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The DNC Tried To Avoid A Lopsided Debate. It Got One Anyway.

The lineups for the first Democratic debates — on Wednesday, June 26, and Thursday, June 27 — are out! Only 20 candidates qualified, obviating the need for any complicated tiebreakers. And on Friday, the Democratic National Committee held a two-part random drawing to determine who would debate on each night. The eight candidates with polling averages of at least 2 percent were drawn first (four debating on one night, four on the other), and then the 12 remaining candidates were drawn (six on one night, six on the other). Here are the resulting lineups for each night, as well as each candidate’s average in qualifying polls:

The second debate features more heavyweight candidates

Combined polling averages of the candidates in each of the first two 2019 Democratic debates

June 26 debate No. of Polls Avg June 27 debate No. of Polls Avg
Warren 23 8.7% Biden 23 29.9%
O’Rourke 23 5.1 Sanders 23 18.3
Booker 23 2.6 Harris 23 7.6
Klobuchar 23 2.0 Buttigieg 23 5.8
Castro 22 0.9 Yang 21 1.0
Ryan 16 0.6 Gillibrand 23 0.5
Gabbard 23 0.5 Hickenlooper 23 0.4
Inslee 22 0.4 Bennet 16 0.3
De Blasio 15 0.4 Williamson 19 0.2
Delaney 23 0.2 Swalwell 18 0.2
Total support 21.4 Total support 64.0
Average support 2.1 Average support 6.4

Candidate averages based on 23 qualifying polls sanctioned by the Democratic National Committee for determining debate qualification that have been conducted since the start of 2019. Total support does not add up to 100 percent due to undecided respondents, support for candidates who didn’t end up running for president and support for candidates who didn’t qualify.

Source: Polls

By separating the candidates into higher- and lower-polling groups, the DNC hoped to avoid a scenario where the lottery put all the top-tier candidates on the same night — effectively relegating the other debate to “junior varsity” status. (In 2016, some Republican debates grouped candidates into higher and lower tiers and put them on separate stages, a setup sometimes referred to as the “varsity” and “junior varsity” debates, which caused a lot of issues and complaints.) However, as you can see from the table, that kind of happened anyway. Four of the five highest-polling candidates (former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Kamala Harris and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg) will all debate on the same night (Thursday). Meanwhile, the four higher-polling candidates on Wednesday’s slate include Sens. Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar, who are polling either right at or just barely above the 2 percent dividing line. In total, 21 percent worth of polling support is appearing on the first night of the debates and 64 percent is on the second night.

What implications will these lopsided lineups have for the debates and the candidates in them? We don’t really know right now, but it may mean the Thursday debate, with more heavy hitters, will get higher ratings. On the other hand, being in the Wednesday debate might be advantageous for a less-popular candidate because they will now have more of a chance to step out of the front-runners’ shadows. We’ll be closely following the debates on our live blog; be sure to join us then.

Derek Shan contributed research.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Geoffrey Skelley is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.