2020 Election
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The Longshot Candidates Are Hoping for a Breakout Moment at the Debates

5 minute read

The Democratic candidates running farther down the historically crowded field are looking forward to this week’s primary debates as a chance to have a breakout moment and shine.

But even if they don’t, strategists say they’ll take a few more months to grab the spotlight.

With a record-setting 24 candidates running for the Democratic presidential nomination, those polling at the bottom of the pack will need to find a way to get attention before the fall when campaign coffers start to run low and the bar to qualify for debates gets higher.

The debates on Wednesday and Thursday are the first chance that many of them will have to make a splash with Democratic voters.

“A number of them are hoping for these so-called debate moments where either their message, their vision, their candidacy, their campaign, pops and resonates with audiences and the voters, or where they are drawing contrast,” said Scott Mulhauser, a Democratic operative. “I don’t think you’ll see an epic, 2, 3, 4, 5, leaping out of the race. I just think you’ll see them starve for dollars.”

“At some point the lack of dollars is going to prompt not just choices by voters, but stark and more dire choices with these campaigns about not only whether to proceed but how to proceed if they do.”

Read More: The 7 Ways to Lose a Presidential Debate

There is evidence to suggest that a viral moment could have a huge payoff. Take South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who became a competitive candidate after a solid performance at a CNN town hall. Since then, Buttigieg has consistently polled higher than a large chunk of the field, including some sitting senators and governors.

Some of the little-known candidates, like entrepreneur Andrew Yang, have been looking at the first debate as an opportunity to finally introduce themselves to the electorate. From there, the thinking goes, it will be easy to get voters to coalesce behind them.

But that’s a tough feat. Candidates will likely have just a handful of minutes to themselves on such a crowded stage, and using it effectively will be difficult.

“Is someone going to go in there and take advantage of the opportunity to deliver a message? When the debate’s over, voters will associate them with that message,” said Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist. “And then secondly, were they able to be in the moment, and to navigate either a tough question or an attack from an opponent, or in some way differentiate themselves by the fact that they made a connection with voters in the course of the debate?”

But even if they don’t have a big moment, strategists say there’s little incentive for candidates to drop out when they can keep running on social media and gas money, hoping for a breakout moment to come later. More likely, they say, if they get lost onstage or have a bad moment, they can rationalize it away by looking at 2016, when Donald Trump, the unlikeliest of candidates, became the nominee then president.

As recently as this weekend, new candidates were still jumping in the race, suggesting there’s something to be gained from running in the next couple of months even as a long-shot candidate.

For the summer, at least, there’s little to keep candidates from continuing to plug along, although one Washington firm, Park Street Strategies, released a national poll last week in which more than two-thirds of Democrats said there are too many Democrats running for president right now.

“I think there is a growing desire within the Democratic Party to winnow the field. That message is becoming clear. I’m not sure the campaigns have heard that message,” said Chris Kofinis, a Democratic strategist at Park Street Strategies. “I think the debate is going to reinforce that growing feeling in the party now, but it probably won’t hit a crescendo until the summer, and that’s kind of why the DNC built in kind of a fail-safe. The fail-safe is stronger criteria in terms of polling and donors.”

The first two debates — the second of which will take place in Detroit in July — have the same qualifications, but come the third debate in September, the criteria doubles. Candidates will have to reach 2 percent in four qualifying polls and have received donations from 130,000 unique donors (as well as 400 unique donors per state in at least 20 states).

Until then, it’s likely to remain a crowded field.

“I hope this [debate] is a clarifying moment in that we have a better sense of where things are going within my party,” said Jim Manley, another Democratic strategist. “But I’m afraid that not much of anything is going to come out of this.”

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Write to Lissandra Villa at lissandra.villa@time.com