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Everything You Need To Know About The First Democratic Primary Debate

Including the who, what, when, where, and why it matters

By Ella Cerón and Christianna Silva

While it may seem like we’ve been on the road to the 2020 election for, oh, just about forever, we must take a moment to remind you that we’re only just getting started. Yes, really. Buckle in, everyone; November 3, 2020 is still months away.

But the first primary debate is coming up soon: June 26 and 27, nearly four months earlier than the first primary debate held during the 2016 election. And it’s just the first of a dozen Democratic National Committee debates, three more than in 2016. The stakes are high, the field is still extremely deep, and no matter whose policies and platforms you like now, there’s still plenty of time for other candidates to surprise skeptics, disappoint followers, or drop out altogether.

So what do you need to know for the first Democratic debate in Miami, Florida? Here’s a breakdown of participants, how they made it in, and what people expect them to say.

Who made it on stage?

Well, basically every one of the 23 major contenders — so perhaps it’s better to talk about who didn’t make the cut and work backwards from there: Montana Governor Steve Bullock; former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel; Mayor Wayne Messam of Miramar, Florida; and Massachusetts Representative Seth Moulton.

Of the snub, Bullock told New York magazine, “I think elections oughta be decided by voters, not party leaders. And I also think that for all of the noise to this point, you know, in my seven stops in Iowa early this week, it was clear voters are going to want to make the right decision, not necessarily just the fast decision.” He intends to continue his campaign, and is aiming to make the third DNC debate in September. (In May, the DNC announced that candidates must have at least 130,000 donors to qualify for that stage, which may hinder the smaller groups.)

Mayor Messam isn’t giving up, either. “Great ideas and policies will always endure. Despite the steeper hill to climb, our message must be heard,” he said on Twitter, quote-tweeting Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot, who had also been cut from a debate early on in her campaign.

So, that leaves two groups of ten candidates: Colorado Senator Michael Bennet; former Vice President Joe Biden; New Jersey Senator Cory Booker; Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana; Julián Castro, who served as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development during President Obama’s second term; Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City, New York; former Maryland Representative John Delaney; Hawaii Representative Tulsi Gabbard; New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand; California Senator Kamala Harris; former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper; Washington Governor Jay Inslee; Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar; former Texas Representative Beto O’Rourke; Ohio Representative Tim Ryan; Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders; California Representative Eric Swalwell; Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren; Marianne Williamson, a motivational speaker; and tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang.

How did they decide?

Candidates had to poll at 1 percent or more in at least three qualified polls or receive donations from at least 65,000 individual donors. Of those donors, at least 200 of them must be from at least 20 different states. Eight candidates soared past those expectations — former Biden, Sanders, Warren, Harris, Buttigieg, O’Rourke, Booker and Klobuchar, all whom, in that order, are consistently breaking that 1 percent polling threshold. Biden is still leading by a large margin in most national polls, typically followed by Sanders and Warren, who each take up the second place spot in some polls, but third in others.

Who are the moderators?

NBC is moderating this debate and have chosen Savannah Guthrie, the co-anchor of TODAY and an NBC News chief legal analyst; Lester Holt, the anchor of NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt and Dateline NBC; Chuck Todd, the moderator of Meet the Press with Chuck Todd and an NBC News political director; Rachel Maddow, the host of The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC, and José Diaz-Balart, the anchor of Noticias Telemundo and NBC Nightly News Saturday.

The lineup is in keeping with the DNC’s moderator guidelines; as MTV News previously reported, every one of the DNC’s debates this election season will feature at least one woman and at least one person of color, and any intersections therein.

When and where is the debate and how can I watch it?

The debates will take place in Miami on June 26 and 27 and can be viewed online for free or live on NBC, MSNBC, and Telemundo, according to the DNC.

How did they split up the candidates?

The crowded gang of 20 candidates will be split up into two groups of 10, each debating on stage on a separate night. On June 26, we’ll see Booker, Castro, Gabbard, Inslee, Klobuchar, O'Rourke, and Warren. On June 27, candidates Biden, Buttigieg, Gillibrand, Harris, Sanders, Williamson, and Yang will take the stage.

Some critics are already wary of the split, particularly because Warren, an early frontrunner and policy heavyweight, has been paired against candidates who are all polling at significantly lower levels than she is. And while it certainly might be engaging to see her face off against Biden or Sanders, viewers will have to wait until a later debate for that possible showdown. Still, the breakdown lends itself to a more even mix of people tuning in on both nights to see what each candidate has to say.

The grab-bag approach also stands in stark contrast to the first Republican primary debate held in 2015 ahead of the 2016 election; the Republican National Committee had siloed candidates who didn’t make the top 10 in terms of polling into a pre-debate group. At the time, candidate Carly Fiorina made at dig at Trump’s expense before he took the stage an hour later at the official debate.

Why does this matter?

Primary debates probably won’t be able to win someone their party’s nomination — but they can certainly cost someone their shot at winning, Five Thirty Eight reported. While general election debates don’t always have a huge impact on how people choose to vote (after all, then-Sen. Mitt Romney absolutely wrecked then-Sen. Barack Obama in 2012), primary debates can make or break a candidacy. Per research from the University of Missouri, nearly 60 percent of people shift their candidate choices after watching a debate.