Debate Night Cheat Sheet: Round Three
We hope you're enjoying your day and are debate night ready ahead of tomorrow night's showdown in Houston, Texas. It's the 3rd Democratic debate and things are bound to get spicy.
So where are we at in the race? Well, there are still 20 candidates vying for the party's nomination, but only 10 have qualified for this week’s debates. Why you ask? Because the DNC imposed stricter criteria for candidates to make it to the debate stage (everyone had to procure donations from 130,000 people and earn 2 percent support in four qualifying polls by August 28th).
Naturally, DNC Chairman, Tom Perez, has faced some backlash for his decision to raise the qualifying bar, most notably from disgruntled candidates who haven’t made the cut. Amongst them is Colorado Senator, Michael Bennet, who accused the new DNC process of “stifling debate at a time when we need it most.” Meanwhile, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, said the new rules had turned the primary into “The Hunger Games...each step of this seems to be all about getting donors.”
But some candidates left off of the stage this time around will, or may, qualify for the October debate. Tom Steyer, billionaire former hedge-fund manager and environmental activist, has just qualified; army veteran, Tulsi Gabbard, is within two polls of meeting the polling criteria, having already met the donor qualification; and spiritual author, Marianne Williamson, is channeling her supporters to try and make it through.
For now though the chosen 10 head to Houston tomorrow evening, where we can watch them say their piece between 8-11pm EDT. There's a lot riding on these debates so we've put together a quick cheat sheet to guide you through the evening's events.
1. Two on One?
There may be ten people on stage, but this is the first time that Biden will appear alongside both Warren and Sanders together... The former Vice President is still leading in most polls (averaging around 29.7% vs Warren at 18.0% and Sanders at 17.5%), but up against the full force of the party’s progressive wing, will he be subject to constant attack? Biden is the clear frontrunner, but is he a weak one? Thursday evening could be very revealing. Also note, Sanders and Warren dominated the first night of debates in Detroit, with considerably more speaking time than their opponents, as did Biden the following evening. This time around, who will hold court and who will get edged out?
2. Blow it up or Back in Time?
The substantive aspect of the Biden vs Sanders/Warren match-up is about policy. And there really is a significant difference in policy positions being offered to Democratic primary voters. Biden embraces the return to an Obama era policy doctrine, calling for more moderate, measured and incremental change, while Warren/Sanders say the system is corrupt, run by big business and special interests, and against the people. Their policies, from healthcare, to taxes, to immigration, represent the progressive side of the party. Which position will be better articulated during the debates, and which will resonate most with viewers?
3. Does the truce hold?
Warren and Sanders were on stage together at the last debate, and have supported each other both personally and on key policy issues throughout their respective campaigns. During the first debate, when the two appeared on separate nights, Warren notably made a point of saying ‘I’m with Bernie’ when discussing such topics as Medicare-for-all. There has been a lot of reporting suggesting that although they share policy positions, and are about even in the polls, they actually appeal to different demographics and therefore don’t compete with one another. But, as the race tightens will the truce hold? If Warren’s momentum begins to stall she may want to capitalize on her poll lead and distinguish herself from her progressive competitor.
4. Texas Hold’em
There are seven other candidates on stage. Of those, Harris has the highest average polling number at around 7% (Buttigieg at 4.3% is her closest rival). So how do any of the others score a breakout moment that has legs? Harris came close in the first debate by catching Biden off balance, but she couldn’t hold onto the bounce in support she received afterwards (she surged, momentarily, to second in the polls, but has since dropped back to fourth).
It seems unlikely that, at this stage, policy pronouncements are what’s going to help these candidates gain momentum - these debates are often about style over substance after all. So the best strategy may well be to just stay in the game and hope that as the primaries wear on, the electability of the top 3 begins to fade (e.g. don’t fold, wait for the next card, and hope to draw the inside straight).
5. Friday morning headlines
The debate moderators want to be provocative and some candidates may feel a need to make headlines. One way to do that is to stake out progressive credentials with bold policy pronouncements. That strategy may help an individual candidate, but could undermine the Democrats as a whole. We have seen candidates' stake out policy positions much further to the left than would have been imagined two years ago, on issues like healthcare, immigration, and climate control. Will they continue with this lurch to the left in a bid to win the support of primary voters?
6. ‘It’s electability stupid’
James Carville, Bill Clinton’s advisor, famously said ‘Its the economy stupid’ when summing up the factor that would determine a senatorial election in 1991, and Clinton’s campaign in 1992. For the Democratic primaries, many are suggesting that voters will go with the candidate they think has the best chance of beating Trump. If that’s true, expect personal attacks to be on the rise and for style, presence, and demeanor to be on full display in Houston as candidates seek to prove they’d be the best challenger to Trump.
7. Is it a unified ‘big tent’ or just an aggregation of varied interests?
Alongside the question of electability is not just who can deliver moderate voters but also who can unify the Democratic Party after the primary is over? If a moderate gets the nomination, will progressives be disillusioned and stay home? If it’s a progressive candidate, will moderates and independents be scared off? Which candidate looks most credible as a party ‘unifier’ this time around?
8. How important is an early front-runner status?
Not really, according to previous election cycles. Take for example 2004. Eventual Democrat nominee, John Kerry, was still lagging behind in fourth place (polling at around 7%) as late as January of election year. He finally pulled ahead after winning Iowa, New Hampshire and a slew of other contests on Super Tuesday, which propelled him to first place and increased his support to 53%. Similarly, in the 2008 election, Clinton was the Democratic frontrunner all the way up until January. Obama didn’t pull ahead until February, when he won a number of post-Super Tuesday contests and overtook her in the delegate count, before finally becoming the nominee.
So what to make of it all?
It's set to be an interesting night for sure, with policy differences, especially those between Biden and Warren/Sanders, key to voters considering where to throw their support. Policy stances too will be important as Democrats consider the question of electability.
Biden is the current frontrunner, but he has to convince voters that he really is the safest choice against Trump after relatively poor performances at the last two debates, and various missteps and gaffes on the campaign trail since. It may be that he just seems too old for the job. Then it's Warren and Sanders. Can they appeal to progressives while avoiding alienating more moderate Democrats? And who comes across best? And then lastly, do we end up with a surprise, breakout star? We shall see.
The Democratic candidates taking to the stage:
Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar
New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker
South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders
Former Vice President Joe Biden
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren
California Sen. Kamala Harris
Entrepreneur Andrew Yang
Former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke
Former HUD Secretary Julián Castro
The Democratic candidates still running
not on stage:
Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio
Former Rep. John Delaney, D-Md.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii
Miramar, Florida, Mayor Wayne Messam
Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio
Former Rep. Joe Sestak, D-Pa.
Former HeTom Steyer
Author Marianne Williamson
The Republican candidates running:
President Donald Trump
Former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld
Former Illinois Rep. Joe Walsh
Former Governor of South Carolina, Mark Sanford
Candidates who have withdrawn:
New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand
Former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel
Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee
Former West Virginia Sen. Richard Ojeda
Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Ma.
Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Ca.
Words by: Jim Cowles and Emma-Louise Boynton
Editing by: Jim Cowles, Stacy Perez, Charlotte Cowles and Emma-Louise Boynton