Saturday Special: To the First Debate (and Beyond!)

The predictably disheveled 2020 Democratic Primary will soon have its first attempt at running a comb through its hair for a prime time audience. We already knew that of the 24 “major” candidates in the race, only 20 could qualify for the first debate — which would be split into two sets of 10 debaters — but a belated, sloppy series of tiebreaker scenarios soon re-muddied the waters. Miraculously, however, exactly 20 candidate met the debate’s low qualifying threshold.

Now, not only do we finally know who the 20 debaters will be and how they will be divided, we even know some crucial information about the next sets of debates as well.

Let’s get into it.

Debate 1a and 1b: June 26 and 27 (Miami)

Below are the 20 candidates who either hit one percent in three national and/or early state polls (IA, NH, NV, and SC) or secured 65,000 donors, including 200 donors from 20 different states. I’ve ranked them by their Real Clear Politics national polling average.

  1. Former Vice President Joe Biden (32.2)
  2. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont (16.8)
  3. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts (10.8)
  4. Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana (7.2)
  5. Senator Kamala Harris of California (6.6)
  6. Former Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas (3.8)
  7. Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey (2.4)
  8. Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota (1.2)
  9. Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado (0.8)
  10. Former tech executive Andrew Yang (0.8)
  11. Former housing secretary Julián Castro (0.8)
  12. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York (0.6)
  13. Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington (0.6)
  14. Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio (0.6)
  15. Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii (0.4)
  16. Former Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado (0.4)
  17. Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York (0.3)
  18. Former Representative John Delaney of Maryland (0.2)
  19. Author Marianne Williamson (0.2)
  20. Representative Eric Swalwell of California (not registering, so less than or equal to 0.2)

The four “major” candidates missing from the list are:

  1. Steve Bullock, Governor of Montana (0.2)
  2. Mike Gravel, former Senator from Alaska (not registering)
  3. Wayne Messam, Mayor or Miramar, Florida (not registering)
  4. Seth Moulton, Congressman from Massachusetts (not registering)

These four have predictably complained about not being included, but if they couldn’t find a single percent of support from three polls across the last couple months — to say nothing of just 65,000 donors among millions of Americans — then they won’t get much sympathy from me.

Meanwhile, since 20 candidates can’t fit onto one stage and still have the Democratic Party maintain its last shred of dignity, the DNC mostly randomized the candidates’ distribution across two nights. That distribution was a process to which I was very much looking forward, mostly due to the potential combinations that could shape not only the debates themselves but the broader 2020 primary.

Below are the two sets of debaters for the first debate:


The big question — how would the Biden-Sanders-Warren trio get broken up — has finally been answered. Warren will be alone on the first night, while Biden and Sanders will share the stage on night two. Notably, Biden and Sanders will also be joined by Harris and Buttigieg. Take another look at the list of 20 by RCP polling average — the second night has four of the top five!

What are the implications of such a distribution? The first instinct is to assume Warren can dominate her night. However, I do not envy her position. It’s unlikely she’ll want to punch down at the many lower-ranked candidates, most of whom would be eager to raise their profile by getting into a tussle with the night’s most prominent candidate. Warren could instead target the two candidates we expected her to target — Biden and Sanders — but those two will go on the second night and have a cleaner chance to respond. It’s also reasonable to assume that more viewers will elect to watch the second night over the first. We’ve been waiting for a Biden-Sanders showdown for a long time, and we know that Mayor Pete has a large following as well. The other “big names” on Warren’s night — O’Rourke, Booker, and Klobuchar — are all struggling in the polls. For anyone who’s not interested in watching five or six hours of Democratic talking points over two summer nights, we can expect they’d pick the second debate. Frankly, I think Warren is probably the least happy candidate as a result of this random draw. She was probably itching for a fight with someone in her weight class, and she won’t get it.

If I had to guess who’s happiest with this distribution, I’ll venture Kamala Harris. With Booker, Castro, and Gabbard on night one, Harris is the only minority on night two. With Warren and Klobuchar (and Gabbard) on night one, Harris’s only female peer on night two is Kirsten Gillibrand, head of a flat-lining campaign, and Marianne Williamson, who few see as viable. Among Harris’s strengths is that she seems perfect to represent the demography of today’s Democratic Party. She couldn’t ask for a better opportunity to reflect that than with her night two opponents, including the race’s three highest profile white men.

After this initial pair of debates, we’ll have to wait nearly five weeks until our next hit of sanctioned, televised chaos…

Debate 2a and 2b: July 30 and 31 (Detroit)

The same rules will be in place for the second pair of debates, including the same thresholds. Research tells me that all candidates who have qualified for the first debate have therefore qualified for the second, but the candidates who have not yet qualified will have another month or so to add their names to the list. Since the second set of debates will also be limited to 20 candidates, each new qualified candidate jeopardizes the place of an already-qualified candidate, and tiebreaking scenarios would be applied. Still, we at least know that 20 candidates will again debate, it just remains to be seen which podium spots are challenged.

The true winnowing will begin after that. The qualifying rules for the third and fourth debates are considerably more stringent…

Debate 3: September 12 and 13 (Location TBD)

Six weeks after the Detroit debate will be debate number three at a location to be determined. (One has to think an early state is likely, though at some point we can expect a lot of emphasis placed on Pennsylvania, probably the most important state of the general election.)

The threshold to make the third debate will generally be double that of the first two.

  • Instead of one percent in three polls, candidates will need to hit two percent in four polls from June 28 to August 28.
  • AND, instead of earning 65,000 donors (including at least 200 different people in at least 20 different states), they’ll need to show that they’ve received donations from 130,000 people (including 400 people from 20 different states).
  • The same rules will apply for a fourth debate, scheduled for October.

Those might still seem like pretty easy totals to hit, but if we examine how the race has gone so far, we learn that is not the case. FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver put together a nifty chart showing how candidates’ progress toward these new requirements have gone so far. (Note: this is as of two weeks ago, but the trends are holding.)


According to Silver, six candidates are practically shoe-ins for the third debate and another two are likely. That probably gives us eight safe spots — not coincidentally the top two tiers in each iteration of my last couple months of Power Rankings. After that, we have six candidates rated at “tossup” or “tossup at best.” I’d say at this point Yang should be promoted to Probable, but the rest are truly toss-ups. Let’s put four of this six in. After that we have the candidates in a lot of trouble; there’s the eight listed in the chart plus Gravel and Messam. Probability suggest one or two have a small pop. If we throw in two more, it brings us to just 14 total candidates. The DNC has said if the number of qualified candidates exceeds 10, they will go to two debates again, so I’ll guess that September will give us two debates of six to eight candidates each. At that point, the field would only be abnormally large, rather than the bloated behemoth with which we now contend.

The party does not think the higher thresholds are unreasonable, and I agree. At that point, there will have been a full summer of the entire field campaigning, and that summer would have included both of the above debates. If candidates have yet to gain polling or donor traction at that point, the party reasons that the field should contract, which would allow the more viable candidates more time to speak. In the last 40 years of modern primaries, no candidate stuck below two percent for months has gone on to win a party’s nomination.

For those candidates on the bubble — namely, the first half-dozen or so candidates outside of the top eight — their hope should be that the lower tiered candidates who are unlikely to qualify read the writing on the wall and drop out, leaving their supporters to pick a new candidate. That should help those on the outside of the bubble get inside of it, an almost paradoxically inclusive process for those still remaining.


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