The Slatest

The Democratic Party Didn’t Want an “Undercard” Debate. It Got One Anyway.

Elizabeth Warren speaks at the Iowa Democratic Party's Hall of Fame Dinner on June 9, 2019 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Elizabeth Warren speaks at the Iowa Democratic Party’s Hall of Fame Dinner on Sunday in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Late last year, facing the prospect of 20-odd candidates running for the Democratic presidential nomination, Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez decided not to host an undercard (or “kids’ table”) debate for the lowest-polling candidates, as Republicans did with their broad field in 2016. Instead, the debates would be split across two nights with the lineups determined by random draw.

With the first debates scheduled for June 26 and 27 in Miami, the twin lineups were announced on Friday by NBC News, the network that will moderate the multiday festival.

The debaters on the first night will be Sen. Cory Booker, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, ex-Rep. Beto O’Rourke, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, ex-Rep. John Delaney, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, former HUD Secretary Julian Castro, Rep. Tim Ryan, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.

The lineup for the second debate will include Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Kamala Harris, Sen. Michael Bennet, author Marianne Williamson, Rep. Eric Swalwell, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper.

So while the DNC might not have wanted an undercard debate, the draw delivered them one anyways. Four of the top five leading contenders for the nomination, per both national and early state polls, will be on the same stage the second night: Biden, Sanders, Buttigieg, and Harris. Meanwhile, Warren will be the only top-tier contender debating the first night. After drawing the two groups, according to BuzzFeed, NBC determined that the Sanders-Biden group would debate the second night to “maximize viewership.” It is the main event regardless of Perez’s best intentions.

The most immediate question following the draw centered on Warren, whose polling position has improved over the last month to a solid third place. There are cases to be made that the draw was either beneficial or detrimental to her.

Warren will be the only top-tier candidate in her debate, which gives her a chance to lord over her lesser competitors. She can remain above the fray that may ensue in the second debate, where other candidates could be pulled into doing the dirty work of assailing the current pack leader, Biden. Warren will also get a night of coverage mostly orchestrated around her.

But it could also be a night of coverage that’s immediately forgotten, because it’s just an appetizer for what comes 24 hours later. It would, you’d think, be beneficial for Warren to be among the leading candidates, since she is one. The attention paid to, say, the jousting between Sanders and Biden should dwarf all other storylines from the two-night saga.

More broadly from a viewer’s perspective, though, the way this worked out just seems unnecessarily odd. It’s very Democratic Party, in the sense of a well-meaning idea borne out of fairness concerns turning flat-out weird upon execution. Following vocal complaints against the DNC by supporters of Sanders—including by the candidate himself—that the process had been unfair to the Vermont senator in 2016, the DNC wanted to have each candidate be able to debate on equal footing this time around to avoid the impression that they were “rigging” the contest. But now there’s a situation where a top-tier candidate with the most momentum in the field will be debating John Delaney instead of the candidates who matter. Perhaps they could have done a poll-based seeding, where the No. 1 and No. 4 candidates participated in one debate and the No. 2 and No. 3 were in another, with random draws for the rest. Or something. Another idea: They could have just put all of the top contenders in the same debate.

Maybe it will all end up being good for Warren, maybe it will end up being bad for her. But why is it happening at all?