This is Still a 12 Pack

Tonight, CNN is subjecting the world to seven hours of town hall programming, featuring the Democratic presidential field. Each of the 10 approved contestants have 40 minutes or so to field questions about climate change from audience members and assorted CNN moderators.

With Dorian doing his worst as he works his way up the Atlantic Coast, the topic is extra timely. For those who don’t have the desire or capability to view all or most of the festivities, sound bites will circulate for the next couple of days, along with punditry galore.

This should fill the rest of the week. By next week, it’s time to think about the debate, which is next Thursday in Houston. These two events will take up most of the oxygen on the Democratic side for the first half of the month.

The same ten candidates are invited to each. Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg, Cory Booker, Andrew Yang, Beto O’Rourke, Julian Castro, and Amy Klobuchar. This isn’t an accident.

DNC rules are responsible for the regular debate qualifiers. The national committee is also opposed to any non-sanctioned debates. That’s why the CNN Climate Change Town Hall isn’t a debate on climate change, as suggested by Jay Inslee, back when he still existed.

Other codicils, fine print, and poison pills made it impossible for CNN to invite anyone to their event that didn’t qualify for the official debate. Originally, Harris wasn’t going to participate in the town hall. Then her team decided blowing off the climate event to appear at high-end fundraisers might not be the best optics.

It’s easy to reach the conclusion only these ten candidates matter. Nobody else will get any national bandwidth anytime soon. With the race having a clear polling front-runner, a clear top three, and only five candidates consistently polling around or above five percent, it feels like ten candidates is still too many, not too few.

Almost all of the polls released in the past few weeks are national. No other candidate is consistently pulling more than 1%. If they were, they’d have qualified for the debates and town hall.

But this hides what’s happening in the early voting states. Morning Consult recently released a survey. In addition to national numbers, they broke out combined results for Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina.

Tom Steyer is in fifth place at 6%. Tulsi Gabbard is tied for sixth at 4%. Yes, this could be an outlier, like the Monmouth survey that had Biden in third place. We should wait to see more data before getting too set in our conclusions.

However, there are several bread crumbs that indicate this isn’t a fluke. A month ago, Gravis Marketing put out a New Hampshire poll that had Gabbard at 5% and Steyer at 4%. An Iowa survey from the same time had Steyer at 3%.

He’s spent the past month advertising very heavily. If Steyer could go from zero to 3 or 4 percent after a few weeks of paid media, is it impossible to figure he could jump to 6 with another ad blitz? If Gabbard was at 5% in one poll, and has reached 3% occasionally in national surveys, it’s feasible.

We hear a lot about winnowing. It feels like the Democratic contest is like a tournament in the sport of your choosing. We had 20+ contenders. Now there’s 10. By Iowa there should be five, and then a final two or three.

Except that’s not actually what’s happening, the DNC’s desires be damned. What’s the likely impact of Steyer and Gabbard showing strength in early states?

It’s bad news for candidates like Harris and Buttigieg. It’s really bad news for candidates like Klobuchar and Castro. Any candidate outside the Big Three needs to consolidate as much of the remaining available support as possible. This complicates it.

Harris and Buttigieg were already going to be in trouble as long as they were both viable. While it’s a mistake to assume there will be a final two, there’s never been an open primary race with more than four legit contenders after the early states vote.

I don’t think either wants to explain to their donors why they’re trailing Tom Steyer in Iowa (note: there’s no poll showing that yet.) Each enjoyed getting considered part of a larger top tier until Warren and Sanders pulled away from them a bit. This further tosses them in the extras pile.

But that’s nothing compared to the peril faced by Klobuchar, Castro, et al. They don’t have the media attention or money that Harris and Buttigieg do. The DNC is very determined to keep debates to a manageable size going forward. It’s going to be difficult to keep them in and Steyer and Gabbard out.

Our focus will be on the debate and town hall stages, but things are brewing in the field. Whether another candidate challenges the Big Three will depend heavily on how much traction Steyer and Gabbard can gain or maintain in the early states. They’re pretty strong spoilers.

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