The DNC Debate Rules: What You Need to Know

Created: 21 February, 2019
Updated: 14 August, 2022
3 min read

The Democratic National Committee has released its preliminary rules for the first two presidential primary debates to be held in June and July. The party has announced some format details, as well as polling and fundraising thresholds candidates need to meet to qualify for the debate stage.

Looking at a field that could expand beyond 20 candidates, the party wants to avoid repeating the same mistakes the Republican Party made in the 2016 primary. However, party officials at least want it to appear like they are learning from their own mistakes as well.

Here is what you need to know:

  • The DNC will not allow more than 20 candidates to participate in the first two debates;
  • Participation order will be based off random selection, dividing qualifying candidates in half between the two debates;
  • The first debate will broadcast on NBC News, MSNBC, and Telemundo on consecutive weekday nights in June;
  • The second debate will broadcast on CNN in July;
  • Candidates have two paths to qualify for the debate stage: They can either poll at 1% in 3 separate polls (national polls or nominating state polls) or receive donations from 65,000 people in at least 20 states (at least 200 from each state); and
  • If more than 20 candidates reach either of thresholds, the field will be winnowed down to favor those who have met both the polling and fundraising thresholds.

The exact dates, times, and locations for the first two debates have not been announced.

It is interesting to note that US Sen. Bernie Sanders met the fundraising threshold in the first 4 hours he announced his candidacy, reportedly raising $4 million from 150,000 individual donors. He is also at the top of the field in polling.

Kamala Harris also had a strong launch day, taking in $1.5 million from 38,000 donors. She didn't quite hit the fundraising requirement, but it looks like neither that nor the polling threshold will be an issue for her.

According to a recent poll from Morning Consult, all but three -- South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former US Rep. John Delaney, and Andrew Yang -- are polling at 1% or more among likely Democratic primary voters. It's not a tall hurdle to clear.

Here's the thing: The DNC may be trying to avoid the same mistakes the Republican Party made in 2016, but have they learned from their own mistakes? The threshold for entry (at least in polling) is not high, but does this approach actually level the playing field for candidates or does it still favor establishment picks?

The DNC was criticized in 2015 and 2016 for a debate schedule that many said explicitly favored Hillary Clinton. But it wasn't just when the debates were scheduled, but how many debates were scheduled -- limiting the opportunity for her opponent to be seen on the public stage.

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There is no official number to how many debates there will be the 2020 primary cycle. Reports indicate that the party anticipates up to 12 debates total. DNC Chair Tom Perez has said debates for Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada -- the earliest primary states -- will not take place until 2020.

However, the first two debates in 2019 will be capped at 10 candidates each, which is still a lot of people to share one stage. Too many candidates favors the ones preferred by the media and doesn't give voters a great opportunity to really evaluate the people running.

Those who criticized the party in 2016 may be happier that candidates participation will be based on random selection -- according to the party. So voters could see how a lesser known candidate stacks up against Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden (should he enter) or Elizabeth Warren.

What do you think of the debate rules? Let us know in the comment section below.

Photo Credit: Jospeh Sohm / shutterstock.com

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