The next Democratic debate is two weeks away – and right now it is shaping up to be a one-night event.
That’s how ABC, the primary network hosting the debate, would like it to stay that way. Aides to several of the leading campaigns want the same thing.
But there’s some TV drama to this story. Just one poll could turn the debate into a two-parter.
The primary debates in June on NBC and the debates in July on CNN were spread out over two nights. The Democratic National Committee purposefully set a low bar to qualify for those debates, in an attempt to be fair to the huge field of candidates. So twenty candidates debated in randomly-sorted groups of ten per night.
But the DNC is raising the bar for this next round of debates. The deadline to qualify is on Wednesday, and ten candidates are in. Ten is the maximum number for a one-night debate.
“If more than 10 candidates qualify under the rules, the debate will take place over two nights,” ABC says. “For the two-night scenario, ABC News in accordance with the DNC will hold a selection event on Aug. 29 to randomly assign the candidates to a night.”
That’s what has caused some grumbling among the top-tier campaigns.
“Continuing to assign candidates by random draw for the fall debates makes no sense and is a disservice to primary voters,” one of the aides said. “They want to see Biden-Warren-Sanders-Harris-Buttigieg. They’ve been the consistent top tier for months now. Why keep pushing that off?”
Bernie Sanders campaign manager Faiz Shakir, when asked for his view about the qualification rules, said “honestly we’d just like the opportunity to be on stage together with many of the leading contenders. That’s it.”
As of Tuesday, that’s what is likely to occur, with just one debate to be held on Thursday, September 12.
Sanders has made it, along with Joe Biden, Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, Julián Castro, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke, Elizabeth Warren, and Andrew Yang, according to assessments by ABC, CNN and other outlets.
The group of ten have met the necessary 130,000 individual donor threshold and topped 2% in four approved polls.
Another candidate, Tom Steyer, has met the donor criteria but needs to hit 2% in one more poll to make the cut.
One poll came out on Monday, from Monmouth University, but Steyer was shown with less than 1% support.
Steyer’s aides have been increasingly critical of the DNC’s polling criteria. They have been hoping that a state poll in Nevada, where Steyer’s campaign has invested heavily, will come out and show him with 2% support. But no poll on the DNC-approved list has. Media consultant Kevin Cate tweeted on Monday, “Seems like we are down to two days for a state poll of Nevada. The @DNC @TomPerez @ABCPolitics shouldn’t let that happen.”
ABC deferred questions about the criteria to the DNC. A spokeswoman for the party declined to comment.
But the party has been nothing if not transparent about the rules: Everyone involved has known the criteria for months.
The cut-off for the September debate is on Wednesday night. ABC is aware of two more qualifying polls that will be released on Wednesday, according to a person at the network.
That means Steyer could still make it. So could Tulsi Gabbard, who has met the donor threshold but needs two more polls.
Other contenders like Bill de Blasio, Tim Ryan, Marianne Williamson, and John Delaney have no shot at the September stage.
The debate criteria are contributing to a winnowing of the unwieldy field, though there are many other factors at play as well. Three candidates have dropped out of the presidential race so far this month.
Aides with some of the top-tier campaigns have expected this to happen. Speaking privately, they said they’d prefer for one night of debating.
“Having one night is the priority,” one aide associated with a leading campaign said. “We are fine if it’s 11 on one night if it’s just one night.”
But if Steyer does qualify on Wednesday, then the debate will be divided into two nights, with part two taking place on Friday, September 13.
The aide explained that not knowing the definitive night of their candidate’s debate is problematic. “We are all running national campaigns,” the aide said, “and to not find out who is on stage and which night we’re on until 10 days out is insanity and frankly unacceptable.”
During the NBC and CNN debates earlier this summer, viewership was higher on the second night. This was partly attributed to a greater number of high-profile candidates being on stage on night two, each time the result of a random draw.
But Fridays are different – TV viewership is typically lower on Friday nights. So a Friday debate is much less appealing to the campaigns.
That prospect also holds little appeal inside ABC. “There is a sense for us that one big event is better,” a source at the network said, a point of view shared by others there.
In the meantime, the uncertainty makes the debate more difficult to plan from a production standpoint.
If only ten candidates make the cut, ABC and its Spanish-language network partner, Univision, will have the distinction of holding the first debate of the primary season in which all the top-tier contenders are on stage together.
But not everyone wants that outcome. Some campaigns, especially those that are lower in the polls, would welcome having more chance to talk about their ideas, and would prefer another two-night debate so that each candidate has more time to talk.
An aide for another campaign described the “mixed feelings” this way: “With one debate, you have appointment TV and all the big boys and girls on stage together. That’s diffused across two nights, obviously. But across two nights, it’s a little less fraught in terms of having to jump in against nine other candidates.”
Here’s the other twist: Some of the candidates who don’t make the stage in September have a strong chance to qualify for the cycle’s fourth debate, slated to take place sometime in October.
The criteria will be the same: Candidates will need four total polls at 2% or higher, from anytime since June 28, plus the 130,000 donors.
If Steyer “falls short” this round, “he is on track to make the stage in October,” The New York Times noted on Tuesday.
So even if ABC ends up with a one-night debate in September, the days of two-part debates may not be over yet.