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The 2018 elections haven’t happened yet, but many Democrats are already looking toward 2020 with an eye on the very first 2020 Democratic Primary debate. No word, yet, on exactly when that might take place, or which TV network will win the rights, but with a massive field and two-dozen serious contenders, it’s already on the candidates’ minds. Democrats are fearing re-runs of the 2015-2016 where the Republican field was so large that it had to be divided into 2 tiers of candidates and, subsequently, two separate debate broadcasts.

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Essentially the lower tier, or candidates polling less than a certain threshold, were relegated to an “undercard debate” which took place outside of primetime hours and recorded far fewer viewers than the main attraction. Candidates meeting the polling threshold were given a slot at the primetime broadcast with all the top names and the most viewers.

As it stands now, according to Politico, campaigns are starting to look toward the first debate and view that as the first obstacle they must cross before they have a chance to embark on the nomination:

The first Democratic presidential debate is still months away, but the sprawling field of prospective contenders is beginning to grasp a crushing reality: Any candidate who fails to make the cut for the first debate stage is likely to see their candidacy implode.

The kickoff debate could come as early as spring or summer 2019 — and the prospect of it is already accelerating the timetable for Democrats to raise money, hire staff and raise their profiles beyond an asterisk in national and early-state polls.

The reason? Any candidate who fails to qualify for the debate is likely doomed.

“By the early spring at the latest, you’ll be seeing debates, and I think probably in the first quarter of 2019,” David Axelrod, a top adviser to former President Barack Obama, said on his podcast recently. “I think the sense of urgency among Democrats, and the sense of possibility among potential candidates is such that you’re going to see that.”

The only Republican in 2016 who made their way from the lower-tier to the primetime debate stage was Carly Fiorina, but her polling didn’t last and she dropped out shortly thereafter. If a candidate is relegated to the lower-tier, they carry that stigma and it’s very hard to break out of it.

Add to the fact that usually, the lower-polling candidates are working to attack the front-runner and challenge them on issues so direct confrontations on national TV help with name recognition and fundraising. Once the debate stages are separated, however, the lower-tier candidates never get a chance to attack the top-tier which gives them few opportunities to stand out among a crowded field.

In fact, the lessons from 2016 may be so meaningful that some campaigns will see the first debate as a culling of the field since access to a national television audience is make-or-break for most candidates:

Today, only a handful of potential Democratic candidates, including former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), appear to have sufficient name recognition to guarantee access to a main debate stage if national polls are used as a benchmark. Many potential candidates, including the only major declared candidate, Rep. John Delaney, are not even included in national polls.

Delaney, like some other candidates expected to pursue state-specific strategies, are banking on debate organizers considering polling in early primary states, as they previously have in some years, or on other criteria for qualifying.

The polling thresholds will vary, as candidates like Delaney are hoping, but trying to build a campaign by securing debate stage access can only get you so far. It’s hard to compete with national name recognition if you’re constantly threatened by being stuck at the “kids table,” as some dubbed it in 2015-2016.

Whenever the first 2020 Democratic Debate happens, we will be covering it all here with a 2020 Democratic Debate schedule to keep track of each debate and determine which candidates will be on or out from the primetime broadcasts.

The first 2020 Democratic Primary debate is not expected to occur until Summer of 2019.

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Nate Ashworth is the Founder and Senior Editor of Election Central. He's been blogging elections and politics for almost a decade. He started covering the 2008 Presidential Election which turned into a full-time political blog in 2012 and 2016.

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