Here’s Your 5-Minute Primer for This Week’s Democratic Debate

From rules to participants to why, exactly, it’s a two-night affair

The stage is set for the first 2020 Democratic debate
The stage is set for the first 2020 Democratic debate. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
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This week, the Democratic Party’s presidential hopefuls will contest the first official debate of the 2020 election cycle. Whether you are red, blue or somewhere in the purples, it’s your civic duty to at the very least have a passing interest in the occasion. Below, we’ve got all the vitals, from dates and start times to potential topics to why, exactly, they’re doing it over two nights.

When is the debate?
9 to 11 pm Eastern on Wednesday, June 26 and Thursday, June 27.

Why are there two nights instead of just one?
There are 20 candidates participating, so they decided to split them into two batches to keep them from yelling over each other like two estranged uncles at the Thanksgiving dinner table. (Note: This will in all likelihood transpire regardless.)

Where is the debate?
The Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, Florida. Expect at least one or two candidates to show up with a mean sunburn. 

What channels can I watch it on? 
NBC, MSNBC or Telemundo.

I don’t own a TV. Where can I stream it or watch online?, NBC News apps,, and NBC News’ Facebook, Twitter or YouTube. You can also use Watch CBSN for live coverage of the debates before, during and after.

Who’s moderating?
All five moderators for this week’s debates are anchors on various NBC and MSNBC shows and are well-known for their respective coverage. The full rundown:

  • NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt (Holt also moderated a debate between Hillary Clinton and President Donald Trump in 2016)
  • NBC’s Today show co-anchor and chief legal analyst Savannah Guthrie
  • MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow (she previously moderated a debate between Clinton and Bernie Sanders in 2016)
  • NBC’s Nightly News Saturday and Noticias Telemundo anchor Jose Diaz-Balart (Diaz-Balart previously also moderated a Clinton-Sanders debate in 2016)
  • Meet the Press with Chuck Todd host Chuck Todd (Todd also serves as NBC News’s political director and previously moderated a debate between Clinton and Sanders in 2016)

How were the moderators chosen?
Typically, the moderators who are running the June debates are affiliated with the network airing the programming.

What are the rules for the debate? 
Candidates are expected to be succinct with their answers (because there are approximately 50,000 candidates in the running at present). The debate’s rules grant 60-second answers and 30-second follow-ups. There will be no opening statements. Each night will offer some chances for candidates (and viewers) to catch their breath or grab a fresh beer with commercial breaks. 

Which candidates are debating when? 

The first 10 debating on Wednesday night: 

  • Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren
  • Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke
  • New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker
  • Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar
  • Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro
  • Washington Gov. Jay Inslee
  • New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio
  • Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan
  • Former Maryland Rep. John Delaney 
  • Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard. 

The second 10 debating on Thursday night: 

  • Former Vice President Joe Biden
  • Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders
  • California Sen. Kamala Harris 
  • South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg 
  • Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet
  • New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand
  • Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper
  • California Rep. Eric Swalwell
  • Writer and spiritual guru Marianne Williamson 
  • Entrepreneur Andrew Yang 

How were the candidates chose to debate on Night 1 vs. Night 2? 

How were the candidates’ podium positions chosen?
According to NBC News, which is hosting the debate, the candidates are arranged “based on polling,” with the best-polling candidates in the middle. 

Are there any candidates who aren’t debating?
A number of candidates didn’t qualify to debate in the first DNC debate. (No, their invitations did not get lost in the mail.)  Those candidates are: Seth Moulton, Steve Bullock, Mike Gravel and, Wayne Messam.

Oh, snap … How does one qualify?
Candidates must have 65,000 donors contribute to their campaign, with 200 donors from at least 20 different states, per PBS. There’s also the “easy” route: candidates can qualify by receiving “1% of support in three polls the DNC deems qualified,” according to the Washington Post.

How do the candidates prepare?
Candidates spend hours with aides and advisors rehearsing and anticipating questions, practicing body language, and writing opening and closing statements. A debate performance in the early primary race can alter the fate of the campaign either shooting them to the front or proving fatal. 

What topics will be covered?
The topics have not been announced, yet, but here are some ideas: 

  1. President Trump: Democrats have focused on a number of policy issues, and recent polls suggest that Trump is very much at the forefront of Democratic primary voters’ minds. 
  2. Health care: The primary has already sparked a ton of ideas, from “Medicare for All” to building upon ObamaCare. The differences in opinions on the issue will likely be spotlighted during the debate.
  3. Immigration: The administration’s treatment of migrants at the border has recently sparked outrage among Democrats. If the topic is brought up, expect the contenders to be asked about the situation at the border. 
  4. Foreign policy: The debates come amid escalating tensions with Iran and less than a week after Trump pulled back a planned airstrike targeting the country in retaliation for a downed U.S. surveillance drone. 
  5. Gun control: Democrats have repeatedly condemned the current state of U.S. gun laws following mass shootings across the country and around the world. The March for Our Lives movement has put pressure on lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to address gun laws in the U.S.
  6. Economy: Expect candidates like Sanders and Warren to drive home their progressive economic messages if the topic is covered. The impact of Trump’s trade policies and tariffs could also come up in an economic discussion.
  7. Election security: Election security will be at the forefront of the 2020 campaign, given Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election and special counsel Robert Mueller‘s subsequent investigation. 
  8. Other topics that could come up include regulating Silicon Valley, slavery reparations and climate change.

What are some resources for familiarizing myself with the candidates?
The New York Times: Who’s Running for President in 2020?
Fox News: Who’s Running for President in 2020? Meet the Democratic Candidates
CBS News: First Debates Challenge 2020 Contenders to Stand Out in Crowded Field
NPR: Democratic Presidential Debate: See The 20 Candidates Who Will Be Onstage
The Hill: 2020 Primary Debate Guide: Everything You Need to Know Ahead of The First Democratic Showdown

Does it even matter if I watch the debate? 
YES! Democracy works best when we all get involved. You wouldn’t hire someone without interviewing them first; this is your chance to (vicariously) interview the people who could be our next head of state, or at least contesting it.

When are the next democratic debates? 
The second series of democratic debates, hosted by CNN, will take place July 30-31 in Detroit.

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