2020 primary debate guide: Everything you need to know ahead of the first Democratic showdown

Twenty Democratic presidential hopefuls are slated to take the stage at the Adrienne Arsht Center in Miami for a highly anticipated debate that will stretch over two nights on June 26 and 27.

Who will be there? Who won’t? What questions will the candidates be asked? Who will jab at whom? What will we learn? Read on for everything you need to know going into the first of a dozen Democratic primary debates. 

Who will be there, and in what order?

Night 1 — June 26 (in order of stage placement)

  • New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D)
  • Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio)
  • Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro
  • Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.)
  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) 
  • Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas)
  • Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.)
  • Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) 
  • Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D)
  • Former Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.)

Night 2 — June 27 (in order of stage placement) 

  • Marianne Williamson
  • Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D)
  • Andrew Yang
  • South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D)
  • Former Vice President Joe Biden
  • Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)
  • Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.)
  • Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.)
  • Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.)
  • Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) 


What are people saying about the debate placement? 

The initial takeaway among various political watchers on the placements last week was that Warren got the short end of the stick.

Warren’s chance to directly hit Biden and Sanders was taken away when she was placed on a different stage, despite polls showing her closing the gap with Sanders, who has trailed Biden.

However, the placement could give Warren a chance to further capitalize on her detailed policy plans, which have earned her widespread praise on the campaign trail and inspired one of her slogans: “Warren has a plan for that.”

Warren’s placement on the first night’s stage also gives candidates like former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) an opportunity to break out of the crowded Democratic pack and hit at the progressive Massachusetts senator.


Who won’t be there?

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock

Bullock, who entered the race just last month, did not make the cut for the first debate. His campaign released an ad featuring a Montanan named Jock, who called Bullock’s absence from the stage “horseshit.”

However, the governor will get a chance to debate his opponents in July for the second round.


Rep. Seth Moulton 

The Massachusetts congressman also failed to qualify for the forum but sought to reassure supporters in an email last week. 

“I knew that getting in the race so late there was a strong chance I’d miss the first debate—and yes, I will. But fear not! I’m not losing any sleep over it, and neither should you,” he wrote. “This race is a marathon, not a sprint.”


Mayor Wayne Messam

The Miramar, Fla., mayor also did not make the cut but said he was still hoping to qualify for the July debates.

“I’m still encouraged and I still have an opportunity to qualify for the July debates and full steam ahead,” Messam told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel last week.


Former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel

Gravel is also not giving up hope on qualifying for July, but attributed the decision to leave him out of the debates to bias within the media and the Democratic National Committee (DNC).

“The political and media establishment didn’t play hardball with us—they just don’t want to play hardball at all,” Gravel’s campaign manager David Oks said in a statement.


What we will learn about the candidates?

The forum will allow viewers and President Trump a look at each candidate’s debate style, as well as any emerging fissures between the Democrats, who have mostly pledged to rise above the political fray.

While Warren could have ample opportunity to delve deep into her policy proposals, which have been linked to her recent success in the polls, her opponents, who have been struggling to gain traction, will likely take every opportunity to swipe at her.

Front-runners Biden and Sanders will likely face-off on a series of issues, illustrating the divide between the establishment and progressive figures in the party.

Harris and Buttigieg will also look to get in on the action and will both have an opportunity to take aim at Biden and Sanders.

Candidates who have lagged in the polls, like Delaney and Williamson, will need to use the opportunity to make news, whether it’s through expanding more on their policy plans or targeting the front-runners. 


Who’s asking the questions? 

While Fox News brought in a record 24 million viewers for the first 2016 Republican presidential primary debate in August of 2015, the network will notably have no role in hosting the DNC debates.

The DNC announced in March that it would not allow Fox News to host a Democratic primary debate, citing alleged ties between the network and the Trump administration.

NBC will host Wednesday and Thursday’s forums, which will air across NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo.

Five news anchors have been recruited the moderate the two-night event: 

  • “NBC Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt
  • “Today” anchor and NBC chief legal analyst Savannah Guthrie
  • “Meet the Press” anchor and NBC News political director Chuck Todd
  • “The Rachel Maddow Show” host Rachael Maddow
  • “Noticias Telemundo” and “NBC Nightly News Saturday” anchor José Diaz-Balart


What topics could come up? 

While NBC has not yet announced the debate topics, here are some areas that could be covered during the two-night event:


President Trump

While Trump will not be in attendance, his presence will likely be felt throughout the debate.

While Democrats have focused on a number of policy issues, recent polling suggests that Trump is very much at the forefront of Democratic primary voters’ minds.

A USA Today–Suffolk University poll released in March found that 55 percent of Democratic voters said their top priority was electability, while 35 percent said it was ideological purity. 

While Trump may resort to his favored medium of Twitter to offer his input during the forum, his reelection campaign and the Republican National Committee will likely issue responses after the debates.


Health care

Health care has proven to be a winning issue for Democrats, playing a major role in getting the party the House majority in 2018.

The primary has already been rocked by a slew of ideas, from major overhauls like “Medicare for All” to building upon the success of ObamaCare.

The differences between progressives and moderates on the issue will likely be spotlighted during the debate.



Trump’s policies on immigration have repeatedly triggered major backlash from Democrats, even before he took office. 

The administration’s treatment of migrants at the border has recently sparked outrage among Democrats, leading progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) to compare the administration’s migrant detention facilities to concentration camps and setting off a week of back-and-forth.

If the topic is brought up, expect the contenders to be asked about the situation at the border. 


Foreign policy

The debates come amid escalating tensions with Iran and less than a week after Trump pulled back a planned airstrike targeting the country in retaliation for a downed U.S. surveillance drone. Candidates will likely be asked how they would handle the situation if elected, as well as deal with other international issues.



Gun control

Democrats have repeatedly condemned the current state of U.S. gun laws following mass shootings across the country and around the world.

The March for Our Lives movement, which was started in the wake of the Parkland, Fla., high school shooting in 2018, has put pressure on lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to address gun laws in the U.S. 

Swalwell has made gun control his campaign’s key platform. 



While Trump and Republicans have praised economic growth under the administration, Democrats have come out with countermessaging, saying the current economy is good for Wall Street, not Main Street. 

Expect candidates like Sanders and Warren to drive home their progressive economic messages if the topic is covered. 

The impact of Trump’s trade policies and tariffs could also come up in an economic discussion. 


Election security

Regardless of whether it’s debated on Wednesday and Thursday, election security will be at the forefront of the 2020 campaign, given Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election and special counsel Robert Mueller’s subsequent investigation. 

Democratic presidential contenders wasted no time pouncing on Trump’s remarks to ABC News earlier this month that he would listen if a foreign entity offered damaging information on a political opponent. 


Other topics that could come up include regulating Silicon Valley, slavery reparations and climate change, among others.


Where can I watch the debate?

NBC will host Wednesday and Thursday’s forums, which will air across NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo from 9 to 11 p.m. ET on Wednesday and Thursday. 

The debate can also be livestreamed on the NBC News and Telemundo apps, in addition to, and Follow @TheHill on Twitter for breaking news and live coverage before, during and after the debates. 

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Amy Klobuchar Andrew Yang Bernie Sanders Bill de Blasio Chuck Todd Cory Booker Democratic debates Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Eric Swalwell Jay Inslee Joe Biden John Delaney John Hickenlooper Kirsten Gillibrand Marianne Williamson Michael Bennet Pete Buttigieg Rachel Maddow Robert Mueller Seth Moulton Steve Bullock Tim Ryan Tulsi Gabbard Wayne Messam

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