As the clear front-runner for the Democratic nomination, Joe Biden knows that he’s all but guaranteed to face attacks from several of his rivals at the first primary debate next month. But he may be safe from the candidate most eager for the fight: Bernie Sanders. It’s not because Sanders is going soft. It’s simply that Sanders and Biden may not share the stage at all in June. It’s conceivable the two early favorites may not face off in July at the second set of debates, either.
Under the rules drawn up by the Democratic National Committee, the 20 candidates who qualify for the first two debates will be divvied up randomly into two groups that will then appear on consecutive nights: Half will take the stage on June 26 in Miami Beach, and then the other half will do the same on June 27. That process, complete with the random drawing of two heats, will play out again on July 30–31 in Detroit. The math is fairly simple: There’s a 50 percent chance that Biden and Sanders will miss each other at the first debate, and a 25 percent chance that they’ll miss each other at both.
That would be anticlimactic to be sure. It would be an obvious letdown if the two early favorites—the last Democratic vice president and the last Democratic primary runner-up, no less—don’t interact at all during the first debate of a primary that already feels like it’s been going on for a year. And yet it would hardly be a travesty.
For starters, there are plenty more debates to come—at least 10 more after the second debate in July, to be precise. The next four will take place over the final five months of 2019, with the following four likely to occur in the first two months of 2020. The DNC hasn’t yet said how candidates will qualify for debates after the opening two, but it’s a safe bet primary voters will have several chances to see Biden and Sanders do rhetorical battle before casting their ballots.
Meanwhile, if Biden and Sanders do find themselves drawn into separate lots for the first debate or two, neither is assured a free pass. Elizabeth Warren, for example, can present as strong a case as anyone against Biden’s nostalgic worldview, and can likewise draw a progressive contrast with Sanders if she so chooses. If Biden’s current momentum continues, there’ll be a natural desire from his critics to see him challenged early and often on the debate stage. But at a time when the former vice president is selling himself as the candidate who can reach across the aisle, it may be even more illuminating if he has to spend his time defending himself from criticism that comes from closer to the center than Sanders or Warren—be it from Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, or someone else.
Moreover, the DNC doesn’t have many other options. The DNC couldn’t risk giving the impression it was putting its thumb on the scale (again), and so it erred on the side of caution when setting the qualification thresholds. Democrats could have used the two-tiered system Republicans did four years ago if they wanted to ensure the top contenders were on stage together at the first debates. But doing that would have risked drawing meaningless distinctions that would have a meaningful impact on the race. Remember that the bulk of 2020 candidates are currently lucky when they find themselves polling outside the margin of error. A candidate like Jay Inslee could easily lose the 10th spot by a hair to, say, self-help guru Marianne Williamson, preemptively denying him the chance to sound the climate alarm in prime time.
The debates can feel like entertainment, especially when they are breathlessly hyped by the cable news channels that air them. But the DNC was wise to prioritize fairness over flash. They’ll be plenty of time for spectacle in the months to come.