vision 2020

What You Need to Know About the First Round of Democratic Debates

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Due to the bounty of candidates vying for the Democratic nomination in 2020, the first round of debates will be split over two nights, featuring 10 candidates on Wednesday evening and 10 more on Thursday. Broadcast from the Adrienne Arsht Center in Miami from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. on both nights, the debates will be available to stream online for free on NBCNews.com, NBC News’ app, MSNBC.com, and Telemundo.

Who Will Debate on Wednesday Night?

Elizabeth Warren, Beto O’Rourke, Cory Booker, Julián Castro, Amy Klobuchar, John Delaney, Tulsi Gabbard, Jay Inslee, Bill de Blasio, and Tim Ryan.

Who Will Debate on Thursday Night?

Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg, Kirsten Gillibrand, Michael Bennet, John Hickenlooper, Eric Swalwell, Marianne Williamson, and Andrew Yang.

How’d They Decide That Again?

As the New York Times states: “The lineups were randomly decided in a process engineered by the Democratic National Committee to avoid clustering the top-tier candidates in a single night. But [the] sorting drew criticism because the second night ended up including Democrats with far higher polling numbers, on average, than those set to debate the first night.”

To get onto the debate stage in Miami, Democrats had to register at least 1 percent of support in three polls released in 2019, or have received donations from at least 65,000 donors, with a minimum of 200 donors per state in at least 20 states.

Who’s Moderating?

Lester Holt, Savannah Guthrie, Rachel Maddow, Jose Diaz-Balart, and Chuck Todd.

In an open letter published this spring, activist groups including NARAL, Emily’s List, and MoveOn pressured the networks hosting debates to have a more diverse host roster. “The historic number of highly qualified women candidates in the race are given significantly less attention and media exposure than their male peers,” the groups wrote. “It is the responsibility of the media to provide accurate, fair, and equal attention to every serious presidential candidate and to do so in a way that does not further sexist or racist stereotypes.” Earlier this year, the Democratic National Committee pledged that they would ensure that at least one woman and one person of color would moderate each debate.

On both nights, candidates will have 60 seconds to answer moderators’ questions, with 30 seconds allotted for follow-ups.

What Does the Stage Look Like?

On night one, Elizabeth Warren and Beto O’Rourke will be in the center of the stage, while night two will have Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders in the middle. But as New York’s Ed Kilgore notes: “The number of questions directed to candidates, which often varies, is more important than where they appear in distant shots of the stage. Proximity can matter, though, if candidates get the opportunity to mix it up. But at this point, the lesser-known presidential aspirants need all the free camera time they can get, so if you see some of them leaning toward the center, don’t be surprised.”

How Will the Location Influence the Debate?

Although the DNC declined to hold a climate-specific debate, the topic will probably feature prominently among candidates, considering that the debates are being held in Miami, a city that can flood on sunny days.

How Are the Candidates Preparing?

As New York national correspondent Gabriel Debenedetti reports, the size of the field has molded how Democrats are looking to gain screen time:

Among lesser-known contenders, the big hope — and the plan — is a viral moment or shining performance that can set them apart from the pack before the field is further winnowed later this summer. Many are practicing one-liners and attacks that they think might provide that spark.


The strategies among the underdogs also might end up varying by night. Some of those drawn into the first evening are now planning to use more of the time to introduce themselves rather than to attack better-known candidates, since they’re betting Warren, O’Rourke, Booker, and Klobuchar won’t dominate the spotlight as much as Biden, Sanders, Harris, and Buttigieg would the next night — giving everyone more space to speak on his or her own terms. Those in the second heat seem to be planning lines designed to break through a noisier environment. They’re also planning to watch the first night closely for tips on how to debate on a sprawling stage. None of them have ever experienced anything like it.

Debenedetti has also prepared a guide for the priorities of each candidate in the debates, based on conversations with leading campaign strategists, debate veterans, and candidates from across the party.

Will Trump Actually Live Tweet the Thing?

The president has gone back and forth over whether or not he will provide live commentary on both nights, although a commitment to watching two nights of fairly policy-intensive programming doesn’t really sound like his bag. Also, the 9 p.m. air time for the debates overlaps with Hannity.

When Are the Next Debates?

Can’t get enough of Eric Swalwell? Forgot that there’s still 17 months until the election? Either way, the next debates will be hosted by CNN in Detroit on July 30 and 31, with a third round hosted by ABC News on September 12 and 13.

What You Need to Know About the First Democratic Debates