While campaigns for the Democratic nomination for President have been underway since late last year, the pace of the race is just starting to pick up. Elizabeth Warren is gaining traction, front runners may be stumbling and tensions are rising between candidates in what has, until now, been a largely civil and predictable six months.
On Wednesday and Thursday, twenty of the Democratic candidates will take the stage in Miami, Florida for the first debates of this primary, and an event that could come to define the upcoming months of the race.
With so many candidates, the debates will be an enormous undertaking. Here are five key things to watch for in the first 2020 Democratic debates.
1. The Kids’ Table
In the 2016 Republican primary, seventeen candidates ran for the party’s nomination. To lighten the load, networks broke the candidates up into two debates based on polling numbers, resulting in an undercard debate — nicknamed the “kids’ table.” When it became clear that the Democratic National Committee would face a similar problem in their 2020 primary, they capped the debating candidates at 20 and randomly drew names out of two boxes — one for upper-tier candidates and one for lower-tier candidates — to determine who would debate on which night.
In the end, the DNC ended up with exactly what they were trying to avoid.
Of the top five candidates — Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg — four will debate on Thursday. Warren, polling slightly ahead of Sanders for second place, will be left with a cast of relative nobodies on Wednesday.
Does this benefit Warren?
Viewership is expected to be higher the first night, regardless of who’s debating, and Warren is almost guaranteed to have the most TV time when the next-highest polling candidate is Beto O’Rourke at three percent. She should feel at home in debates, given her extensive stumping and town halls, and is very capable of creating the viral moment that so many candidates look for. Then again, the second night will dominate media coverage and candidates will benefit from seeing what worked the first night. Warren also won’t be able to draw a contrast against Bernie Sanders, a candidate vying for the same constituency on the left.
While these debates will make or break the campaign for some candidates, it won’t for Warren. But sitting at the kids’ table could dangerously slow her snowballing momentum.
2. The Faux Debate
It’s the political vocabulary everyone is accustomed to, but these primetime TV events may be debates in namesake only.
With two hours set aside on NBC for the debates on each night, expect an hour and a half of content, considering commercials. Even without hosts, each candidate would receive nine minutes of face time with viewers at home. For many lesser-known candidates — like Eric Swalwell, debating on the second night with Biden, Sanders, Harris and Buttigieg — they’ll be lucky to get three.
In that time, how much can any candidate actually debate others? How much can viewers actually learn about a candidate’s platform? Reports indicate that candidates are looking to the 2016 Republican debates to find strategies for debating in such large groups. In that sense, it may end up being a spectacle of superficialities and conflict, rather than a bonafide debate.
3. The Viral Moment
For the lower-tier candidates, that elusive viral moment is one of the paths to higher polling. Few have gotten it; Buttigieg was lucky, creating a perfect storm of media coverage after his March CNN town hall. “How could [Mike Pence] allow himself to become the cheerleader of the porn-star presidency?” Buttigieg said in his viral clip. “Is it that he stopped believing in Scripture when he started believing in Donald Trump?”
That town hall was on March 10, when he was polling somewhere between zero and two percent nationally. Around the same time a month later, he sat at seven percent nationally, and now, in Iowa, he sits at 11 percent, putting him comfortably in fourth.
Andrew Yang advanced his campaign in similar fashion, capturing a sometimes-questionable online constituency with promises of a universal basic income. Warren also saw her polling numbers jump after a clip from her CNN town hall erupted on Twitter.
Other candidates on the stage will be searching for their viral moment, hoping to catapult their candidacy in the same way. For those who are on the stage, that could be their most valuable take away from the debate.
4. The Outcasts
Then there’s those who aren’t on the stage. Some have criticized the DNC for overly lax qualifiers for the debate; to be fair, only a handful of candidates didn’t make it onto the stage: Steve Bullock, Seth Moulton, Wayne Messam and Mike Gravel.
While most eyes will be on the debates, some will be focused on who isn’t there. Bullock has already announced his counter-programming plan, appearing on local news stations in Iowa and New Hampshire on Wednesday and Thursday. Moulton, scheduling his own media event in Miami, was self-aware about the debate. “No, I’m not going to make the first debate, but I think that’s okay,” Moulton said to radio host Hugh Hewitt. “This first debate’s going to have 20 people. Folks are barely going to get a chance to speak. This is a long campaign.”
It’s unlikely that the scheduled counter-programming of the exiled candidates will drive any conversation, but they may end up better off than some of the less-noticed candidates in the debate.
5. The President
Last week, Politico published an article with the headline, “Trump’s plan for the Dem debates: Make it about him.”
The Vice President will be in Miami on Tuesday, and Donald Trump has an interview scheduled with one of the hosts of the debates in the upcoming weeks. While the debates are airing, Trump will be on Air Force One on his way to Japan, presumably live-tweeting his thoughts.
Already in this primary, Trump and his team has come out hard against some of his biggest perceived threats — namely, Biden and Warren. Watch for his reactions as the debate unfolds, and for how his media footprint could come to dominate an event about an entirely different political party.
The debates will begin at 9 p.m. Eastern on Wednesday and Thursday nights, and can be viewed on NBC News, MSNBC and Telemundo. In addition, the debate will be live streamed online on various platforms.
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