WASHINGTON — The suspense was high. The hour was late. The questions about the next Democratic debate were many: Ten candidates or 11? Two nights or one? One billionaire or none?
A debate qualifying process that was equal parts spectacle and grievance session ticked toward a midnight deadline on Wednesday with one thing certain: The Democratic presidential race is entering a new, field-culling phase. And the stage is about to feel smaller, even if not everyone will go quietly.
Low-polling candidates aware of the debate rules for months spent the otherwise sleepy pre-Labor Day week moaning about being left out of the next debate, on Sept. 12. The mid-tier candidates, assured of making that debate and the next one in October, began to look ahead anxiously to the winter debates. And the top-tier candidates prepared, finally, to all appear onstage together.
All of it adds up to the biggest winnowing moment so far of a 2020 presidential field that at one point featured two dozen candidates: the elimination of long shot candidates who have crowded debate stages, competed for the attention of overwhelmed voters and clustered at forums and cattle calls across the country this summer.
The deadline was Wednesday at 11:59 p.m. Two new polls released in the morning did not change the equation, but it did send reporters and campaign operatives scrambling to discover whether any further polls would be released. By early evening, though, it seemed clear that no 11th-hour reprieve was coming for the billionaire Tom Steyer, who needed one more 2 percent showing to qualify, or for Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, who needed two more.
That meant the debate field would be set at 10, and the proceedings would be limited to one night, in contrast to the first two debates that split 20 candidates over two nights and prevented face-to-face showdowns between some of the top contenders. For instance, Senator Elizabeth Warren did not appear on the same night as former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. in either debate.
The debate process created different camps in the party. Many Democrats were crossing their fingers that Mr. Steyer didn’t force his way into the September debate and make it a two-night affair, but few were willing to criticize him publicly because he is one of the party’s biggest donors. Some Democrats are angry with Mr. Perez over long-established qualification rules, while others have quiet sympathy for what they say is a thankless plight.
And while party officials spent the summer humoring the no-shot candidates who have failed to demonstrate support through fund-raising or polling, patience among some Democrats was running low.
“If you are a few months before the Iowa caucuses and you can’t get 130,000 donors and can’t crack 2 percent in a couple of polls, that’s on you,” said Mo Elleithee, a former top D.N.C. official who is now the executive director of Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics. “There is an appetite to start being able to focus on the candidates who have demonstrated the most movement in this race. That is probably shared by a lot of Democratic primary voters.”
Still, some party officials lamented a system that limited exposure for lesser-known candidates. The Nebraska Democratic Party chairwoman, Jane Kleeb, a leading figure among rural Democrats, said a debate process that excluded Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana was bad for a party trying to win back voters who flocked to President Trump in 2016.
“Voters aren’t even going to know who Steve Bullock is and that we have a governor representing a red state and doing it with strong progressive values,” Ms. Kleeb said. “To me it shows the strength of our party that we have so many people running.”
Even in Iowa, the first-in-the-nation caucus state where Democrats are famously welcoming almost everyone who shows up and calls themselves a presidential candidate, officials have grown tired of devoting time to candidates who can’t put up a crooked polling number.
“Iowans aren’t the ones to say, ‘Yeah, you’re done,’” said Bryce Smith, the Democratic Party chairman in Dallas County, in suburban Des Moines. “But people generally want a clearer pathway forward, and that obviously involves fewer people running.”
[Sign up for our politics newsletter and join the conversation around the 2020 presidential race.]
Candidates on the brink of missing the debate spent this week airing grievances and regrets. In a last-ditch bid to make the debate, Ms. Gillibrand this month bought more than $1 million in ads in New Hampshire and Iowa, hoping to garner enough support to reach the 2 percent polling threshold.
But there were no qualifying polls in those two states after the ads began airing and before Wednesday’s deadline, and Ms. Gillibrand acknowledged that without the exposure of a nationally televised debate, “I just didn’t see our path.”
Mr. Steyer’s campaign on Wednesday expressed disappointment that there have been no qualifying polls from Nevada. Eight of the last nine qualifying polls have been surveys of the national Democratic electorate. Mr. Steyer hasn’t reached 2 percent in any of them, while he has reached that threshold in polls of Iowa and South Carolina, two of the four early-voting states where he has spent $7 million on TV advertising so far.
“We were given the rules, we were playing by the rules,” a Steyer spokesman, Alberto Lammers, said. “This is not a national race. Everybody who understands the race understands how this works.”
Then there are Mr. Bullock and Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado. Neither is particularly close to qualifying for additional debates. They are well short in donors, and have not reached 2 percent in a single qualifying poll since February.
Mr. Bennet has for months been a vocal critic of the qualification process, and on Wednesday his campaign sent a list of 11 questions to Mr. Perez complaining about the qualification rules, demanding to know why D.N.C. members and state party leaders were not consulted on the thresholds.
Mr. Bullock’s campaign lamented “arbitrary D.N.C. debate rules” and said the forums should have room for the only candidate in the race who won a state President Trump carried in 2016.
Mr. Bullock, in an interview, pledged to stay in the race through the Iowa caucuses in February whether or not he makes the debates.
“The fact is in many ways you have rules that have empowered Google and Facebook,” he said. “I don’t think it’s empowered the Democratic Party. History has shown time and time again that it’s not what happens in September that determines who our nominee is or who is successful.”
That argument elicits little sympathy at the national committee.
“The D.N.C. is asking candidates to reach 2 percent in four polls,” a committee spokeswoman, Xochitl Hinojosa, said Wednesday. “That is not high at all. There have been 21 qualifying polls. That is 21 opportunities to reach 2 percent in four polls. That is not hard.”
The debate drama is not limited to the fall debates. Aides to candidates who will appear next month in Houston expressed concern about as-yet-unannounced rising thresholds to participate in the party’s November and December debates.
If Mr. Perez again raises the donor threshold, it would force campaigns to redirect money earmarked for early-state organizing toward social media campaigns, in order to drive up donor numbers. Former Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas, whose fund-raising has dried up after a fast start, emailed supporters Tuesday warning that without more contributions he could be left off the winter debate stage.
While Ms. Gillibrand and others have withdrawn, no top-tier candidate has pulled out — a break from the last two crowded presidential campaigns.
Tim Pawlenty terminated his 2012 campaign in the Republican primary in August 2011 after losing the Ames Straw Poll to a fellow Minnesotan, Michele Bachmann. Scott Walker quit the 2016 race in September 2015 when his big-spending campaign ran out of money.
“Anyone who isn’t going to be on the debate stage in September when voters are starting to tune in is essentially running a zombie campaign,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist who worked for Mr. Pawlenty and then Marco Rubio in 2016. “Voters want to support people on the debate stage. The takeaway from the last couple cycles is that the only thing that matters is debates.”
If nothing else, the downsizing of the September debate week — one overstuffed stage instead of two — has afforded weary Democrats a prospective night off. Even political die-hards had groaned at the specter of a second debate on a Friday evening, viewing it as a kind of municipal homework assignment.
Of course, the respite may be short-lived: With one more qualifying poll, Mr. Steyer will make the October debate stage, likely making that a two-night affair.
Shane Goldmacher contributed reporting.