For two nights this week, voters once again watched a total of 20 Democratic presidential candidates try to outmaneuver their rivals on the debate stage. But it’s inevitable: At some point, the historically large field of Democratic candidates will get smaller, the debate stage less crowded.
The question now is when. And for some Democrats, the moment can’t come fast enough.
“Oh my gosh, I hope it’s soon,” said JoAnn Hardy, the Democratic chair of Cerro Gordo County, Iowa, where most of the field will descend next week for a major Democratic dinner.
“I have some activists who are not getting involved because they like to study the candidates, learn all about them, and it’s too overwhelming to do,” Ms. Hardy said.
Representative Eric Swalwell of California is the only candidate who has ended his bid since the race got competitive. But a number of factors in the coming months could prompt other fringe candidates to join him among the ranks of the also-rans.
Candidates who have failed to catch on with donors could run out of money. They could throw in the towel once they fail to meet the September debate qualifications. Or they could decide to drop out to further their ambitions at home.
Here is what we’re watching for in the coming weeks.
There’s little incentive to drop out right away
The packed schedule of events being held in early-voting primary states means even long-shot contenders have little incentive to drop out anytime soon. They believe they will have multiple chances to press their cases in front of voters and activists in August.
More than 20 candidates are scheduled to attend the Iowa State Fair, which begins next week and stretches through Aug. 18. Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana, who made his debate stage debut this week, is expected to be the first candidate to speak, on Thursday, and Representative Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, who failed to qualify for either set of debates, is set to go last, on Aug. 17.
The Iowa Democratic Wing Ding, a major Democratic event that will be held in Ms. Hardy’s county on Aug. 9, will feature 22 candidates, said Randy Black, the event’s chair.
And 21 candidates are listed as confirmed attendees for the Polk County Democrats’ steak fry on Sept. 21 in Des Moines.
In New Hampshire, the state party has said it anticipates that all of the candidates will appear at its convention, slated for Sept. 7 in Manchester.
But some candidates may start to run out of money
As the summer months roll on, the amount of money even the most determined (and stubborn) candidates have in the bank will become increasingly important.
Heading into the fall, the candidates will need to start building up their campaign operations and deploying more staff on the ground in early-voting states to stay viable. Many will also want to start running television ads in those states.
All of this costs money, and some candidates could soon realize that they simply don’t have enough to continue running a competitive campaign.
As of the end of June, only five candidates — former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Senator Kamala Harris of California and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind. — had more than $10 million in the bank.
Several, including Mr. Moulton, Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio, former Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado and Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York, had less than $1 million cash on hand.
What’s most important, though, is a candidate’s burn rate — that is, how much a campaign has spent relative to its fund-raising. Too high a burn rate can spell trouble for the long haul.
Former Representative John Delaney of Maryland, for instance, had a burn rate of more than 750 percent in the second quarter. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, whose campaign has a large staff, had a burn rate of 185 percent. Mr. Hickenlooper was at 142 percent. Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii had a burn rate of 121 percent.
On the other hand, some campaigns that have not raised much money have managed to keep costs down. Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado, for example, had a burn rate of 47 percent. Mr. de Blasio’s was 33 percent and Mr. Bullock’s was 28 percent. While they have failed to catch fire, these candidates could see no real reason to drop out just yet.
And many face a steep climb in the polls
In a Quinnipiac University national poll released Monday, 14 presidential candidates did not even register 1 percent support, while four others earned 1 percent each. It was a stark reminder of just how long the odds are for the vast majority of the field.
After two debates, none of the lowest-polling candidates have managed to generate the kind of meaningful, lasting momentum that would allow them to break into the next tier of contenders.
Certainly, there is still time to create a viral moment and to work to capitalize on it, and for some candidates, that dream is enough to prevent them from dropping out in the near future. But that goal grows more elusive every day as the top contenders dominate the spotlight.
“I don’t understand why some of the 1-percenters aren’t leaving the field,” Ms. Hardy said. “We need some people to drop out.”
The September debate deadline is approaching
For the first two rounds of debates in June and July, the Democratic National Committee set the bar to qualify relatively low: assemble 65,000 donors or register at least 1 percent in three polls. Twenty candidates made the cut.
But it’s about to get a lot tougher for candidates to qualify for the next debate, to be held Sept. 12 and 13 in Houston. To guarantee a third-round debate spot, candidates will need to collect 130,000 unique donors and register at least 2 percent support in four polls. They have until Aug. 28 — or about four weeks left — to do so.
So far, only seven candidates — Mr. Biden, Ms. Warren, Mr. Sanders, Ms. Harris, Mr. Buttigieg, Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey and former Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas — have met both criteria and are ensured a spot onstage.
Three other candidates — Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, former housing secretary Julián Castro and the technology executive Andrew Yang — are close. And it’s possible that the self-help author Marianne Williamson, the billionaire activist Tom Steyer and perhaps some others could qualify as well.
An analysis by The New York Times of polls and donor numbers suggests only 10 to 12 candidates will make it to the third round, leaving the remaining ones, many of whom are already struggling to break through, with an even narrower path to national exposure.
Some may decide it’s just not worth it, especially if they are facing a competitive race at home — or if they see better odds running for the Senate.
Reid J. Epstein contributed reporting.