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Presidential candidates hit inflection point after debate freeze out

Candidates who didn't make the cut for the Sept. 12 debate face difficult choices about whether to soldier on.

Former Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand delivers

Former Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand delivers a 20-minute campaign speech at the Des Moines Register Political Soapbox at the Iowa State Fair on Aug. 10. Photo Credit: Getty Images/Chip Somodevilla

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand last week became the latest Democrat to bow out of the race for president, saying she realized there was a different way for her to work toward unseating President Donald Trump.

"It's important to know when it's not your time," New York's junior senator said in a video to her supporters.

Gillibrand's moment of reckoning came when she failed to qualify for the third Democratic presidential debate on Sept. 12. Others who didn't make the stage — including New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio — may similarly be at an inflection point, said strategists who helped lead the campaigns of former White House hopefuls.

Only 10 candidates met the polling and fundraising thresholds for the next debate in Houston, about half the historically large field. Many who didn't make the cut continue their bids despite draining their campaign war chests and barely registering in the polls.

“As a campaign, you need to make a political calculation. How viable are you actually and what is your pathway to victory?” said Matt Corridoni, national press secretary to Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), who dropped out Aug. 23.

Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) also have quit the race for president. Each faces another election in his state — Hickenlooper for U.S. Senate, Inslee for a third term as governor and Swalwell for a fifth term in the House.

Lisa Tucker, who was Swalwell's campaign manager, said there’s no universal breaking point for presidential contenders. For the congressman, Tucker said, the end came following his debate performance in June. 

“He did well in the debate and his polling numbers didn’t move, so that was a predominant factor in his decision,” Tucker said. Swalwell left the race July 8.

Corridoni said the emphasis this election on polling and fundraising in order to qualify for debates created a cycle in which those with better numbers got more news media coverage — and with the increased visibility came more support.

The dense field of candidates was another major obstacle for those lacking name recognition, Tucker said.

“When a voter is hearing a list of 20-plus names in a poll question, that’s difficult,” Tucker said. “Voters will tend to go with a name they know.”

Joe Trippi, a veteran Democratic strategist who worked on former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign, said the key factors that lead candidates to quit are: “Out of money and filing deadline.”

If the contender doesn’t face a deadline to become a candidate for another elected office, he or she can soldier on as long as they “can afford the next ticket to the next JJ dinner in Iowa,” Trippi said. He recalled that then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) was behind in the polls in Iowa in November 2007 when he “gave the speech of his life” at the Jefferson-Jackson Democratic fundraising dinner in the state.

De Blasio has said he is hoping for a breakout moment as he continues his White House campaign despite hovering at or below 1 percent in national polls and raising only $1.1 million in the second quarter of 2019.

De Blasio national press secretary Jaclyn Rothenberg said his failure to qualify for the Houston debate changes nothing. The mayor last week taped an episode of the popular political podcast Pod Save America and attended a union event in Nevada, Rothenberg said. This week, he will participate in New Hampshire’s state Democratic convention, she said.

But those who didn’t make the third debate risk flagging morale among campaign staff, fleeing volunteers and leaks to the news media about the struggles, said Alex Conant, communications director for the 2016 presidential campaign of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).

“They’re effectively running zombie campaigns at this point,” Conant said. “They’re still moving and meeting voters, but they’re not going to win.”

And there’s something to be said about quitting the race while your dignity is intact, said Moulton’s aide, Corridoni.

“You really want to control the narrative on this,” Corridoni said. “You don’t want to do it after the media has been calling on you to do it for X number of months. You don’t want to do it when you’ve become so irrelevant that you’re not getting coverage anymore.”

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