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.

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.


  1. Racial diversity. Republicans win in that area.

    When are the Democrats going to learn that name recognition isn’t the only impoimport issue. Example: Obama. The rest is history.

    Biden, Sanders, Warren are old news. But the Dems will keep running them. Who knows.

    Booker had his Spartan moment. His supporters loved it but not many others.

    • Yes, I think the Dems in 2020 are at risk of running a shallow candidate because they’ll be overly inclined to reject the status quo like a Hillary since the 2016 debacle. They’d be better off picking someone like Biden who is at least a seasoned politician and adding in someone like Booker or Harris as his VP. Biden is old news, but Dems need someone who can be as entertaining and impromptu as Trump, otherwise they’ll just look stale and scripted like Hillary did.

      • I think you’re right. Biden also has a following among white men. That has been overlooked.

        On the other hand, as you say, Dems need someone with a “stage presence,” who can battle Trump. Most people don’t know that Trump was in 40 movies and TV shows, going back to The Jeffersons, Fresh Prince, The Nanny, Drew Carey, Spin City, Sex in the City, and even The Simpsons. He was on the soap opera, Days of our Lives; hosted Saturday Night Live, and became a character in big-time Wresting. Not to mention, ironically, “I’ll Take Manhattan” (with Valerie Bertinelli).

        His movies include Eddie and also The Associate (with Whoopi Goldberg), Two Weeks’ Notice (with Sandra Bullock and Hugh Grant), Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (with Michael Douglas), and Zoolander (with Ben Stiller)–even Home Alone 2, and The Little Rascals.

        He is a consummate actor.

        The only person the Democrats had with the needed intelligence, wit, charm, and ability to think on his feet, was Al Franken. He could have sliced-and-diced Trump, but the Democrats threw Franken out, probably because the other 2020 prospects knew they couldn’t compete with him. So, at this point, they really have no one.

        • But Biden is a scrapper, see his 20120VP debate with Paul Ryan where he basically destroyed Ryan by running him over the entire time while Ryan droned on about budgets and deficits. Nobody listened to Ryan because Biden was stealing all the attention.

          Biden would at least give Trump a challenge on the stage presence by bringing his own stage presence.

          • You’re right. The real benefit Biden has is low expectation. His image is of an old bungler. Trump calls him “crazy Uncle Joe,” and said Obama took Biden “out of the garbage heap” to be Vice President in 2008. Trump says Biden’s “physically and mentally weak,” who is “trying to act like a tough guy.”

            If people saw your description of Biden destroying Ryan, and running over him, it would be a game changer. But has Biden ever, really, gone for the jugular?

            Another thing is that Trump destroyed his opponents in the primary by being purely nasty and disgusting, with silly name-calling repeating ridiculous claims and claiming innocence, since he was only “repeating” the charge, such as that “Lying Ted Cruz’s'” father helped kill JFK. Is it possible that after two more years of that, the public may want to turn to someone who would give up his big chance in 2016–because of real family values?

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