including spiritual author Marianne Williamson, who impressed Flint activist Arthur Woodson with her Tuesday performance in Detroit. 

“There’s too many” candidates," Woodson acknowledged. “But if I was running, I’d make sure I brought her into my campaign, because she has great ideas. She’s a people person. Maybe she can teach them how to be a people person, too.”

Williamson garnered buzz after her discussion of race and reparations for slavery Tuesday night, but it's unclear if it will make a difference for her campaign, Kall said. 

"It's harmful for people debating the first night because everything from the first night is forgotten once we start night No. 2. It’s an advantage going second because those things are more likely to bleed into news cycles extending past the debates," he said. 

"It’s total luck, but in politics sometimes you need luck and things to break your way."

ABC News is hosting the Houston debate, along with Univision, on Sept. 12, with the potential for a second night Sept. 13 if enough candidates qualify. 

"The nightmare scenario is if it ends up being 11 candidates or just too many for one stage, and they’d have to do a multi-night event again," Kall said.

"They want to get all the top-tier candidates on the stage at the same time."

The cutoff for the polling and donor qualifications is Aug. 28, so candidates have a few more weeks after the Detroit debates to meet those goals. 

In addition to the ABC broadcast, the forum will be available on, Hulu Live, The Roku Channel and Facebook Watch, among other outlets. 

The DNC plans 12 primary debates during the 2020 campaign cycle. 

Staff Writer Jonathan Oosting contributed.