As many as 20 Democratic presidential candidates will be invited to the party’s first sanctioned debates this summer if they can meet new polling or grass-roots fundraising thresholds to qualify, the Democratic National Committee announced Thursday.
The expansive new qualification requirements are designed to allow a historically large group of candidates to make the stage at events that are likely to be split over two consecutive nights to accommodate the crowded field.
Candidates can qualify either by attracting campaign donations from at least 65,000 people, including at least 200 people from at least 20 states, or by registering at least 1 percent in three state or national polls from a list of surveys approved by the party.
The only way to qualify for early Democratic debates in 2015 was to register at least 1 percent in three national polls.
“Because of the size of the field and because it is early in the cycle, the polling requirements alone may not be enough,” said a Democratic National Committee official, who requested anonymity to describe the plans.
The first set of debates will be broadcast in June by NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo, followed by CNN-sponsored debates in July. Both sets of debates will be broadcast on weeknights in prime time. They will be streamed online free, with no more than 10 candidates onstage at any one time.
Given the large primary field, Democratic National Committee Chariman Tom Perez has promised not to play favorites with positioning on the debate stage or by creating two tiers of debates based on polling, as Republicans did in 2016. Assuming a large field of qualifying candidates, the networks will oversee a process for randomly sorting the candidates onto the stages over two consecutive nights.
At least 11 major candidates have already announced their intention to run as Democrats for president, and there are more than 13 other current or former government officials who are still considering announcements in the coming months.
John Delaney, a former Maryland congressman who was the first prominent Democrat to enter the presidential primary, said he found the debate qualification requirements acceptable.
‘It sounds fine, though I’m marveling at the irony that the Democratic Party has decided that money is a criteria,” Delaney said. “As it relates to the debates, I’ve always had a ‘hope for the best; prepare for the worst’ strategy, and that was looking at the polling threshold in early states.”
Delaney, who has partially self-funded his campaign, said he did not plan to change anything about his donor outreach to qualify for the debates.
If more than 20 candidates qualify for the June or July events, preference will be given to candidates that meet both the polling and fundraising thresholds. Further sorting will be determined largely by polling numbers, said a party official.
Democrats have announced plans for at least 12 primary debates in the 2020 cycle, including six this year. After a break in August, the debates will continue on a monthly basis through the end of the year in states that will not be voting early in the primary process.
Another six debates will be scheduled in 2020, with events in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. The last debate will be in April of that year.
To gain access, candidates will have to avoid unsanctioned debates, though they can participate in forums in which multiple candidates take turns appearing onstage.
The preparations contrast with the debate plan endorsed by the Democratic Party in the last campaign, which were widely criticized by rivals of Hillary Clinton for including only three debates in 2015.
President Trump is likely to face rivals for the 2020 Republican presidential nomination, but the national party has disbanded its debate planning committee and has no current plans to stage an event.
David Weigel contributed to this report.