Democratic Party presidential debates

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Since 1983, the Democratic Party of the United States holds a few debates between candidates for the Democratic nomination in presidential elections during the primary election season. Unlike debates between party-nominated candidates, which have been organized by the bi-partisan Commission on Presidential Debates since 1988, debates between candidates for party nomination are organized by mass media outlets.

Party presidential debates are typically not held when an incumbent president is running for a second term.

List of debates[edit]


On May 21, 1956 in Miami, FL,[1] Former Illinois Governor Adlai E. Stevenson and Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee debated on the ABC Television network. It was moderated by Quincy Howe.


On May 5 of that year, just prior to the 1960 West Virginia Democratic primary, Senators John F. Kennedy (D-MA) and Hubert Humphrey (D-MN) debated in Charleston.[2] Kennedy won the primary and Humphrey dropped out.

Later, at the National Convention, Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas challenged Kennedy to a televised debate before a joint meeting of the Texas and Massachusetts delegations; Kennedy accepted. Most observers felt that Kennedy had won and Johnson was not able to expand his delegate support beyond the South.


Senators Bobby Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy engaged in a television debate on ABC's Issues and Answers a few days before the California Primary; it was generally considered a draw. This would be the last time there would be this few debates in years without an incumbent.


The first "regular" presidential debate took place in Manchester New Hampshire two days before the March 7th primary. The five candidates on the ballot, Democratic front-runner Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine faced long-shots Senators George McGovern of South Dakota and Vance Hartke of Indiana; Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty and a certain Edward T. Coll, who waived a rubber rat.[3]

Muskie's lackluster performance helped doom his campaign, and boost McGovern to top tier status.

There were no further debates until May, when McGovern debated Former Vice President Hubert Humphrey one-on-one. There was also a multicandidate debate with five candidates (Shirley Chisholm, a Mr. Hardin(substituting for a wounded George Wallace) Humphrey, McGovern and Yorty) participating.[4]


The campaign was unusual as there were no front-runners, or in fact any well-known candidates at all. The first debate took place in Boston MA on February 23, with Birch Bayh, Jimmy Carter, Fred Harris, Henry M. Jackson Milton Shapp, Sargent Shriver and Mo Udall[5] Participating.

A second, a month later, had Carter, Frank Church, Harris, Jackson and Udall on the panel. And in May, with now-front runner Jimmy Carter boycotting, Church and Udall participated in a third.


Despite repeated calls by Massachusetts Senator Edward M. Kennedy, President Jimmy Carter refused to debate.


With President Reagan's poll ratings in the dumpster in the spring of 1983, a full dozen major candidates announced for the Democratic nomination.

A series of debates began on January 15 in New Hampshire, with Ruben Askew, Alan Cranston, John Glenn, Gary Hart, Fritz Hollings, Jesse Jackson, George McGovern and Walter F. Mondale on the panel. Later, the field was winnowed down to just Mondale, Hart and Jackson.

Hart was badly hurt during a televised debate when former Vice-President Walter Mondale used a popular television commercial slogan to ridicule Hart's vague "New Ideas" platform. Turning to Hart on camera, Mondale said that whenever he heard Hart talk about his "New Ideas", he was reminded of the Wendy's fast-food slogan "Where's the beef?". The remark drew loud laughter and applause from the audience and caught Hart off-guard. Hart never fully recovered from Mondale's charge that his "New Ideas" were shallow and lacking in specifics. Earlier in the same Democratic primary debate, Hart committed a serious faux pas that largely went underreported. Asked what he would do if an unidentified airplane flew over the Iron Curtain from a Warsaw Pact nation, Hart replied that he would send up a United States Air Force plane and instruct them to determine whether or not it was an enemy plane by looking in the cockpit window to see if the pilots were wearing uniforms. Fellow candidate John Glenn, a former Marine Corps fighter pilot, replied that this was physically impossible.

At a roundtable debate between the three remaining Democratic candidates moderated by Phil Donahue, Mondale and Hart got in such a heated argument over the issue of U.S. policy in Central America that Jesse Jackson had to tap his water glass on the table to get them to simmer down.


In the most chaotic primary to date, the series for the first time began in the year before the election. The first debate took place on July 1, 1987, over a full year before the convention. This had Bruce Babbitt, Joe Biden, Mike Dukakis, Dick Gephardt, Al Gore, Jesse Jackson and Paul Simon on stage.

Before the year had ended, Biden was out, and former front-runner Gary Hart was back in the race. All in all there would be twelve debates.


Wishing to keep things manageable, it was decided to hold the first debate (of 14)[6] in December 1991. It took place on the 15th with Jerry Brown, Bill Clinton, Tom Harkin, Bob Kerrey, Paul Tsongas and Douglas Wilder on the platform. Wilder would soon drop out.

The debate was marked by protests against moderator Tom Brokaw of NBC by candidates he had excluded Perennials Eugene McCarthy and Lenora Fulani; as well as minor candidates former Irvine, California mayor Larry Agran, Billy Jack actor Tom Laughlin, and others) unsuccessfully took legal action in an attempt to be included.

The fifth debate of the 1992 season was held on February 23, 1992 in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Moderated by CNN correspondent Ken Bode and co-hosted by South Dakota Public Broadcasting, candidates Brown, Clinton, Tsongas, Agran, Harkin and Kerrey debated the economy, agriculture, healthcare, the environment and Native American issues.

Kerrey would win the SD primary, only to be wiped out by Clinton on Super Tuesday.

Later on, during the final debate in Buffalo, NY on March 21, Perennial candidate Eugene McCarthy would be allowed to participate along with Clinton, Agran and Brown.[7]


The last of nine Democratic presidential debates was held on March 1, 2000 between Vice-President Al Gore and New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley at the Harry Chandler Auditorium in Los Angeles. It was moderated by CNN anchorman Bernard Shaw, co-sponsored by CNN and the Los Angeles Times, and paneled by Jeff Greenfield and Ron Brownstein. The candidates largely agreed with each other on gun control, abortion, gay rights, and policy towards China, but differed in regards to Gore's record in the Senate on abortion and other issues.


With President George W. Bush unpopular due to the war in Iraq, "debate season" began earlier than ever before.

On May 3, 2003, Democrats met at the University of South Carolina, located in Columbia, South Carolina, in the first formal debate between the nine challengers for the 2004 Democratic party presidential nomination. Candidates Howard Dean, John Edwards, Dick Gephardt, Bob Graham, John Kerry, Dennis Kucinich, Joe Lieberman, Carol Mosely Braun and Al Sharpton disagreed on the war against Iraq, health insurance, and even President Bush's tax cuts, but unite in criticizing Bush's handling of the economy.

Later, Wesley Clark would join the group for a total of ten debates before the end of the year.

There would be six debates between New Year's Day and Super Tuesday. With Gephardt and Dean bludgeoning each other out of contention and allowing Kerry to sweep the primaries.


With President Bush more unpopular than ever, Debate season started earlier than ever before, on April 26, 2007, in Orangeburg, South Carolina.

Eight Democrats (Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Chris Dodd, John Edwards, Mike Gravel, Dennis Kucinich, Barack Obama and Bill Richardson) had formally filed papers with the Federal Election Commission, and were invited to participate. Twelve debates took place in 2007 and by the end of the year Dennis Kucinich withdrew, and Mike Gravel, had defected to the Libertarian Party.

Christopher Dodd and Joe Biden dropped out of the race following the Iowa caucuses, which was also the earliest ever held, Bill Richardson dropped out after the New Hampshire primary and Edwards after South Carolina's.

There would be seven debates during 2008, four of which would be between the two survivors, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.


The Democratic National Committee (DNC) announced on May 5, 2015, that there would be 6 debates, which they considered "a reasonable number and in line with what the national committee sanctioned in 2008."[8] On August 6, 2015, the DNC announced the locations for all six original debates, with exact venues still to be determined, and the specific dates for the first four debates.[9]

In late January 2016, trailing the New Hampshire primary race, the Clinton campaign requested a second New Hampshire debate, which had already been scheduled to February 4, to be officially sanctioned by the DNC. The Sanders campaign said they would only agree with that proposal if a total of four additional debates would be held, one in February, March, April and May each. Both campaigns agreed to a March 3 debate in Flint, Michigan. There also seemed to be agreement on a California debate on May 24, but not at the remaining April 14 debate in Brooklyn, New York, as proposed by Sanders.[10] On February 3, just ahead of the second New Hampshire debate, Clinton's and Sanders's campaigns agreed in principle to holding four more debates, also sanctioned by the DNC, for a total of 10.[11]


On December 20, 2018, Tom Perez, the chairman for the Democratic National Committee, announced the preliminary schedule for a series of official debates, set to begin in June 2019.[12] In order to qualify, debate entrants must either attain 1% in three polls (conducted by different pollsters if within the same region) — at the national level or the first four primary states (Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina) — or by meeting a fundraising threshold, in which a candidate must receive donations from 65,000 unique donors, with at least 200 unique donors per state in at least 20 states.[13]

The polling threshold will be determined using polls published after January 1, 2019 up until two weeks for the scheduled debate among polls commissioned or conducted by a limited set of organizations: the Associated Press, ABC News, CBS News, CNN, The Des Moines Register, Fox News, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Monmouth University, NBC News, The New York Times, National Public Radio, Quinnipiac University, Reuters, the University of New Hampshire, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and Winthrop University.[14]

The debates will be limited to 20 candidates, with preference given to those who "double qualify" (have passed the 65,000 and 1% marks).

As of May 24, 2019, thirteen candidates have double qualified for inclusion: Joe Biden, Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, Julián Castro, Tulsi Gabbard, Kamala Harris, Jay Inslee, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O'Rourke, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Marianne Williamson and Andrew Yang.[15]

Candidates the DNC has announced will appear on stage at the 1st Primary Debate (as of June 13, 2019)
Joe Biden Cory Booker Pete Buttigieg Julián Castro Tulsi Gabbard
Joe Biden 2013.jpg
Cory Booker, official portrait, 114th Congress.jpg
Pete Buttigieg in February 2019.jpg
Julián Castro's Official HUD Portrait (cropped).jpg
Tulsi Gabbard, official portrait, 113th Congress (cropped 3).jpg
Kamala Harris Jay Inslee Amy Klobuchar Beto O'Rourke Bernie Sanders
Kamala Harris official photo (cropped).jpg
Jay Inslee official portrait (cropped 2).jpg
Amy Klobuchar, official portrait, 113th Congress (cropped 2).jpg
Beto O'Rourke, Official portrait, 113th Congress (cropped 3).jpg
Bernie Sanders.jpg
Elizabeth Warren Marianne Williamson Andrew Yang Michael Bennet Bill de Blasio
Elizabeth Warren, official portrait, 114th Congress (cropped)(2).jpg
Marianne Williamson - 33252886458 (cropped).jpg
Andrew Yang talking about urban entrepreneurship at Techonomy Conference 2015 in Detroit, MI (cropped).jpg
Michael Bennet Official Photo (cropped).jpg
Bill de Blasio 11-2-2013.jpg
John Delaney Kirsten Gillibrand John Hickenlooper Tim Ryan Eric Swalwell
John Delaney 113th Congress official photo (cropped) 2.jpg
Kirsten Gillibrand, official portrait, 112th Congress (cropped).jpg
John Hickenlooper by Gage Skidmore.jpg
Rep. Tim Ryan Congressional Head Shot 2010 (cropped 3).jpg
Eric Swalwell 114th official photo (cropped).jpg

The first round of debates will take place on June 26 and June 27 in Miami.[15]

See also[edit]


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  8. ^ Preston, Mark (May 5, 2015). "First on CNN: Clinton, Democratic presidential opponents to debate six times".
  9. ^ Wasserman Schultz, Debbie (August 6, 2015). "Announcing the Democratic Debate Schedule".
  10. ^ Gabriel Debenedetti; Hadas Gold (January 30, 2016). "DNC moving to assert control as more Democratic debates agreed". Politico. Retrieved March 30, 2016.
  11. ^ Greg Sargent (February 3, 2016). "It's on: Looks like we're getting four more Democratic debates". Washington Post. Retrieved March 30, 2016.
  12. ^ Johnson, Ted (December 20, 2018). "DNC Announces Plan for 12 Presidential Primary Debates; First Slated for June". Retrieved December 20, 2018.
  13. ^ David Siders (February 14, 2019). "DNC announces fundraising, polling thresholds for early debates". Politico. Retrieved February 14, 2019.
  14. ^ "DNC Announces Details For The First Two Presidential Primary Debates". Democratic National Committee. February 14, 2019. Retrieved March 5, 2019.
  15. ^ a b Strauss, Daniel (2019-05-24). "Jay Inslee hits 65,000-donor threshold to make the Democratic debates". Politico. Retrieved 2019-05-26.