DNC announces first debate lineups

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Democratic presidential candidates

The debates will air June 26 and 27 on NBC and Telemundo affiliates across the country, along with MSNBC on cable. | POLITICO Illustration/Getty Images

2020 Elections

The field of 20 candidates has been randomly split into two groups of 10 debaters on back-to-back nights later this month.

The Democratic National Committee announced the lineups for the first party-sanctioned presidential debates, after a random drawing Friday in New York.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, the top-polling candidate, will appear on June 27, the second of back-to-back nights of debates in Miami. He will be joined on the stage by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and South Bend (Ind.) Mayor Pete Buttigieg — but not Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), another top contender, who will debate nine other hopefuls on June 26.

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The debates will air on NBC and Telemundo affiliates across the country, along with MSNBC on cable. They’ll be broadcast live from Miami.

A press release from NBC News said that candidate podium placements will be announced at a later date and will be “based on polling.”

The decision of when to air each debate lineup was made by NBC News executives, according to a Democratic official familiar with the discussion. Some of the campaigns were told that NBC’s basis for their decision was to “maximize viewership,” the official told POLITICO.

NBC confirmed that officials at the network designated each of the groupings to a specific debate night, but did not provide a motivation for the decision.

The stage lineups were determined via random draw. Candidates polling at or above 2 percent through midnight Wednesday were divided evenly and randomly among the two debate stages and candidates polling below that mark were evenly and randomly divided.

Eight candidates polled above that 2 percent mark: Biden, Booker, Buttigieg, Harris, Klobuchar, O’Rourke, Sanders and Warren.

But the drawing resulted in four of the top five candidates on the June 27 stage: Biden, Sanders, Buttigieg and Harris.

Warren is the sole candidate in the top five to appear on the first night of debates on June 26. Booker, Klobuchar and O’Rourke have all been trailing the rest of the “top-tier” candidates by a significant margin in recent polling — and the random draw that split up the five candidates who have broken out from the pack left one night stacked.

The two nontraditional candidates — the entrepreneur Yang and the spiritual guru Williamson — will also be appearing on the second night, alongside many of the top-polling candidates.

Already, candidates have begun to project whom they may target on debate night. Earlier this week, Sanders gave a speech defending democratic socialism. Hickenlooper tried to ride Sanders’ coattails by giving a speech of his own rejecting Sanders’ ideology, which led to the two camps exchanging a tit-for-tat on Twitter. Now, the duo will share the debate stage on June 27.

The candidates that didn’t qualify for the debates are Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, former Sen. Mike Gravel, Miramar, Fla., Mayor Wayne Messam and Rep. Seth Moulton.

Bullock, perhaps the most prominent of the candidates left off stage, immediately released a digital ad criticizing the first debate following the lineup announcement, aimed at helping Bullock draw new donors who could propel him over the qualifying bar for the second debate in late July.

“Yeah, I heard the news. DNC’s saying Gov. Bullock doesn’t qualify for the debates. That’s horses—,” the ad’s narrator, a Montanan named Jock, said. The Bullock campaign told POLITICO it will be backed by five-figures.

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