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Wary of repeating 2016 mistakes, Democrats prepare to shake up 2020 presidential debate plan

Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders wave following the First in the South Presidential Candidates Forum held at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina on Nov. 6, 2015. (Chris Keane/Reuters)

The Democratic National Committee is close to finalizing a 2020 primary debate plan that would give lesser-known candidates a chance to share the same stage as the party’s front-runners, avoiding the two-tier “kiddie table” approach that divided the Republican field in the last presidential campaign.

Chairman Tom Perez and his team have been meeting for months with 2016 campaign advisers and other stakeholders to find a way to improve the debate process, while accommodating the unusually large class of credible potential candidates, which could number more than 20 by spring.

Perez has made clear to his staff that he would like the field to be presented in a way that initially mixes top-tier candidates with lesser-known ones. The party’s proposed solution, which will be presented to Perez for approval later this month, also would allow for other factors beyond national polling, possibly including staffing, fundraising and number of office locations, to be considered in making a cutoff for debate participation.

“There are a lot of really good people running or considering running on our side,” said Mary Beth Cahill, a senior adviser with the DNC, who has led the debate planning process. “We want everyone to have an equal shot as we start this.”

The decision to democratize the debate stage early in the primary campaign could give lesser-known candidates a crucial platform, effectively helping to level the playing field for the most wide-open Democratic nomination fight in decades. In the 2016 cycle, Republican candidates with low poll numbers were grouped in earlier and lower-rated debates, where they were not able to engage directly with the party’s front-runners.

Democratic Party officials hope the plan will also alleviate lingering concerns from the 2016 election, when then-leaders consulted closely, and in some ways exclusively, with the campaign of Hillary Clinton on debate planning in a way that her rivals said gave her an unfair advantage and may have hurt the party in the general election.

This time, Perez has promised an election cycle that is “fair in fact and fair in perception.” To further that goal, he and Cahill have spoken privately with campaign advisers for the 2016 campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, who had both complained about the debate schedule last time.

Party leaders say they have not yet consulted with potential 2020 candidates or their advisers about the debate plans, although some of the 2016 advisers are likely to be involved in the 2020 race. Sanders is considering another presidential run, and one of O’Malley’s former advisers, Lis Smith, is working with Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., who also is considering a run.

“The 2016 debate schedule was an unmitigated disaster for both the candidates and the voters,” Smith said about her talks with party leaders. “The DNC this year deserves credit for working to make this a more transparent and inclusive process.”

Sanders’s 2016 strategist, Tad Devine, and campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, applauded the new approach.

“They were genuinely interested in learning what went right, which was not much, and what went wrong, which was a lot,” said Weaver, who is likely to be involved if Sanders runs again. “I recommended starting the process earlier, so it is not right on top of the primaries and caucuses.”

Democratic staff members expect Perez to sign off on key elements of Cahill’s plan later this month, although the exact dates and broadcast partners may not be released until next year. The proposed rules will cover the initial number and rough timing of debates, including the starting point for the debate season. They also will set the qualifications for debates, and determine punishments for participating in forums not sanctioned by the party.

The debate plan also could lay out goals for partnerships with local and social media companies to broaden the debate audience beyond the viewers of traditional cable news. Some networks, including CNN, have begun contacting advisers to potential 2020 candidates in the hopes of securing participation in exclusive events, such as town hall meetings, according to aides to two potential candidates. (A spokeswoman for CNN declined to comment on the network’s planning.)

In the last presidential cycle, the Democratic Party initially sanctioned six debates starting in October 2015, including just four matchups before the Iowa caucuses, two of which were held on Saturday nights. Three debates were added later.

Candidates were allowed to participate in other forums and town hall events, but the party threatened to disinvite from the sanctioned events any candidates who took part in a formal debate outside the party system.

A study of television ratings by the NDN, a Democratic-leaning think tank, estimated that the 12 Republican primary debates in 2016 attracted 114 million more viewers than the nine Democratic debates, giving GOP nominee Donald Trump a potential advantage at the start of the general-election campaign.

The full extent of Clinton’s role in formulating the 2016 debate plan became clear after the primary. An April 2015 Clinton campaign email that WikiLeaks released in late 2016, which U.S. prosecutors say was stolen as part of an effort by Russia to influence the election, showed that her aides worked successfully with DNC advisers to limit the number of debates, delay the start of debate season and create a low bar for participation in the hopes of attracting more candidates to the stage.

In his conversations with Perez and Cahill, Devine suggested that the party adopt a broader method of qualifying for the debate stage than the one used in 2016, which required candidates to get at least 1 percent support in three national primary polls. An October poll this year by CNN found 14 potential candidates with support from 1 percent or more of the primary electorate, although not all of them are likely to run.

“My suggestion on that is that it not be one single standard,” Devine said. “Polling should be part of it. There are also resources, people who follow you on Facebook, or follow you on Twitter, fundraising.”

Democratic officials say they have been considering multiple benchmarks as well. “We have looked at a lot of different qualifications and different thresholds to come up with something that is more inclusive,” said a Democratic Party official involved in the process, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the plan was not yet announced.

The number of debates is likely to exceed the 2016 level, but the team working at the DNC is trying to balance past campaign concerns about the disruptive effect debates can have on campaigning in the early states. In the 2008 primary, 16 Democratic debates were aired on major cable or broadcast networks, along with about 10 other less formal debates.

Party officials are also wary of starting too soon, given that some candidates are likely to wait until the late spring or even the summer of 2019 to announce their campaigns.

In all, Democratic officials say they have held more than 40 meetings to draft the 2020 plans, including information-gathering sessions with past co-sponsors, media partners and state party chairs.

There is broad agreement that this year’s field of credible Democratic candidates could set records.

“There are 47 members of the U.S. Senate and 23 governors. My assumption is that until they have declared they are not running, they are potential candidates,” said Donna Brazile, who served as an interim chairman of the DNC in the second half of 2016. “We should have lots of fun.”