Two 2020 candidates dropped out in less than 24 hours. Here's what it means.


WASHINGTON - The 2020 Democratic presidential field may finally be narrowing in a significant way.

In less than 24 hours over Sunday evening and Monday morning, former Pennsylvania Rep. Joe Sestak and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock both dropped out of the race for the Democratic nomination. They likely won't be the last before the first votes are even counted.

And with just two months until the Feb. 3 Iowa caucuses, the Democratic race is still shifting, with an unsettled December debate stage and polling showing a variety of leaders in several states and nationally.

Who is still in the race

There are now 16 Democratic hopefuls running for president. The departure of Sestak and Bullock follows closely behind former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke and Miramar, Florida, Mayor Wayne Messam, who both dropped out in November. Several other candidates dropped out even earlier.

"Quite a few of those (candidates still in the race) are down to similar levels of support that people like Sestak and Bullock had," said Seth Masket, professor of political science and director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver. "We'll likely see quite a few people drop out before anyone starts participating the Iowa caucuses."

There are two reasons candidates may soon find themselves with a tough decision: They run out of campaign cash or they fail to make it to the debate stage, said Matt Bennett, the executive vice president of public affairs for Third Way, a center-left think tank.

"If you're not on the debate stage, it's just impossible," Bennett said of continuing to the Iowa caucuses. "Not being on the stage, probably means you're doomed."

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Only six candidates so far have qualified for the December debate, according to the Washington Post: former Vice President Joe Biden, South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, California Sen. Kamala Harris, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

Candidates have until Dec. 12 to meet the qualifications, which include earning 4% or more support in at least four polls, or hitting 6% support in two early state polls. Those states include Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina or Nevada. Candidates must also get at least 200,000 unique donors to qualify for the debates.

Where things stand in the polls

Even as the field starts to thin, a handful of candidates have risen to the top of both national and early state polls.

Biden is leading the pack nationally, averaging about 27 percent in national polls, according to an average from RealClearPolitics. Sanders' polling average is at 16.2 percent, followed by Warren at 14 percent. Buttigieg is the only other candidate with an average in the double digits, standing at 11.4 percent, according to the RealClearPolitics average.

But in Iowa, Buttigieg was at the top of the Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom poll published last month, netting 25 percent support. Warren, who led the September poll, was at 16 percent in the November poll. Both Biden and Sanders were at 15 percent.

The same four candidates are also on top of polling, in various orders, in the other early states of New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.

But Masket warned that there was still time for another candidate to make a run at the top tier.

"There's still time in the next two months for Buttigieg to fall, for another candidate to rise," Masket said. "And maybe for that cycle to repeat itself several times, so I don't know that ... where the polls are today is a great indication of where they're going to end up two months."

Bennett said that John Kerry was "basically dead and buried in December of 2003" but went on to win the caucuses in 2004, which helped propel him to become the Democratic nominee.

Voters likely will continue to see polling shift in Iowa and elsewhere. In the past 10 contested caucuses, only three candidates who were leading polls in December have gone on to win Iowa, according to historic data from The Des Moines Register. Those candidates were Walter Mondale in 1984, Al Gore in 2000 and Hillary Clinton in 2016.

An interactive guide: Who is running for president in 2020?

Bennett, who worked on several presidential campaigns, including Bill Clinton and Wesley Clark, noted that some candidates began seeing poll movement in December, including then-Sen. Barack Obama. Obama, who started gaining traction in late December both in Iowa and nationally, went on to win the Iowa caucuses in 2008 before becoming the party's nominee and being elected president.

He noted it's unclear what historical precedent will factor in during this election cycle.

"It's very difficult to say whether candidates who have not yet made their move in the polls are hopeless, or whether they're more, you know John Kerry types you can bolt from the back, just at the right moment," Bennett said.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Election 2020: Democrat candidates are dropping out. Here's what it means


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