The First 2020 Democratic Presidential Debate Line-ups Are Set

The first Democratic presidential debates will be hosted by NBC News, MSNBC and Telemundo this month.
Credit: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Two nights, four hours, so, so many candidates: the first Democratic presidential debates will be like nothing we’ve ever seen. A former vice president on stage with a self-help author. Three female candidates on one night, three female candidates the next — more than have ever been on the debate stage at once. A 37-year-old squaring off against two septuagenarians.

With Friday’s announcement of the lineups for the debates, set for June 26 and 27, the political stakes and intriguing subplots of the 2020 Democratic primary race came into sharper focus. Candidates, strategists and party officials quickly began analyzing the lineups: Is it better to debate on the first night, even if most of the top-tier candidates are on the second night? Or is it better to debate on the second night and try to draw blood against one of those top candidates?

The first night will be Senator Elizabeth Warren’s to lose, as she faces off against nine lower-polling candidates desperate for breakout moments. But the second night is potentially more consequential, a showdown among four of the biggest names in the 2020 presidential race: Biden, Sanders, Buttigieg, Harris.

Night One: June 26

Cory Booker

Julián Castro

Bill de Blasio

John Delaney

Tulsi Gabbard

Jay Inslee

Amy Klobuchar

Beto O’Rourke

Tim Ryan

Elizabeth Warren

Night Two: June 27

Michael Bennet

Joseph R. Biden Jr.

Pete Buttigieg

Kirsten Gillibrand

Kamala Harris

John Hickenlooper

Bernie Sanders

Eric Swalwell

Marianne Williamson

Andrew Yang

Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont will share a stage for the first time — an encounter likely to pose some risk to both. The two men, who’ve been eager to turn the overstuffed 23-candidate primary into a race against President Trump, will make the case for very different ideologies — and try to undercut each other’s — but they also could look like figures from the past while on the same stage with Senator Kamala Harris of California and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind.

The lineups were randomly decided in a process engineered by the Democratic National Committee to avoid clustering the top-tier candidates in a single night. But Friday’s sorting drew criticism because the second night ended up including Democrats with far higher polling numbers, on average, than those set to debate the first night.

Some of those selected for the second night seemed particularly excited, spinning random placement as a victory.

“The debates are the first chance for voters across the country to tune in and compare the ideas of the contenders, and I’m honored to have the opportunity,” said Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who is behind in the polls and fund-raising but could benefit from being in the second debate, which will likely draw a sizable viewership given the top-tier candidates on stage.

Faiz Shakir, the campaign manager for Mr. Sanders, said: “This is a terrific lineup because there will be a real debate over the key set of choices in this Democratic primary.”

The stakes are especially high for candidates like Senators Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Cory Booker of New Jersey and former Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas, who all entered the race with political promise but have struggled to catch fire with voters. The three will vie for airtime in the first debate against candidates who have little momentum, like Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York, as well as against Ms. Warren, who has edged ahead of her rivals in part because of the policy substance of her campaign.

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SOURCE: The New York Times, Reid J. Epstein, Lisa Lerer and Matt Stevens