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The next Democratic debate is only 8 days away

Like debates? We have some good news for you.

Bernie Sanders on a television screen on the debate stage as people look on.
Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders at the Democratic debate in Iowa in January 2020.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Emily Stewart covered business and economics for Vox and wrote the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

Democratic debates are hitting rapid-fire as the 2020 primary unfolds. Next up: Wednesday, February 19, in Las Vegas. And given how rapidly the race has shifted after voting in Iowa and New Hampshire, the stakes are going to be high.

The Democratic National Committee’s scheme for the debates in January and February is tied to the order of primary voting. Ahead of the Iowa caucuses, there was a debate in Des Moines, and before the New Hampshire primaries, a debate in Manchester. Now, we have the Wednesday Las Vegas debate and the Nevada caucuses on Saturday, February 22, and then a debate in Charleston, South Carolina, on Tuesday, February 25, before the primaries in the state on Saturday, February 29.

NBC News and MSNBC will host the Las Vegas debate, marking NBC’s third go at Democratic debates this election cycle.

The lead-up to the Las Vegas debate is already dramatic, due to the DNC’s decision to switch up qualifying rules around individual donations. For prior contests, the committee required that candidates surpass a specific number of individual donors in order to make the stage. This time around, they’re scrapping it, paving the way for self-funding billionaire Mike Bloomberg to make the stage.

Now, candidates have to hit either a delegate or polling threshold: They have to have landed at least one pledged delegate for the Democratic National Convention out of Iowa or New Hampshire, or they have to get either 10 percent or more support in at least four national, South Carolina, and/or Nevada polls, or 12 percent or more in two state polls in South Carolina and/or Nevada. Polls that take place between January 15 and February 18 will be considered.

Thus far, former Vice President Joe Biden, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Sens. Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren have qualified. But Bloomberg, who is not competing in Iowa or New Hampshire but who is rising in the polls, could get there soon.

As Vox’s Katelyn Burns pointed out, candidates on and off the debate stage — and in and out of the race — have raised some concerns about the DNC’s rule change that appears to benefit Bloomberg, especially given the committee’s refusal to alter its criteria in the past when candidates asked:

“To now change the rules in the middle of the game to accommodate Mike Bloomberg, who is trying to buy his way into the Democratic nomination, is wrong,” Jeff Weaver, a senior adviser to Sanders, told the New York Times. “That’s the definition of a rigged system.”

Entrepreneur Andrew Yang — who has advocated for relaxing the requirements before, albeit to encourage diversity on the debate stage — made an even more pointed critique.

Yang accused the party of not only tailoring the debate criteria to include the billionaire, but suggested Bloomberg has tried to avoid the scrutiny debates can bring. “The truth is I don’t think Mike particularly wants to debate,” he said in a tweet late Friday.

The other candidates who haven’t yet qualified for the Nevada debate but who are still running are Tulsi Gabbard, Deval Patrick, and Tom Steyer.

If it feels like this is moving fast, it’s because it is

As a political reporter who very much enjoys her nights and weekends — especially Friday nights and Saturdays — I feel confident saying that the debate and primary schedule this month is pretty intense. (Though voting on weekends is good for democracy!)

And it doesn’t slow down once February ends. We’ve got Super Tuesday on March 3 and plenty of other primaries after that where a good chunk of delegates are up for grabs.

The contest isn’t just ramping up logistically — on the debate stage, on the campaign trail, and elsewhere, elbows are getting pretty sharp.

By the time the Las Vegas debate rolls around, we’ll have results from Iowa and New Hampshire, but there will still be a lot of the race to play out. Bloomberg has essentially skipped the first four primary states, meaning we won’t really get a sense of his impact in the race until March. And it’s still unclear how both top-tier and lower-tier candidates plan to fight this out.

But Las Vegas is a fun place, so at least there’s that. Maybe it’ll bring a candidate or two some luck.

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