Life Off the Democratic Debate Stage: Sparse Crowds, Daily Indignities

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Dozens of reporters and photographers descended on the Hawkeye Downs speedway, all waiting for one man to appear at a local Labor Day picnic.

That man was not Michael Bennet.

“We’re having a great Labor Day in Iowa,” said Mr. Bennet, the Colorado senator and still a presidential candidate, showing up suddenly to address the scrum that gathered 20 minutes earlier for the arrival of Joseph R. Biden Jr. “And here comes the vice president! So let me get out of his way.”

Life isn’t easy these days for bottom-tier Democratic presidential candidates. Not many people know who they are. Fewer come to their events. No reporters cover them regularly.

The indignities don’t stop there. On Saturday, an Iowa Democrat approached a Wall Street Journal reporter and asked if he was Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana. “I don’t even have cowboy boots on,” the reporter, John McCormick, wrote on Twitter about the encounter. Mr. Bullock’s campaign didn’t have yard signs for a house party on Sunday, so it borrowed signs used by Andy McGuire in Iowa’s 2018 primary for governor and taped “Bullock” placards on them. (Ms. McGuire, who placed fourth in the primary, has endorsed Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota for president.)

The real problem with obscurity, though, is not securing enough donors, or high enough poll numbers, to make the debates. And it becomes something of a vicious cycle: Democratic voters and activists tend to see debate qualification as a litmus test of viability, but candidates can’t increase their viability unless they make the debate in the first place.

It’s a political hamster wheel that for half the field of White House-seeking Democrats has proved nearly impossible to escape.

“It’s not helpful in the sense that it can become a proxy for not having a successful campaign,” said Mr. Bennet, who won’t be one of the 10 onstage for the debate next week. “I’m committed to fight through that.”

Four candidates last month chose to jump off the wheel, bowing to the reality that their campaigns hadn’t caught fire and most likely wouldn’t without the oxygen of a national audience. None had qualified for the debate in Houston on Sept. 12.

CNN, which is hosting a seven-hour climate town hall event Wednesday, had time only for candidates who met the Democratic National Committee’s debate standard. The gun control organization founded by former Representative Gabrielle Giffords invited only the onstage debaters to a forum it is hosting in October.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York discovered this summer just how unforgiving the bottom tier can be, after trying an array of strategies to boost the amount of attention she received from cable news and voters.

She held a town hall event on reproductive rights in St. Louis on the eve of a Missouri state ban on abortions after the eighth week of pregnancy, but no national reporters attended. Last month she held the first 2020 event with former Senator Tom Harkin, a beloved figure among Iowa progressives. It drew two national reporters, both of whom came to speak with Mr. Harkin, not Ms. Gillibrand. She spent more than $1 million on early-state TV ads. But she couldn’t meet the debate thresholds, and so dropped out of the race last week.

“It was harder to get booked on cable shows that months before were asking us to be on,” said Glen Caplin, a senior adviser to Ms. Gillibrand. “The last month was considerably harder to drive national coverage than it was before.”

[Read more about how Kirsten Gillibrand’s presidential aspirations unraveled.]

Locked out of the September debate, and with little evidence that they will qualify for the debates in October and beyond, the low-pollers find themselves campaigning like it’s 1992 or 2004. They even invoke the 1976 run by Jimmy Carter, the patron saint of Democratic presidential long shots, whose retail politicking across Iowa propelled him on the way to the White House.

Yet there are a few disclaimers to this kind of wishcasting. Bill Clinton skipped Iowa in 1992 and focused all his attention on New Hampshire. In 1976 Mr. Carter actually placed second in Iowa to “no preference.” Just 38,000 Democrats participated in the caucuses that year, about one-eighth of the expected turnout next February. And the modern political and social media ecosystem, so reliant on cable news exposure, means voters in Dubuque are getting the same message as those in Dallas.

Take Mr. Bullock, who has built his political identity around being the only Democrat in the 2020 race who won a state President Trump carried in 2016. Outside his house party Sunday night in Manchester, Iowa, he sought to justify his decision to press on.

“Look, I mean, John Kerry was at 4 percent 31 days out,” Mr. Bullock told the assembled press corps, which amounted to three reporters, only one of whom was old enough to vote when Mr. Kerry won the 2004 Iowa caucuses and swept to the nomination. “Al Sharpton was beating John Kerry.”

But Governor, came the response, you haven’t been at 4 percent in any poll. “We still have a long way to go from that perspective,” Mr. Bullock replied.

Neither Mr. Bullock nor Mr. Bennet has reached even 2 percent in any D.N.C. qualifying poll this year. Of the seven qualifying polls in August, Mr. Bennet reached 1 percent in one of them, and Mr. Bullock in three.

They are hardly the only ones locked out of the debates who continue to campaign, arguing that there are valid reasons for staying in the race through at least the February caucuses.

Tom Steyer, a California billionaire who with one more 2 percent poll showing could make the October debate, held his own climate town hall event Tuesday in Oakland, Calif. Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, who could make the October forum with two more qualifying polls, also stumped across Iowa at Labor Day weekend picnics and parades. Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio campaigned in South Carolina.

“We might not have qualified for September’s debate, but we won’t sit by and twiddle our thumbs,” Mr. Ryan wrote in a fund-raising appeal Tuesday.

Despite pleas to run for the Senate, Mr. Bullock dismisses chatter about switching races and hasn’t had any conversations about it with Democrats in Washington. He now has 30 Iowa staff members and last week announced a new slate of policy advisers and four new endorsements in the state.

Mr. Bennet dismissed Mr. Biden and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts as “soft” front-runners.

“My own polling tells me that the front-runners’ support in this race, front-runners with an apostrophe at the end of the ‘s,’ and not just Joe Biden but others as well, is very, very soft except for Bernie,” Mr. Bennet said in an interview at Raygun, an Iowa T-shirt shop, referring to Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. “Joe and Elizabeth, they’ve got softer support than I would have expected.”

And the campaign manager for the self-help author Marianne Williamson was defiant in a weekend fund-raising appeal. “Marianne is not exiting this race, not now,” Patricia Ewing wrote. “Why would she step off a train that’s accelerating?”

But none of the nondebaters gathered a speck of the attention paid to the race’s higher-polling candidates in the state last weekend: Mr. Biden, Ms. Klobuchar and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind. CNN sent more reporters, four, to watch Mr. Buttigieg walk across a Cedar Rapids bridge Monday than the entire press corps who went to see Mr. Bullock the day before.

The Iowa Democrats who showed up to see Mr. Bennet and Mr. Bullock last weekend said they appreciated the candidates’ ideas, but also conveyed a sense of empathy for a beleaguered campaign.

“I just want to help out,” said John Hernandez, a retiree who brought sound equipment to Mr. Bennet’s appearance in case it was needed. There was already a sound system in place, but Mr. Bennet stopped using it when it was clear the three dozen people in the room could hear him just fine without it.

David Hennessy, a retired college professor from Ryan, Iowa, said he was impressed with Mr. Bullock’s candor but didn’t think it was likely he would still be in the race come caucus time.

“If you’re not engaging more than 5 percent of the public, you have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting anywhere,” Mr. Hennessy said.

Deb Lechtenberg, a retired postmaster from Dundee, Iowa, said the three candidates she was considering are Ms. Warren, Mr. Bullock and “Mark Bennet.”

While offering the usual platitudes that it’s up to the voters to decide, the leading candidates are becoming more willing to give a shove to the those in their rearview mirror.

“We see the field winnowing for a reason,” Mr. Buttigieg told a clutch of reporters after speaking to 800 people in an Iowa City park Monday. “We’re entering a whole different stage of the campaign, where people are beginning to decide where they’re going to commit.”

Asked if she would be doing better if candidates who didn’t make the debate dropped out, Ms. Klobuchar replied with one word: “Sure.”

Mr. Biden said he would rather have a debate stage with fewer than 10 candidates.

“I’m looking forward when you get to the place, assuming I’m there, that we have a real debate, like I had with the vice-presidential candidate, or like we had when we tried to get the nomination in ’08,” he said.

For the low-pollers, there’s always hope around the next bend in Iowa that a new wave of support might propel them into the next debate. “Sure, I hope I will be,” Mr. Bullock said when asked about the possibility. “Yeah.”

To many Iowa political veterans, though, the winnowing is a natural stage of the nomination process.

“This has been going on since the day after the 2018 election,” said Bret Nilles, the party chairman in Linn County, which includes Cedar Rapids. “Every day it’s going to get harder for the candidates at the bottom. People are starting to figure out who they support.”