Polling, Grassroots Fundraising To Determine Who Qualifies For First DNC Debates

The first two Democratic presidential debates will be held in June and July -- and they could be divided up on two nights.

The Democratic National Committee announced Thursday that the first two presidential debates will be in June and July, with up to 20 candidates participating. 

About a dozen Democrats are already running for president or have launched exploratory committees, and more are expected to enter the race. 

NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo will host the first debate, and CNN will do the second. The networks will have the option of breaking up the field to air debates on two back-to-back weeknight dates during primetime. Which candidates get to compete on which night will be determined by random selection, according to DNC officials who briefed reporters Thursday.

In a memo to staff shared with HuffPost, NBC News/MSNBC Chairman Andy Lack confirmed the first debate will be held over two nights in two languages across the three networks.

No debate has ever aired in primetime on consecutive nights before, according to the DNC. 

In order to qualify to compete in these first two debates, the DNC will be relying on both polling and grassroots fundraising numbers. There will be two ways to get in:

  1. A candidate must reach 1 percent support in at least three separate polls, in a period from Jan. 1 to two weeks before the debate. 

  2. A candidate must raise money from at least 65,000 unique donors, and a minimum of 200 unique donors per state in at least 20 states, from the launch of the campaign to two weeks before the debate. 

Candidates who hit both metrics will be automatically allowed into the debate. In the very unlikely event that more than 20 campaigns hit both thresholds, the top 20 will be determined by the highest polling average. 

“As Chair of the DNC, I am committed to running an open and transparent primary process,” DNC Chairman Tom Perez said in a statement. “To that end, we’ve spent months working with media partners to provide this unprecedented opportunity for candidates and voters to get to know each other. Because campaigns are won on the strength of their grassroots, we also updated the threshold, giving all types of candidates the opportunity to reach the debate stage and giving small-dollar donors a bigger voice in the primary than ever before.”

The DNC is taking a different approach than the Republican Party did in 2016, when it also had a crowded field. The GOP was heavily criticized at the time for creating “Varsity” and “JV” debates that left lesser-known candidates off the stage with the front-runners. The Republican National Committee had two separate debates on the same night, with the first featuring the lowest-polling candidates and the second the top-tier ones. 

The DNC, trying to avoid picking favorites, is randomizing the field for 2020. The criteria announced Thursday will apply to just the first two debates. There will be 12 debates total. 

The exact dates and locations have not yet been announced. 

Supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) criticized the DNC in 2016 for initially scheduling just six presidential primary debates. They argued doing so favored Hillary Clinton by limiting the exposure the lesser-known Sanders could receive. The field was significantly smaller then, and there were no more than five candidates on the stage at most. In the end, there were nine Democratic primary debates. 

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