Only on CNN does it take an hour to separate 20 candidates into two nights of presidential debates.
After a legion of complaints from the 2020 campaigns and the Democratic National Committee about NBC’s closed-door drawing to determine the lineups for the first set of debates last month, CNN will turn its selection process into a prime-time special, which will air Thursday at 8 p.m.
The drawing, hokey as it may seem as live television programming, will be a high-stakes event. Next week is likely to be the last time many of the candidates will appear on a presidential debate stage in this election cycle. And the first set of debates proved that drawing a successful contrast with an opponent can provide rocket fuel for a campaign.
Just six of the race’s 24 candidates have qualified for the September debate. The rest are hoping for a breakout moment in next week’s debates or elsewhere to power a grass-roots fund-raising boom and new support in polls.
Who qualified for the second set of debates?
The same candidates who participated in the first set of the debates, with one exception: Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana will replace Representative Eric Swalwell of California, who ended his campaign last week.
CNN has divided the 20 candidates into three tiers. Each will be split, with half the candidates from each tier debating in Detroit on July 30 and the other half on July 31.
The tiers, which reflect the candidates’ positions in the polls, are as follows. The drawing for the tier with the lowest-polling candidates will take place first.
First draw: Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado, Mr. Bullock, Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City, former Representative John Delaney of Maryland, Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, former Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado, Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington, Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio and Marianne Williamson, a self-help author.
Second draw: Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., former Housing Secretary Julián Castro, Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, former Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas and Andrew Yang, a former tech executive.
Third draw: Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., Senator Kamala Harris of California, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
Who didn’t make the cut?
Once again, Representative Seth Moulton of Massachusetts and Mayor Wayne Messam of Miramar, Fla., failed to report 65,000 donors and did not receive 1 percent support in three qualifying polls.
How will the drawing work?
It’s a little complicated.
The names of the candidates in each tier will be written on cards and placed into three separate boxes. A CNN personality will draw a card with a candidate’s name, then draw a second card from another box that will indicate the night the candidate will debate.
To maximize the drama, CNN will take a commercial break in between the drawing for each tier. Mr. Cooper and Mr. Blitzer, along with an assembled panel of commentators, will provide analysis along the way.
Seriously, why are there two sets of boxes?
The candidate box is easy enough to understand. But while NBC simply alternated debate nights as a network official drew names during its drawing last month, CNN added an extra step.
The network may have set itself up for some anticlimactic moments with this two-box business. Once half of the candidates from a tier have been assigned to one night, the remaining candidates in the tier will be guaranteed to debate on the other night. That means some of the drawings could end up getting cut short.
How will the second debates differ from the first?
CNN announced last week that it will forbid the sort of raise-your-hand questions that led to a stage of Democratic presidential candidates announcing their support for extending federal health insurance benefits to undocumented immigrants.
CNN will also not ask down-the-line questions like NBC, which asked each candidate to provide one-word responses to the same query.
(Mr. Biden on Monday poo-pooed the NBC format. “I’m not doing any more raise-your-hand questions,” he told an audience in Des Moines.)
The network also said it will penalize any candidate who “consistently interrupts” by reducing the amount of time he or she is allowed to speak.
Given the obvious benefit of interrupting to draw contrasts with debate opponents, it remains to be seen how effective this rule will be.
What lessons did candidates learn the last time around?
An onstage attack, skillfully delivered, can turn a struggling candidate into one on the rise.
Ms. Harris raised nearly one-third of her campaign’s second-quarter fund-raising total in the week after she attacked Mr. Biden during the June debate.
Mr. Castro said Sunday that his campaign had accrued 60,000 donors since he went after Mr. O’Rourke’s immigration position — enough to push Mr. Castro past the 130,000-donor threshold to qualify for the September debate. (He has yet to meet the polling requirement.)
Mr. Castro, during an interview on Sunday in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, said his first debate performance put him “on a lot more radar screens and a lot more lists of people’s three or four top candidates.”
Other candidates, he said, will likely be prepared to emulate his success when they gather in Detroit.
“As you move up,” he said, “you’re probably more subject to potential attacks.”
Matt Stevens contributed reporting.