The Democratic National Committee on Tuesday announced that the party's primary election season will feature six officially-sanctioned debates, a light schedule for a thin Democratic field -- one that stands in striking contrast to the lineup for the already-crowded race for the GOP nomination.
"We’ve always believed that we would have a competitive primary process, and that debates would be an important part of that process,” said DNC Chair Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz. “Our debate schedule will not only give Democratic voters multiple opportunities to size up the candidates for the nomination side-by-side, but will give all Americans a chance to see a unified Democratic vision of economic opportunity and progress – no matter whom our nominee may be.”
The four earliest voting states -- Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada -- will each host a debate starting this fall, in conjunction with the national party, local groups, local media and national media.
The Democratic field currently includes just two declared candidates -- former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, with just a handful of other potential candidates in the mix. The low number of potential contenders has at times resulted in speculation that the Democratic Party might forego debates altogether, with many critics accusing the party's establishment of holding a "coronation" of sorts for presumed frontrunner Hillary Clinton.
That's not happening. Clinton responded to the DNC's announcement shortly after it was released Tuesday, suggesting she welcomes the opportunity for "a real conversation."
The Democratic debate stage appears likely to get slightly more crowded. Former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb and former Rhode Island governor Lincoln Chafee have both set up presidential exploratory committees and have indicated they expect to formally enter the race. Meanwhile, former Maryland governor Martin O'Malley – long considered a likely 2016 candidate – has indicated that he is leaning toward a run as well.
The Republican National Committee, for its part, announced earlier this year that it is slated to hold between nine and 12 debates for the Republican nomination. With former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee's announcement Tuesday that he will run for president, the GOP field now has six major declared candidates -- with more expected to join in the coming weeks and months.
The move by both Republicans and Democrats to decrease the number of debates during the primary season is in part an attempt to avoid a drawn-out battle that could weaken the eventual nominee for the general election. After sitting through 20 debates in 2012, many GOP political operatives felt Mitt Romney emerged significantly battered from the tough fight. Similarly, during the 2008 election Democratic candidates participated in more than 20 debates.
On that front, one requirement stands out in the DNC's announcement: the committee has asked candidates and participants (that is, the media) to sign an exclusivity pledge. "Any candidate or debate sponsor wishing to participate in DNC debates, must agree to participate exclusively in the DNC-sanctioned process. Any violation would result in forfeiture of the ability to participate in the remainder of the debate process," says a release from the committee.
That, it seems, is an attempt prevent the primary contest from dragging on and hurting the eventual nominee -- but could also limit the amount of exposure lesser-known candidates receive. And O'Malley has already made his disappointment at the limited number of debates known.
"If Governor O'Malley decides to run, we will expect a full, robust, and inclusive set of debates -- both nationally and in early primary and caucus states," O'Malley spokesperson Lis Smith said Tuesday. "This has been customary in previous primary seasons. In a year as critical as 2016, exclusivity does no one any favors."