Well, they’re finally here: the first Democratic presidential primary debates of the 2020 campaign.
Spread out over Wednesday and Thursday nights, the top 20 Democratic candidates (yes, there’s more than that) will duke it out in the first real face-to-face meeting of the 2020 campaign. Thus far, it’s been a relatively tame affair as candidates have crisscrossed early primary states—schmoozing with party officials, shaking hands with voters, and standing on furniture. Now they’ll have to share a stage together and try to stand out from the rest of the pack.
Here’s some of what we’ll be watching for in this week’s debates:
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren has shot up in polls in recent weeks, putting her neck and neck with fellow progressive Sen. Bernie Sanders, although both are still trailing former Vice President Joe Biden by some distance. But in the first round of debates, Warren got the short end of the stick; she’s headlining the Wednesday night debate, where the most notable candidates she’ll be debating are Sen. Cory Booker and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, both of whom have badly underperformed expectations so far. (The debate lineups were randomly chosen in a draw.)
This could be a blessing in disguise for Warren, as it could give her a chance to shine on a stage where not many other candidates are getting a lot of traction. But Warren won’t get a chance to go toe to toe with Biden, the frontrunner and her nemesis for decades, in front of a national audience.
It’s also unclear whether other candidates will go after Warren in the debate as a proxy frontrunner. As we’ve seen in past presidential primaries, long-shot candidates can use these debates to their advantage to attack frontrunners and show much they stand out from the rest of the pack. But will candidates like O’Rourke and Booker and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee go after Biden, the true frontrunner as it stands, or Warren?
The second night of debates has no shortage of heavy hitters, including Biden, Sanders, Sen. Kamala Harris, and South Bend, IN, mayor Pete Buttigieg. Along with Warren, these four make up the top five in most national polling of the race so far.
The most closely-watched part of the Thursday night debate, however, is going to be between Sanders and Biden, who most clearly represent the ideological struggle ongoing in the Democratic Party. Sanders preaches democratic socialism, Medicare for All, and a political revolution to redistribute wealth; Biden is running a campaign based on supposed moderation and unity, and has been reportedly telling wealthy donors that “nothing would fundamentally change” for them if he was in power. Both candidates also consistently occupy two of the top three spots in polls so far.
On the other hand, both Sanders and Biden are likely to be the most frequent target of attacks on the debate stage, with candidates running to Sanders’ right and Biden’s left looking to make a name for themselves. Harris and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper are two names to watch; Harris is a Medicare for All cosponsor who has criticized Biden for his recent comments about his segregationist friends, while Hickenlooper has focused much of his attacks so far on Sanders’ embrace of socialism, to not much success.
There are going to be 20 candidates on the stage, but let’s face it: we don’t care that much about the large majority of them. No offense to Tim Ryan or John Delaney or Michael Bennet or Julián Castro or even—sorry—Kirsten Gillibrand, but they’re not the reason people are tuning into these debates, and if they stay where they are in the polling, this could be one of the last chances they have to make their case before a large national audience. So, as we said earlier, you can bet they’ll be trying to make as big a splash as possible. Whether through headline-courting attacks on big beasts like Biden and Sanders, or attempts at viral monologues about policy, people will be pulling out all the stops in an effort to break off from the losers pack and clamber up the ladder.
The 2016 debates were as notable for what didn’t happen as what did. Among other things, abortion barely featured in the primary debates, and climate change was almost completely ignored in the general election rounds. Since there have already been high-profile bust-ups about both topics in the 2020 primary, you can be sure they will come up in these debates, though the Democratic National Committee notably rejected the idea of a debate focused entirely on climate change. But what about under-covered topics like education, housing, and urban policy? What about war and militarism? What about political and constitutional reform? There are—sigh—so many things wrong with America, so there’s no shortage of stuff to get into.
The primary has, thus far, been relatively sedate; people have mostly focused on elevating themselves, not trying to tear other candidates down. But that can’t last forever! Eventually, you have to actively beat other people, and the debates are the first time any of the candidates will be, as it were, in the ring with each other, and there is a lot to discuss. So will they mix it up, or will they hang back? Will they try to look like the “adult in the room,” or will they really criticize each other? Will Kamala Harris suddenly turn on Bernie Sanders? Will Joe Biden try to take down Pete Buttigieg? Will Tulsi Gabbard take a pop at Bill de Blasio? (OK, maybe that last one is not anything to think about.) Whatever the case, this marks a new, more intense, and more interesting phase of this endless campaign. There’s no going back.