Debate Night Cheat Sheet

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By Jim Cowles & Emma-Louise Boynton

Ten key things to look out for during the debates


The first Democrat debates are taking place this Wednesday and Thursday in Miami. There are 20 candidates overall - that's 10 per night jostling for position over 90 minutes. So what should we be looking out for? Can any candidate really score a commanding win with so many on stage? We've put together a debate night cheat sheet to give you some useful pointers on what to look out for while watching.

Young or old - Does age matter?

  • There is a 40 year age gap between the youngest candidate (Buttigieg at 37) and the oldest candidate (Sanders at 77 years). But does this impact how they perform on stage? Do Biden (76) and Sanders look ‘too old’ and lacking in energy, or do they look like they have a maturity and wisdom that the younger candidates lack? If elected, Sanders or Biden would be the oldest President when taking office in U.S. history, while Buttigieg or Gabbard (currently 38) would be the youngest.

Insider or outsider - Does experience matter?

  • Some of the candidates have no political experience whatsoever, like former tech-entrepreneur, Andrew Yang. Some have prosecutorial experience, like Senators Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar, while others have executive experience, like Former Colorado Governor and Denver Mayor, John Hickenlooper and former Mayor of Newark, Senator Cory Booker. And then there’s frontrunner Joe Biden, who was President Barack Obama's vice president for eight years following a 36-year-long career in the US Senate.

  • Something to bear in mind: a ‘sitting’ U.S. Senator has never beaten a President running for re-election.

Staged or Impromptu - Can the candidates think on their feet?

  • In one of the 2016 Republican Presidential debates, Former New Jersey Governor and then-Presidential hopeful, Chris Christie, accused his opponent, Marco Rubio, of giving ‘canned responses’ and delivering "a memorized 25-second speech" every time he was asked a question. So, do the Democrats on stage answer the questions asked or give the standard ‘stump’ speech? It’s a matter of showing not just mental dexterity but also of being authentic.

Style or substance - which one wins?

  • Senator Elizabeth Warren ‘has a plan’… for everything. The Massachusetts senator has the reputation as the party’s resident ‘wonk’ (aka policy nerd), continuously churning out comprehensive policy proposals. And although she’s not the only major candidate running with an expansive body of White Papers behind her, she is the candidate offering the most detailed proposals, spanning the broadest swathe of issues. But how will this wonkishness translate on the debate stage, with the soundbite time limits given to each candidate to explain their views?

  • Remember: during his 1988 run against future President George H.W. Bush, former Massachusetts Governor, Michael Dukakis’s, wonkish answer for objecting to the death penalty was said to destroy his ‘humanity’.

Liberal, progressive or (democratic) socialist?

  • Do labels come up? And how much consensus is there around what such terms as 'socialist' actually mean? Senator Bernie Sanders is the only candidate who identifies as a ‘democratic socialist’. But from Medicare-For-All to the Green New Deal, a growing number of candidates are supporting more ‘socialist’ policies, although remain keen to distance themselves from the label, like Elizabeth Warren who insists: I am a “capitalist to my bones.” So how will the candidates identify themselves on debate night?

  • It is worth noting that socialism has become far less scary to younger voters, who haven't come of age in the context of the Cold War. According to a recent Gallup poll, among Americans aged 18 - 29, 51% had positive feelings about socialism, compared to just 45% who felt the same way about capitalism. Will this impact how the candidates portray themselves? Whose votes are they focusing on winning?

Who delivers the winning soundbite?

  • It's an overcrowded field of nominees. So who will deliver the soundbite that goes viral - the Ronald Reagan ‘there you go again’ comment to Jimmy Carter, or the Trump ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan - that makes them stand out amongst the crowd?

Any gaffes?

  • The first rule for these debates is: don’t score an ‘own goal’. Gaffes can seriously impact a race and shift momentum. So, do any of the candidates appear bored? Like President George H.W. Bush when he was ‘caught’ looking at his watch while debating Bill Clinton in 1992, just at the moment he was asked whether the national debt had affected him personally…. Does anyone look uncomfortable? Like Nixon who appeared sweaty and unshaven during the first televised debate with John F. Kennedy? People who listened to the debate on the radio that night thought Nixon had won, while those who watched it on TV thought Kennedy had won. Who knew? Appearances matter.

Is Trump on stage?

  • He won’t be there, but his presence will be felt. Everyone wants to appear tough on Trump, but how far will they go? Who will support impeachment? Senator Harris, who believes impeachment proceedings should begin, recently referred to this as the ‘existential question’ within the Democratic party.

  • Note: President Trump has said he may live-tweet the debates… will he end up capturing the media’s attention and redirecting focus to his own narrative?

Civil discourse or Game of Thrones?

  • Is this a lively but respectful debate, or all-out warfare amongst the candidates? Do the attackers look desperate or strong? Do the attacked look weak or handle the assault with aplomb? The ability for a candidate to handle an attack could be important to Democrat primary voters if you consider Trump’s attack on ‘low energy Jeb’ Bush, ‘little Marco’ Rubio, ‘lyin Ted’ Cruz and ‘crooked Hilary’ Clinton.

  • It’s unfortunate that this may matter, but then Presidential politics has been a rough ‘sport’ from the start. In 1800 Thomas Jefferson’s supporters said John Adams acted like a hermaphrodite, while Adam’s supporters contended that under a Jefferson presidency “murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest would be taught and practiced’.

Do you switch to Netflix?

  • The 2016 Republican primary debate, featuring 10 candidates, was the most watched ever with 24 million viewers. How will these debates compare? Do the candidates keep you engaged, or is the whole thing a bore? At the end of the day, that’s what matters.