Next Democratic Debate Will Have 12 Candidates Onstage, the Most Ever

It’s official: Biggest. Debate. Ever.

The next Democratic presidential primary debate, on Oct. 15 in Westerville, Ohio, will feature a super-size lineup of a dozen candidates onstage at once, party officials said on Wednesday.

Never before have so many presidential candidates shared a single stage in a primary debate, according to political historians who keep track of such things.

Eleven Republicans appeared together in September 2015 at a debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California. And lineups of 10 candidates have been relatively common in recent campaign years.

But the 12-candidate milestone had yet to be reached, setting up a challenge for the event’s moderators, the CNN anchors Erin Burnett and Anderson Cooper and the national editor of The New York Times, Marc Lacey.

[What question would you ask the Democratic candidates? Our debate moderator wants your suggestions.]

The Ohio debate, on the campus of Otterbein University, will feature the 10 candidates who appeared at last month’s matchup in Houston. In addition, Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii and Tom Steyer, a billionaire and former hedge fund investor, qualified to appear, the party said.

Candidates had until 11:59 p.m. on Tuesday to meet the Democratic National Committee’s requirements: amassing 130,000 individual donors and receiving 2 percent support in at least four qualifying polls.

The number of hopefuls sharing the stage is on the rise, but the overall field has grown smaller. Earlier this year, 20 candidates qualified for Democratic debates in Miami and Detroit. The party split those events into two nights, so that a maximum of 10 candidates appeared together.

This time around, Democratic officials opted for the jumbo format to ensure that viewers could see the party’s top presidential contenders face off.

The 12-candidate format is likely to generate more than a few moments of cross talk and interruptions, particularly as lower-polling candidates seek a possible last opportunity to break out in front of a national audience.

But for party officials, the alternative formats carried drawbacks, too. One option — dividing the candidates across two nights — might have separated the leading candidates through a random drawing. Splitting the candidates by polling performance, as the Republican Party did for its initial round of 2015 debates, would likely have prompted criticism about unfair treatment.

The Oct. 15 debate will broadcast on CNN from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. Excluding commercials, explanations of the rules and closing questions, it is expected to have a running time of less than two and a half hours.

Television audiences remain deeply invested in the 2020 race, judging from recent ratings. One of the Miami debates, hosted by NBC and Telemundo in June, drew 18.1 million viewers, a record viewership for a Democratic primary matchup. Last month’s debate in Houston, broadcast by ABC News and Univision, surpassed 14 million viewers, the second-highest audience on record.

The candidates appearing at this month’s Democratic primary debate are:

Reid J. Epstein contributed reporting.

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