But instead of entering the getting-serious phase of the race for the nomination, the Democratic National Committee, television networks and candidates themselves are bracing for a long haul—starting with the strong likelihood that enough candidates will qualify to require the debates to be split up again. Already nine candidates have secured spots for the Sept. 12-13 forum in Houston, and several others appear poised to qualify. At most, 10 candidates are expected to appear onstage together and a spokesperson for the DNC did not clarify how the group would be divided over two nights if more than 10 qualify. A recent DNC memo also granted the campaigns more time to qualify for the subsequent October contest, meaning that even more could potentially participate in the debates deeper into the fall.
Party officials and some campaign veterans insist that a crowded debate stage (or even two) isn’t an altogether bad thing. Many point out that voter engagement picks up much later in the fall, and argue that the eventual nominee will emerge battle-tested from a prolonged nomination process. At a minimum, party leadership will avoid the criticism that they got in 2016, when it was perceived that they tried to smooth things out for Hillary Clinton.
But there is also growing anecdotal evidence that Democratic primary voters are increasingly exhausted with the large field. And privately, some campaigns have grown eager to have the top-tier candidates onstage alone with each other, so as to showcase their direct policy contrasts.