Every analysis of the 2020 race should always come with a caveat: we haven’t even reached the first debate yet. Thankfully, in just over four weeks, we won’t have to say that anymore. On June 26 and 27, the Democratic Party will hold its first debate in Miami. In order for the many candidates to have sufficient time to speak, the Democratic National Committee will randomly bifurcate qualified candidate into groups of ten, hence the two nights.
I’ve written before that I’m not only excited for the debates, but for the process of dividing the field as well. First, I’m hoping the process is televised. I can see it playing out similar to how major sports leagues televise their drafts — dramatically and with immediate analysis from punditry. Imagine one name after another announced as we scramble to react! Please do this, DNC. I don’t ask for much.
Second, I’m curious to see how the order and combinations of candidates can affect the culture of each night’s debate — and how that culture can affect the primary moving forward.
Before I get into that, however, we should first establish who will be debating, because every candidate does not automatically qualify. (If they did, there would be 248 candidates, and counting, on the debate stages.) We already knew that the DNC’s considerably low threshold for qualifying was to either earn one percent polling in three major national or early-state (IA/NH/NV/SC) surveys OR receive donations from at least 65,000 different people. What we’ve since learned, however, was that more than 20 candidates would probably qualify via this method. With the entrances of Montana Senator Steve Bullock and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, most counts have the number of “major” candidates in the low-to-mid 20s, almost all of whom have already met a criterion. Since the DNC wants no more than 10 candidates on each night, it said that priority would be given to candidates who met both criteria, not just one. Since the number of candidates to do that sits at just 13, the DNC explained that the remainder of the 20-candidate debate field will be determined by highest polling average from candidates’ three strongest polls.
That was an unfortunately long paragraph. Fortunately, Wikipedia has a chart keeping track of who’s qualifying:
The 13 candidates with three green columns are certain to be in the debate, and we can expect to see another few candidates get triple-greened as well. The field would then be rounded out by those with the highest remaining polling that haven’t received 65,000 separate donations. We know that 20 candidates will compete, so we’re just waiting to see A) What seven will join the thirteen, and B) Similarly, what four official candidates from that chart will not be invited. (With Mike Gravel, Wayne Messam, and Seth Moulton polling so poorly, we’re probably looking at Midwestern white moderates Michael Bullock and Steve Bennet competing for the last spot, which is just as well because chances are you didn’t even notice I swapped their first names.)
All that said, let’s now turn to what to look for with the random distribution of the 20 qualified candidates across the two sets of ten. I’m not sure when they’ll finalize the field and make the distributive determinations, but when they do, I’ll be eager to get answers to these five questions:
1. Will Joe Biden be on the debate stage with Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren?
As of now, these are the top three in national polls:
Dramatically, Biden, the clear polling front-runner, is the one that doesn’t fit in the group of three; he’s the moderate establishmentarian of the leaders, whereas the other two are the progressive challengers. If Biden is on stage with either Sanders or Warren — both of whom have not been shy about their attitudes toward a centrist being a progressive party’s standard bearer — he can expect to be called out. And, if all three are on the stage, Biden could see himself ganged up on by the New England liberals in an effort to reel the leader back to the pack.
Alternatively, Biden could share the stage with neither and escape a direct conflict. Again: there’s drama just in the distribution! There’s a chance that Biden and Sanders — the two clear polling leaders since the 2018 midterms ended — won’t even share a debate stage at the June or July debates. Imagine the tension building throughout the summer.
2. Will Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren be on the stage with each other?
If Biden doesn’t see either Sanders or Warren in a Miami debate, that means the latter two will necessarily be on the same stage. That in itself is a fascinating pairing. Though they’ll surely each throw rocks at Biden from a safe distance of 24 hours, they’ll also need to contend with each other. After all, they’re going after comparable voters: progressive caucusers in Iowa, New England neighbors in New Hampshire, and lefty liberals across the country. Throughout this pre-primary season, I keep warning they can’t both do well, as they severely limit each other’s upside. The best chance for either to succeed is for the other to flame out; only then would they have the 30 to 40 percent support they would need to start running away with the nomination through the primary process.
Therefore, it makes just as much sense for them to attack their fellow New England liberal as it does the moderate Biden, as it’s unlikely moderate Biden voters would abandon him for one of them. They can’t beat the moderate wing of the party if the left is divided.
3. What other interesting combinations will we be given?
I’ll focus on my top eight (the “major planets”), since I see them as the most realistic contenders for the nomination. Besides the Biden/Sanders/Warren combinations, I’m also looking forward to these possibilities:
Beto-Buttigieg-Bernie: The killer Bs find themselves locked in a war over young, white voters. Sanders’s numbers fell when O’Rourke’s rose, then O’Rourke’s numbers fell when Buttigieg’s rose, as did Sanders’s. The reason is that their voters have played a bit of musical chairs. All three struggle to make deep inroads with older or minority voters, so we’ll see them competing against each other for everyone else.
Warren-Harris-Klobuchar: Coming off the “Year of the Woman” in a party that was nearly 60 percent female in its last primary, many pundits expected strong performances from four heavyweight female Senators. One of those four was Kirsten Gillibrand, who might not even make the debate. If she doesn’t, we can expect a month of her complaining about the requirements — though they were laughably low — in an effort to convert that into making the second debate. If that doesn’t work, she’ll fold the campaign.
Senators Warren, Harris, and Klobuchar are competitive, but they’ve been dwarfed in the polls by a couple of old white men (Biden and Sanders), and they had to stand by as the media took turns obsessing over a couple young ones (O’Rourke and Buttigieg). Even Warren, whose running in third, has numbers half the size of second place Sanders, who in turn has numbers have the size of first place Biden. I’ll be interested to see if any of these four women find themselves as the sole female on one of the debate stages, which will allow her to shine a bit. In a party that’s mostly female, the lucky lady could be on a stage that’s 90 percent men. One can’t help but think the many Democratic women watching will pull for her.
Booker-Harris: The field’s two African American candidates will rely on the South Carolina Primary as a springboard to Super Tuesday and beyond. We can expect them to lean into issues important to blacks — income inequality, prison reform, and reparations. If they’re on stage together, they may have to differentiate in some way and perhaps stake out a more progressive or louder stance on each. On separate stages, however, they won’t have to work as hard and could therefore hold back and not worry about scaring off moderate whites.
The non-big-eight: I’ll be interested to see the tactics of all the candidates polling around one percent. Do they go after each other at all? Do they go after the leaders? How will they make a splash?
4. Will one night tip more heavily progressive/outsider, and the other more moderate/establishment?
We could presumably see one night of debates that is mostly comprised of the relatively moderate Biden, Beto O’Rourke, Amy Klobuchar, John Hickenlooper, Michael Bennet, Steve Bullock, and Tim Ryan, while the other night is mostly comprised of the progressive Sanders, Warren, Kamala Harris, Andrew Yang, Eric Swalwell, Tulsi Gabbard, and Bill de Blasio. Or, there could be a near even mixture each night.
What fascinates me is how these varying compositions will affect the conversation each night. If the two nights are relatively segregated, with one crew trying to appear more moderate and electable than their night’s opponents while the other is trying to outflank each other’s left, then that will set important precedents for future debates and the primary. The eventual top contenders in the primary season may find themselves chained to these early words when it’s time to shift toward creating a consensus.
Alternatively, if each night is relatively mixed, then in what direction will each night move? Will both fields get pulled left, pulled to the center, or will it be one of each? And how will that then affect the primary conversation as a whole? In a primary season that’s slated to be a referendum on the soul of the party, the first debate can offer the first real glimpse of what way it’s headed.
5. Finally, who will go on the first night, and who on the second?
Here is an unprecedented consideration in modern political debates: is it better to go on the first night or the second? Barring most of the top candidates being randomly assigned to the second night, it stands to reason that the first night will have more viewers, as by the second night many viewers might be sick of the politics. That means each of the first night’s candidates will have a larger audience to which they can make their case.
On the other hand, any candidates that get attacked on the first night (read: Joe Biden) will be able to almost freely rebut on the second night after 24 hours of preparation. In the reverse scenario, anyone who goes first but gets targeted on the second night will be left defenseless until the next debate. If it were me, I think I’d prefer Night Two.
So many questions. Now let’s just hope they televise the first ever “Debate Draft”!