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The next Democratic debate will feature a much smaller stage

Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders will be onstage in Washington, DC, for the 11th debate of the primary.

Senator Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden stand onstage behind podiums with their arms raised.
Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden at the 10th Democratic debate in South Carolina on February 25, 2020.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Believe it or not, there are still more Democratic debates: After three in quick succession in February, the next debate — No. 11 — will take place on this Sunday, March 15, in Washington, DC.

The debate will be co-hosted by CNN and Univision and is two days ahead of a busy election night, when Arizona, Florida, Illinois, and Ohio vote. CHC Bold — a political action committee affiliated with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus — has partnered with the Democratic National Committee (DNC) for the debate. The debate starts at 8 pm ET and will run for about two hours; Dana Bash and Jake Tapper of CNN, along with Ilia Calderón of Univision, will moderate.

The debate was originally scheduled to take place in Phoenix, Arizona, which is one of four states holding a primary on March 17. However, the DNC announced change of venue Thursday amid a worsening coronavirus outbreak in the US, and there will no longer be a live audience or post-debate spin room.

DNC communications director Xochitl Hinojosa also released a statement regarding Sunday’s debate:

“Out of an abundance of caution and in order to reduce cross-country travel, all parties have decided that the best path forward is to hold Sunday’s debate at CNN’s studio in Washington, D.C., with no live audience.”

Univision’s Jorge Ramos was originally announced as a moderator, but has been replaced by Calderón after being “possibly” exposed to the coronavirus.

To qualify, candidates will need to have earned at least 20 percent of all delegates available from the primary so far. Right now, that means only two candidates have qualified: former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders.

The new debate criteria also mean that it’s all but impossible for Rep. Tulsi Gabbard to qualify. While she’s technically still in the race, she’s won just two delegates so far and hasn’t been a factor in the race for a while.

The new qualifying standard represents a stark change from past debates, where only a single delegate was enough for candidates to make the stage. Candidates were also able to qualify for previous debates by meeting a polling threshold; a fundraising requirement to appear on stage was done away with earlier this year.

As Super Tuesday results rolled in on Tuesday night, Hinojosa tweeted that “of course the threshold will go up” ahead of the March debate.

“By the time we have the March debate, almost 2,000 delegates will be allocated,” she said. “The threshold will reflect where we are in the race.”

The March debate (probably) won’t be the last. The DNC’s plan calls for 12 debates in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, with the last on a yet-to-be-announced date in April.

A smaller field of candidates

From the ninth Democratic debate to the 10th, the debate stage actually grew, from six candidates to seven. That’s not going to happen this time: Since the debate in South Carolina, five candidates — former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg; Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar; and billionaires Tom Steyer and Mike Bloomberg — have bowed out of the race, leaving the Democratic field at just three.

Of those three, only two — Biden and Sanders, the two frontrunners for the Democratic nomination — will be on stage, and that could make for an eventful debate.

After outperforming expectations on Super Tuesday, Biden is firmly back in contention for the nomination with a consolidated moderate lane behind him. With California still counting votes, it’s still unclear whether he or Sanders holds the lead in delegates, but it’s unquestionably a two-man race, and the reduced debate stage could give both candidates plenty of chances to take each other on directly.

So while there are still a few unknowns, we can certainly look forward to a smaller — and probably much punchier — debate.

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