Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden will share a stage with Marianne Williamson and Andrew Yang. Elizabeth Warren will debate alongside Cory Booker, Beto O'Rourke, and Tulsi Gabbard. The first matchup of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary was set on Friday in a process as chaotic as a double-header debate between 20 candidates.
The Democratic National Committee and NBC News, the host of the first primary matchup, announced the candidate makeup for the June 26 and June 27 debates through a random selection in New York City. NBC News executives and producers drew names from a set of two boxes to determine the two groups — one dubbed "purple" and the other "orange" — before deciding which group would debate first.
The result has four of the polling leaders debating on the second night.
Here’s who will be debating on the first night, June 26:
- New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker
- Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren
- Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke
- Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar
- Former Maryland Rep. John Delaney
- Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard
- Former Housing and Urban Development secretary Julián Castro
- Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan
- New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio
- Washington Gov. Jay Inslee
And here’s who will be debating on the second night, June 27:
- California Sen. Kamala Harris
- Former Vice President Joe Biden
- Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders
- South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg
- New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand
- Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet
- Author and speaker Marianne Williamson
- California Rep. Eric Swalwell
- Entrepreneur Andrew Yang
- Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper
The first round of debates, hosted by NBC News, MSNBC, and Telemundo, will take place in Miami at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, starting at 9 p.m. ET each night and running until 11. Both nights will have the same format. Candidates will be allowed one-minute answers, 30-second follow-ups, closing statements, and responses to other candidates based on the moderators’ discretion, according to campaign operatives briefed on debate planning.
The candidates qualified for the debates by either hitting at least 1% support in three qualifying polls or by pulling in 65,000 unique donors by June 12. Three Democrats running did not meet that threshold: Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton, and Miramar, Florida Mayor Wayne Messam. Mike Gravel, a former senator and past presidential candidate who has been running a 2020 campaign mostly on Twitter, also did not qualify.
Biden and Sanders, who have been leading most polls in the last month, will be debating on the same night. The two candidates offer radically different visions for the party: Sanders a democratic socialist agenda, Biden a more traditional Democratic platform rooted in what he’s repeatedly referred to as the “Obama-Biden” administration. They have already knocked one another in campaign stops, if obliquely.
They will be joined on the second night by two other candidates who have consistently polled in the top five: Harris and Buttigieg. Warren, who recent polling shows closing in on Sanders, will be by far the strongest polling candidate in the first night.
Here's how the random draw worked:
In an effort to avoid the appearance of an unfair balance at the debates, with top-tier candidates appearing on June 26 and a “junior varsity” group on June 27, the DNC set the makeup of the debate stages from a random draw split evenly between two groups — candidates polling below an average of 2% and candidates polling above 2%. The DNC delegates the process for the random draw to the debate host, NBC News, and will do so for all future debates that require a random draw. (CNN will host the second round of debates July 30 and July 31 in Detroit.)
In the weeks leading up to the NBC random draw, the process was opaque to reporters and even the participating campaigns. Candidates who qualified each sent a chosen representative to NBC News headquarters at Rockefeller Center on Friday at noon. The draw was closed to press. Not even NBC journalists were allowed to report on the event as it happened. “This is a sort of strange question because I work here," NBC's Chris Hayes told DNC chair Tom Perez in an interview on the eve of the live drawing, "and I have no idea how this process is being run."
Campaign representatives present watched as NBC drew names from two gold boxes — one for the purple group and one for the orange group. Names were printed on 3x5 sheets of paper and folded into fourths.
Those in the room then waited to see which group, purple or orange, would debate on June 26 and which would appear on June 27. Campaign operatives and DNC officials present were taken aback when NBC officials deliberated behind closed doors to make the decision.
When NBC News executives announced that Warren's group would be debating first and the Sanders and Biden group would be debating second, campaign representatives present asked how they came to the decision. According to multiple people at the drawing, an NBC News official told the room it was because they wanted to "maximize viewership."
A DNC representative present, communications director Xochitl Hinojosa, then spoke up to say that while they appreciated wanting to ensure as many viewers as possible, the DNC was hoping for "more randomization of the process," even in choosing which group would debate first.
Hinojosa, who confirmed the interaction, declined to comment further.
DNC officials, even in the face of criticism, have tried to be deliberate and methodical about each step in the debate process. As one presidential campaign representative put it, "This is something that was sprung on everyone."
How we got here:
Perez, a former labor secretary who stepped in as DNC chair more than two years ago, first outlined his plans for the debate process last December, making a point to address widely felt concerns about the fairness and transparency of the nominating process four years ago.
Early on in the 2016 Democratic primary, Hillary Clinton’s two main rivals, Bernie Sanders and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, both raised questions about the way the schedule benefited the frontrunner by limiting the process to six debates — all slated late in the primary. Months later, stolen emails from the Clinton campaign, released on WikiLeaks as part of the Russian cyberattack on the election, showed that senior Clinton advisers sought to influence the process by minimizing the number of debates and pushing the schedule back “as late as possible.”
Outlining his plans for reporters in December, Perez said that he and his aides consulted former candidates and campaigns during more than “100 hours of conversations” for advice on revising the debate process ahead of 2020. “Our north star principle is to give people a fair shake,” he said.
Not all campaigns have been happy with the process. The rules for qualifying for the first round of debates became a hurdle for even some big-name Democrats. Bullock, the Montana Democrat, said that the DNC rules in particular punished him, a sitting governor, because he wanted to delay his campaign launch until after the end of his state’s legislative session, where he was working to pass an expansion of Medicaid. “Yeah, I could have gotten in earlier, but I’m a governor. I have a job to do,” he said in an interview last week with BuzzFeed News. “The arbitrariness of that, when literally, I would not have health care for 100,000 Montanans if I had gotten in earlier.”
The rules to qualify for the Democratic debates this fall — to hit an average of 2% in polls and 130,000 unique donors — struck some campaign operatives as even more arbitrary. Inside some campaigns, it seemed like the DNC had just decided to double the thresholds.
Apart from Bullock, most other candidates have held off on criticizing the DNC debate process. Kirsten Gillibrand, a US senator from New York who up until this week had to appeal to supporters to help her reach the 65,000 benchmark, has called the criteria “odd.”
If you’re complaining about the DNC rules, some have reasoned, you’ve already lost.
“I’m not taking shots at the DNC,” Cory Booker said during an interview last week when asked about whether he thinks the rules have been fair. “We will make the debates.”