Everything you need to know about the first Democratic debate

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By Dareh Gregorian and Ben Kamisar  with NBC News Politics
Image: Presidential candidates Joe Biden and Steve Bullock.
Presidential candidates Joe Biden and Steve Bullock.   -   Copyright  Reuters / AP

It's crunch time for candidates who are hoping to make it on stage for the first Democratic presidential debate of the 2020 election.

With a total of 20 spots available on stage over two nights, some of the 24 candidates vying for a spot won't make the cut.

Here's what you need to know about the first face off of the Democratic presidential primary.

When and where is the first Democratic debate?

The debate will take place on June 26 and June 27 at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Miami.

The two-night event is hosted by NBC News, MSNBC and Telemundo, and will air live across all three from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m ET both nights. The debate will also stream online free of charge on NBC News' digital platforms, including NBCNews.com, MSNBC.com, the NBC News Mobile App and OTT apps, in addition to Telemundo's digital platforms.

Who are the moderators?

Savannah Guthrie, Lester Holt, Chuck Todd, Rachel Maddow and José Diaz-Balart will moderate the debate, NBC announced Tuesday.

Both debate nights will have the same format. Holt, the anchor of "NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt" and "Dateline NBC," will moderate the first hour with Guthrie, the co-anchor of "TODAY" and NBC News' chief legal analyst, and Diaz-Balart, the anchor of "Noticias Telemundo" and "NBC Nightly News Saturday," appearing alongside him.

Holt will also appear in the second hour, with Todd, NBC News' political director and the moderator of "Meet the Press with Chuck Todd," and Maddow, host of "The Rachel Maddow Show" on MSNBC, moderating.

Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a campaign stop in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S., May 18, 2019.
Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a campaign stop in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S., May 18, 2019.Mark Makela

Who will likely qualify for the debate?

The Democratic National Committee, which is sanctioning the debate, set two ways for candidates to qualify — fundraising and polling. While their fundraising information still needs to be vetted by the DNC for them to be confirmed for the stage, the candidates whose campaigns say they've qualified under both criteria include:

  • Former Vice President Joe Biden
  • Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont
  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts
  • Sen. Kamala Harris of California
  • Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey
  • Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York
  • Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota
  • South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg
  • Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii
  • Washington Gov. Jay Inslee
  • Former Housing secretary Julián Castro
  • Former U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke
  • Entrepreneur Andrew Yang
  • Author Marianne Williamson

Who appears to be on the bubble?

Candidates who appear to have qualified by polling at 1 percent or above in three different surveys recognized by the DNC include:

  • Rep. Eric Swalwell of California
  • Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio
  • Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado
  • Former Colorado gov. John Hickenlooper
  • New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio
  • Former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland

One of the last entrants into the race, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, has hit one percent in two qualifying polls, but needs one more to qualify. If he does, that would bring the total number of candidates who've qualified to 21, one over the DNC's candidate limit.

Three other candidates, Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts and Miramar, Florida, Mayor Wayne Messam and former U.S. Senator from Alaska Mike Gravel have not hit one percent in any qualifying polls, an NBC News review found.

How will the DNC decide who makes the cut?

The DNC has said that if necessary, it will whittle down candidates on the bubble by looking at their polling averages. To date, that would benefit Hickenlooper and Ryan, whose highest average standing in the polls is 1.3 percent, according to an unofficial analysis by NBC. The others all have an average of one percent.

When will the DNC make the call?

The qualifying deadline for the candidates is Wednesday. Then, the DNC says campaigns must provide the committee with "verifiable evidence" that they've met the fundraising threshold of at least 65,000 donors, with a minimum of 200 donors per state from 20 states.

It's unclear how long it will take for the DNC to reveal who made the cut, but it's expected to move swiftly.

How will the candidates be divided over two nights?

The DNC is trying to avoid the "kids' table" complaints that were lodged against the Republican National Committee in the run up to the 2016 election — where front-runners in the large field of candidates were given one forum and lower-tier candidates another.

Each night of the Democratic debates will feature 10 candidates. According to the DNC, the participants for each night will be chosen at random but will be done in a way to ensure that both night's groups feature an even mixture of candidates.

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders addresses a rally at the Pasadena Convention Center in Pasadena, California on May 31, 2019.
Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders addresses a rally at the Pasadena Convention Center in Pasadena, California on May 31, 2019.Frederic J. Brown

Will the rules change for later debates?

The DNC says it will use the same criteria for the second two-night debate on July 30 and 31 in Detroit, which will be hosted by CNN.

The benchmarks will change for the third debate on Sept. 12 and potentially a second night on Sept.13, which will be hosted by ABC and Univision. To take part in that debate, candidates will have to show they've received donations from 130,000 different donors, including at least 400 from 20 different states. They'll also have to hit at least 2 percent in four different qualifying polls.

These changes are guaranteed to reduce the size of the field.