It was inevitable, I suppose, that the conjunction of a television network with suspense involving the placement of candidates in a two-day debate event would produce a television show. And sure enough, CNN has gone there:
While NBC decided to hold a private “lottery” in mid-June to determine which night each candidate would appear during the first debate, CNN has decided to turn the candidate placement process into a primetime television special …
CNN [will] hold a live “lottery” drawing to determine the lineup for each night which will air live on July 18 at 8 p.m. ET on CNN. According to CNN, more details will be released in the coming days.
So there’s even suspense about the suspense of debate placement. We don’t know, therefore, if CNN will emulate NBC by breaking the candidate field into two lottery tiers that will be juggled separately in an effort to avoid the clustering of high-polling candidates on a single night (an effort that did not entirely succeed before the first round in Miami, where four of the top five candidates in the national polls appeared together). Nor do we know if the Debate Lottery Special will have a commercial sponsor (like State Farm, which sponsored this year’s NBA Draft Lottery program). Presumably the Democratic National Committee will have something to say about such questions, unless they sold decision-making powers along with the right to host candidate debates.
We do know that debate placement can matter, perhaps a lot, as shown by Kamala Harris’s ability to issue a dramatic personal challenge to Joe Biden in Miami concerning his history on school desegregation. Had she been on the stage an evening earlier, with other candidates, it would not have been the same. It’s entirely possible that by the time the September and October debates roll around, with their higher qualifying thresholds, the sponsors will be able to get all the debaters on the same stage if they so wish. The placement issue may thus be ephemeral, giving it the entertainment value that has led CNN to make it a mini-spectacle all of its own.