DNC announces a dozen primary debates ahead of 2020

The Democratic National Committee (DNC) announced on Thursday a dozen primary debates split between 2019 and 2020 to accommodate what is expected to be a crowded field of prospective presidential contenders that could contain as many as three dozen candidates.

The announcement by DNC Chair Tom PerezThomas Edward PerezClinton’s top five vice presidential picks Government social programs: Triumph of hope over evidence Labor’s 'wasteful spending and mismanagement” at Workers’ Comp MORE came as the result of months of consultations with Democratic stakeholders. It outlined plans for at least a dozen debates split between 2019 and 2020, with the first taking place in June and July of next year.

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No debates are set for August 2019, but one will be held each month after that, Perez said.

The new schedule marks a substantial increase over the 2016 election cycle, when the DNC sanctioned a total of nine debates, with the first held in October 2015.

That same year, Republicans held 12 debates beginning in August.

In the 2012 cycle, Republicans went head to head during a total of 20 debates that began in May 2011.

The DNC announcement on Thursday came as part of a series of reforms to the DNC's presidential primary debate process, a move intended to evade the same accusations of favoritism and unfairness that marred the 2016 nominating contests.

“We want to make sure that the grass roots have a real say in who our next nominee is, and so we want to have a process that is consistent with that north star principle,” Perez told reporters in a conference call.

Perez said that the first six Democratic debates, which will be held in 2019, will take place outside the first four states to vote in the 2020 primary season – Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.

He said that debates will be held in those states ahead of their respective primaries and caucuses.

Perez said that debate slots would be determined based on more than just polling numbers, acknowledging that “polling is perhaps an imperfect surrogate or metric of what voters are thinking” so early in the nominating process.

Instead, he said, candidates will also be assessed based on other factors, like grass-roots fundraising potential.

It’s not yet clear how many candidates could appear on stage in the debates. Perez said that, depending on how many people meet a yet-to-be-determined threshold for debate slots, the events may be divided up between two consecutive nights.

As for which candidates appear on which nights, that will be determined by random selection, he said.

Potential candidates will also be asked not to participate in debates not sponsored by the DNC, though they won’t be barred from taking part in candidate forums, Perez said.

“It’s conceivable that we have a double-digit field and that is why we are planning for that contingency,” Perez said. “If that occurs, we felt it was very important for those first two debates that we create a structure so that people who meet the threshold ... are able to compete.”

In laying out a new process for their primary debates, Democrats are hoping to avoid the two-tiered approach that the Republican primary debates took in 2016, when a crowded field of candidates was divided up for debates based on early polling numbers.

That created a process in which so-called front-runners were given prime time debate slots, while lesser-known candidates were relegated to less-prominent debates that failed to gain the same kind of viewership.

Perez and other DNC officials have consulted for months with dozens of Democratic stakeholders and campaign advisers in an effort to head off the same kind of criticism that the committee faced in 2016, when candidates like Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersGun control: Campaigning vs. legislating Booker defends middle-ground health care approach: 'We're going to fight to get there' Sunday shows preview: Democratic candidates make the rounds after debate MORE (I-Vt.) and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley complained about the debate schedule.

Sanders strongly criticized the committee that year, arguing that Democratic officials had essentially sought to give Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDershowitz: 'Too many politicians are being subject to criminal prosecution' The 13 Republicans needed to pass gun-control legislation Democrats spar over electoral appeal of 'Medicare for All' MORE a leg up in the primaries. Sanders’s supporters alleged that the 2016 Democratic National Convention had become little more than a coronation for Clinton.

Perez vowed that the 2020 primary contest will be different.

“Our process is very much focused on empowering the grass roots,” he said, insisting that the DNC has “created the most inclusive debate process in our history.”

--Updated at 1:49 p.m.