WASHINGTON -- Democrats announced Tuesday that they plan to hold six official debates between Democratic candidates seeking the presidential nomination in 2016.
Beginning later this fall, each of the debates will be held in one of four early primary and caucus states: Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.
“Our debate schedule will not only give Democratic voters multiple opportunities to size up the candidates for the nomination side-by-side, but will give all Americans a chance to see a unified Democratic vision of economic opportunity and progress – no matter whom our nominee may be," Democratic National Committee Chair Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz said in a statement.
The DNC said its goal was to make the debates "as appealing and accessible as possible" and include "key civic groups." The events will also include diverse "media outlets, moderators and formats."
Any candidate who decides to participate in the debate process must agree to do so exclusively, making them ineligible to participate in any debates organized by third-party groups. If candidates deviate from this rule, they lose the ability to take part in any remaining debates hosted by the Democratic Party.
A senior adviser to one 2016 campaign told The Huffington Post that the exclusivity clause came as a "complete shock." Officials from the DNC, the adviser said, had assured all likely Democratic presidential campaigns when negotiations over the debate schedule began months ago that no such clause would be used. The adviser further argued that holding only six debates would be disadvantageous to candidates who have relatively low name-recognition across the country.
DNC Communications Director Mo Elleithee acknowledged that the clause wasn't a part of the early negotiation process, but maintained that all options were left on the table. He further argued that voters would ultimately be best served by a controlled debate schedule.
"We wanted to have a manageable number that would still allow for real debates but that was a little more manageable than in past years, and we were going to explore different options and we left everything on the table," Elleithee said. "And so when you’re doing something like this, when you’re trying to coordinate something like this, yeah, not everyone’s going to love the outcome."
The party held six debates during the 2004 and 2008 presidential cycles as well. But while those years saw many candidates seek the party's nomination, this coming cycle will notably feature fewer and less notable candidates. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is seen as the frontrunner, with wide leads over current and likely challengers including Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (I), former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb and former Rhode Island Sen. Lincoln Chafee.
Responding to the announcement on Twitter, Clinton suggested that she was on board with the DNC plan.
"While GOP debates the same failed policies, Democrats will debate how to help families get ahead. Looking forward to a real conversation," she said.
O'Malley's camp, however, took issue with the DNC's new exclusivity rule.
"If Governor O'Malley decides to run, we will expect a full, robust, and inclusive set of debates -- both nationally and in early primary and caucus states. This has been customary in previous primary seasons. In a year as critical as 2016, exclusivity does no one any favors," said Lis Smith, the governor's spokeswoman.
The first GOP primary debate of the 2016 presidential election will be held in August. The Republican National Committee has officially sanctioned nine debates through March 2016, with two more pending.
This is a developing story and has been updated.