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Is Six Democratic Debates Too Few?

Sen. Bernie Sanders and any other Democrat who challenges Hillary Clinton for the party’s 2016 presidential nomination will have at least six high-profile chances to put a dent in her armor. The Democratic National Committee has called for six sanctioned debates in the 2016 primary season. That might seem like a small number given that the Republicans debated 20 times during their 2012 primary, but recent years have seen an explosion of unsanctioned debates.

Primary Debates
1980 6
1984 11
1988 22 7
1992 12
1996 7
2000 9 13
2004 15
2008 25 21
2012 20
2016 6 9

Prior to 2008, most presidential primaries saw 15 debates or fewer.1 The one exception was the 1988 Democratic primary, which had 22 — enough to spur the Democratic National Committee to push candidates to show up to only sanctioned debates.

That’s what most interesting about the DNC’s decision this cycle: It calls for the the same number of sanctioned debates Democrats scheduled in the 2004 and 2008 election cycles. It’s also the same number of sanctioned debates Republicans tried to schedule in the 2012 cycle. With so much media interest, and with candidates wanting to get their message out, the actual number of debates has exceeded the number of sanctioned debates in every election since at least 2004.

Sanctioned debates are exactly what they sound like. They are hosted by the parties themselves, and the parties set the rules for who is included and who isn’t. In previous years, the DNC allowed candidates to take part in unsanctioned debates, where the rules and participation requirements are set by the groups that sponsor them.

Will Clinton end up debating in non-sanctioned debates? That’s what usually happens, but it looks less likely this time for two reasons. In previous years, there wasn’t a penalty for showing up in non-sanctioned debates. This year, the DNC is threatening to bar candidates who participate in unsanctioned debates from the sanctioned ones. Also, Clinton is the strongest nonincumbent front-runner in the modern era. She has less incentive to put herself out there and make a potentially fatal mistake.

Six sanctioned debates is in line with recent history, but we’ll have to see if the candidates try to break with the DNC.


  1. Democratic numbers before 2000 are taken from numerous unofficial sources. I welcome any corrections to the data.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.