And Then There Were 10: The Third Democratic Presidential Debate Field Is Set

Democrats who will debate in Houston on Sept. 12 include Texans Beto O’Rourke and Julián Castro.

By Rhonda FanningAugust 29, 2019 6:53 am

The third Democratic presidential debate is set for Houston on Sept. 12. Ten candidates – half the number who debated in each of the previous two rounds – will take the stage during a single-night event. Texans Julián Castro and Beto O’Rourke made the cut, and will be onstage in Houston.

Organizers of this debate set a higher bar for candidates to qualify, intending to narrow the field. That decision led some contenders, including New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand to pull out of the race altogether. Wednesday marked the cutoff date for meeting benchmarks for donor participation and polling performance.

The Houston debate will be held at Texas Southern University, one of the largest historically black universities in the nation. ABC News and Univision will televise the debate, and moderators will be ABC News correspondent Linsey Davis, World News Tonight anchor David Muir, Univision anchor Jorge Ramos and ABC news chief anchor George Stephanopoulos. 

Brandon Rottinghaus, professor of political science at the University of Houston, says that candidates needed to have 130,000 unique donors to qualify for the debate, with at least 400 unique donors in 20 states. Candidates also needed to poll an average of 2% in a group of approved polls. The polling requirement was the stumbling block for some candidates who didn’t make the cut.

In addition to O’Rourke and Castro, the rest of the debaters will be: former Vice President Joe Biden; Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren; Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders; California Sen. Kamala Harris; New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker; mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg; Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar; and entrepreneur Andrew Yang.

Rottinghaus says all eyes will be on Biden.

“He’s had some gaffes the last couple of weeks, but he’s also had some successes,” Rottinghaus says. 

Biden’s polling average gives him around 37% support, he says.

A group of three candidates is “within shouting distance” of Biden, Rottinghaus says. Harris, Sanders and Warren each poll around 20%. Each will be looking to pull away from the others. And it’s a crucial time in the race. 

“If they can’t make that move now, it’s going to be a little bit harder to make that case in the future,” Rottinghaus says.

Below the 20% tier, Rottinghaus says the remaining six candidates are “probably all in contention to be the next out; they’re all struggling.” For them, an outstanding debate performance is even more important to continue in the race.

Castro has focused on immigration and racial justice issues in his campaign, and Rottinghaus expects that to continue in the Houston debate. But Rottinghaus says Castro needs to address a broader range of issues.

“He’s got to mix it up on big issues like health care, which is really, in some ways, the key to winning Texas,” Rottinghaus says. 

O’Rourke will benefit from his experience winning over Texas voters during the 2018 Senate race.

“That, plus the fact that the El Paso tragedy was right in his backyard, gives him a chance to really talk about issues in a personal way,” he says.


Written by Shelly Brisbin.