WASHINGTON — Two nights, four hours, so, so many candidates: the first Democratic presidential debates will be like nothing we’ve ever seen. A former vice president on stage with a self-help author. Three female candidates on one night, three female candidates the next — more than have even been on the debate stage at once. A 37-year-old squaring off against two septuagenarians.
With Friday’s announcement of the lineups for the debates, set for June 26 and 27, the political stakes and intriguing subplots of the 2020 Democratic primary race came into sharper focus. Candidates, strategists and party officials quickly began analyzing the lineups: Is it better to debate on the first night, even if most of the top-tier candidates are on the second night? Or is it better to debate on the second night and try to draw blood against one of those top candidates?
The first night will be Senator Elizabeth Warren’s to lose, as she faces off against nine lower-polling candidates desperate for breakout moments. But the second night is potentially more consequential, a showdown among four of the biggest names in the 2020 presidential race: Biden, Sanders, Buttigieg, Harris.
Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont will share a stage for the first time — an encounter likely to pose some risk to both. The two men, who’ve been eager to turn the 23-candidate clown car of a primary into a race against President Trump, will make the case for very different ideologies — and try to undercut each other’s — but they also could look like figures from the past while on the same stage with Senator Kamala Harris of California and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind.
The lineups were randomly decided in a process engineered by the Democratic National Committee to avoid clustering the top-tier candidates in a single night. But Friday’s sorting drew criticism because the second night ended up including Democrats with far higher polling numbers, on average, than those set to debate the first night.
Some of those selected for the second night seemed particularly excited, spinning random placement as a victory.
“The debates are the first chance for voters across the country to tune in and compare the ideas of the contenders, and I’m honored to have the opportunity,” said Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who is behind in the polls and fund-raising but could benefit from being in the second debate, which will likely draw a sizable viewership given the top-tier candidates on stage.
Faiz Shakir, the campaign manager for Mr. Sanders, said: “This is a terrific lineup because there will be a real debate over the key set of choices in this Democratic primary.”
The stakes are especially high for candidates like Senators Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Cory Booker of New Jersey and former Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas, who all entered the race with political promise but have struggled to catch fire with voters. The three will vie for airtime in the first debate against candidates who have little momentum, like Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York, as well as against Ms. Warren, who has edged ahead of her rivals in part because of the policy substance of her campaign.
Yet Ms. Warren faces challenges too. Her placement offers a larger share of the spotlight, a chance to soak up extra time on the biggest night yet of the campaign. But it also means she will not get a chance to contrast herself with her top rivals — with, say, Mr. Biden and the credit card industry — and that if anyone on the first night wants to punch up at a top-tier candidate, they will be taking aim at her.
Mr. Buttigieg, who has climbed out of obscurity and risen in the polls, will have a national stage to showcase his generational change argument while standing aside Mr. Biden and Mr. Sanders — who are each nearly 40 years older than he is.
Ms. Harris, who will face off against those three men and six other candidates, has an opportunity to present her contrasting vision of electability based on a multiracial coalition against Mr. Biden’s argument that he can win back white male Rust Belt voters who cast ballots for Mr. Trump.
The selection of the candidate lineups on Friday unfolded like a scene from The Apprentice, the former NBC reality show hosted by the man who is now the president. Representatives from the campaigns gathered into an 11th floor conference room at the network’s Rockefeller Center headquarters. Arrayed on a table were two boxes — wrapped in white paper with gold dots on it — labeled “2% and above” and “below 2%” to correspond to the candidates’ polling status.
Each of the candidates’ names were written on pieces of paper, folded in half, and placed in the appropriate box. The names were drawn from the boxes one by one and affixed onto one of two easels with tape.
Mr. Sanders was the first candidate whose name was drawn, and soon after Mr. Biden’s name was placed onto the same easel, quickly stratifying the debate groups. “Once they pulled Biden, all the air went out of the room,” said a person present.
Many of the campaigns have spent weeks grumbling about the difficulty of preparing for a large, multiparty debate, particularly one where the matchups are revealed eleven days before the actual event. Most expect their candidate to get less than 10 minutes of speaking time to make their case and ideally create the kind of viral moment that can boost donations and polling numbers.
Numerous candidates have already begun studying up on policy and rehearsing potential zingers. Those efforts will intensify this weekend, now that the candidates have a sense of their placement on the stage.
Ms. Klobuchar said she’s been watching the crowded 2012 and 2016 Republican debates to get the sense of what it’s like to have so many candidates on stage.
“You’re not going to control where you stand, that’s going to be up to them,” she said, after a campaign stop in Iowa. “But you can control what you say and you want to make sure that you find your moments to make your points.”
Big, multicandidate debates are enormously challenging to prepare for.
Former Speaker Newt Gingrich, who succeeded in breaking through during the 2012 Republican primary debates, said it was important to smile and look relaxed throughout the evening, “because cameras can pick you up at any time.”
“Your biggest goal has to be to be likable and acceptable,” he said, adding that a successful night might involve getting “two, or at most three, memorable one-liners out.”
Word about how exactly the group would be divided came one day after the Democratic National Committee made clear which members of the 23-person field had qualified for the debates — and which had not.
Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana, Representative Seth Moulton of Massachusetts and Mayor Wayne Messam of Miramar, Fla., did not meet the polling and fund-raising criteria outlined by the committee, and were not invited.
The debates will be moderated by the NBC anchors Savannah Guthrie, Lester Holt and Chuck Todd, the Telemundo anchor José Díaz-Balart, and the MSNBC commentator Rachel Maddow.
Among the political newcomers who will receive significant exposure in the debates is Mr. Yang, a former tech entrepreneur who will appear during the second night. Mr. Yang will also get a chance to live out one of his go-to jokes on the campaign trail: that his secret plan was for people to Google who the Asian man is on stage next to Mr. Biden and learn about his platform in the process.
“My dreams are coming true,” Mr. Yang wrote on Twitter, adding a thumbs-up and an American flag emoji.
Shane Goldmacher contributed reporting.