The PPFA First Debate Preview

Tonight and tomorrow, twenty Democratic candidates will try to outline their vision for America in one-minute increments. If that sounds outrageous, keep in mind that they’ll also be afforded 30-second follow-ups. So, plenty of time.

Not totally unlike their predicament, Presidential Politics for America couldn’t possibly deliver a full preview for a two-night debate between so many candidates, so I’ll instead strive to give you a big picture preview of what you can expect and what I’m most anticipating. Though the two debates will be a veritable smorgasbord of unsalted talking points, there are some dishes that will be worth at least a taste.

Below, I’ve listed a handful of questions, most of which have answers.

First, here’s a reminder of the two sets of debaters. The first ten square off tonight, the second tomorrow night.

Debate 1

Debate 2

1. What’s a one-line summary of what we can expect to hear from each candidate on the first night?

  • Bill de Blasio: “I was a progressive before being a progressive was cool.”
  • Tim Ryan: “The Trump economy has left the working class behind, just like the polls have done to me.”
  • Julian Castro: “Dear Latinos. It’s me. Julian Castro.” 
  • Cory Booker: “Solving problems requires a lot of energy, AND BOY DO I HAVE ENERGY!”
  • Elizabeth Warren: “I have a plan for that.”
  • Beto O’Rourke: “You realize I almost won a statewide Texas race as a Democrat, right?”
  • Amy Klobuchar: “All my answers tonight should just refer you to this piece from Presidential Politics for America.”
  • Tulsi Gabbard: “War is bad.”
  • Jay Inslee: “It’s great to be here in Miami before this whole city is under water.”
  • John Delaney: *taptap* “Is this thing on?”

2. What’s a one-line summary of what we can expect to hear from each candidate on the second night?

  • Marianne Williamson: “Something something spirituality something something heal America something.”
  • John Hickenlooper: “Socialism is not the answer!”
  • Andrew Yang: “I have three words and one hashtag for you: UNIVERSAL. BASIC. INCOME! #YangGang”
  • Pete Buttigieg: *Something in Norwegian*
  • Joe Biden: “Can’t we all just get along and not attack whoever’s leading the polls right now? Oh, is that me? I had no idea. Total coincidence. Anyway, I suppose we should just settle for me then.”
  • Bernie Sanders: “He’s a centrist, she’s a moderate, he’s a neoliberal, she’s a part of the establishment, capitalism sucks, polls suck, Nate Silver sucks, the media sucks, you suck.”
  • Kamala Harris: “Do you see how I look and how smart and confident I sound? How am I not 20 points up?”
  • Kirsten Gillibrand: “All the ladies in the house say yeah!”
  • Michael Bennet: “I am absolutely one of this field’s best two over-50 white male moderate candidates from Colorado.”
  • Eric Swalwell: “I think I have John Delaney’s mic.”

3. Those were easy. What’s less predictable?

I’m curious to see who lights their proverbial hair on fire to get noticed. In a field of this size, where most candidates average under one percent in the polls, desperate times call for desperate measures. On night one, I could see Gabbard go after Booker or Klobuchar over Senate votes, or Inslee scare us all to death so climate change doesn’t kill us instead, or John Delaney literally light what’s left of his hair on fire. (I’ve lost most of my hair so I’m allowed to make that joke.)

On night two, I don’t think a desperate strategy can be deployed by Williamson, who will rely on a sort of even keel persona, but we could see Hickenlooper pick a fight with Sanders over democratic-socialism, Swalwell lambaste President Trump on any number of issues (as he does with the most regularity on Twitter), or the entire field throw jabs at the front-running Biden.

4. Speaking of the possibility of Biden-bashing, what’s more likely — a circular firing squad or a Democratic night of Kumbaya?

This is part of the unpredictability. Any number of the above attacks could reasonably take place, but, if I had to guess, I think a relatively reserved approach is more likely. Drinking alcohol is obviously bad for you, but if you insist on a drinking game to get through these debates, one of your categories should be to take a drink any time one of the candidates says some iteration of “Any of my fellow candidates would make a better president than Donald Trump.”

Remember, all these candidates have qualified for the second debate already, so none of them are too desperate, and they might even risk total alienation if they break the Democratic version of Reagan’s Eleventh Commandment. I’d say we’re more likely to hear explicit attacks between the second and third debate, when debate qualifications get twice as stringent. Although tonight we’re likely to hear veiled phrasing like, “We need a new generation of leadership,” or “Old politics won’t fix new problems,” or “If you’re old enough to remember the Truman Administration, you’re probably too old to lead this party and this country,” I doubt tonight is the night for direct shots.

5. Talk about Joe Biden?

(Technically, that’s a question.) As the man dominating the polls, Biden deserves special attention. Some of these candidates are better suited to debates than others. I expect we’ll be underwhelmed with most of the field, including Biden. Though the polling favorite executed memorable VP debates against Sarah Palin and Paul Ryan, his primary debates have never been too compelling — evidenced by him twice failing to become a serious contender for his party’s nomination. As I noted on Monday, how voters react to his Eastman gaffe and first debate performance will go a long way toward determining his status as favorite. If he’s still in the mid-30s a week from now, it’ll be evidence that his supporters don’t care much for progressive purity tests or the Twittersphere exploding at a moderate candidate’s mistakes. It would then be revealed that he’s a strong favorite for the nomination. If, however, his polls start to dip into the 20s, we’ll have a new favorite. In that scenario, my hunches are Warren or Harris will become co-favorites with him, depending on debate fallout.

In sum, we might end up learning fairly soon just how much the 2020 Democratic Primary will resemble the 2016 Republican contest. Indeed, about six weeks ago I wrote out a mostly silly exercise comparing each 2020 Democrat with a 2016 Republican. I ventured that Biden’s 2020 support mirrors Trump’s in 2016:

“Both had more partisan members of their party guaranteeing these foes would fall apart once people realized they didn’t represent the party’s values. Both had the longevity of their polling leads doubted, but over time they both pulled/are pulling away from the field. Both get a disproportionate amount of TV coverage; though much of it is critical, any kind of attention seemed/seems to embolden their own supporters while crowding out all opponents. Both claim they can be potent candidates in crucial rust belt swing states thanks to their appeal to older, working class swing voters without a college degree. Both were charged with personal impropriety, and both sets of supporter said We. Don’t. Care.”

This analysis has really bore out since then. Similar to the week after accusations of inappropriate physical contact with women, another week of bad press has apparently not dented Biden’s popularity — and in fact might be strengthening his supporters’ resolve. Two national polls conducted over the last week and released yesterday had Biden at 38 and 34 points, both stronger than his 32-point Real Clear Politics average from a week ago. This is exactly the kind of stuff that happened to Trump. An overzealous media, in concert with incredulous ideologues on the internet, eat up entire news cycles talking about how the candidate can’t survive these developments… and then he does. His supporters roll their eyes, as do some on the fence who decide to line up behind him instead of against, and then we repeat the process six weeks later.

I have to admit, it does “feel” like Biden’s support is unsustainable in the modern Democratic Party. You may have picked up on progressives confidently saying some version of, “Just wait until people see his record and what he stands for compared to the field.” But that’s exactly how it “felt” four years ago with Donald Trump. “Just wait until people see him on a debate stage,” we said, or “Just wait until his moderate past catches up to him in a conservative party.” It never happened.

Of course, the Democratic Party is not the Republican Party, and Democratic candidates also have the benefit of learning from the 2016 GOP, so by no means will history necessarily repeat itself.

6. Besides Biden, who are we talking about on Thursday and Friday morning?

Biden, Sanders, and Warren, as the three clear polling leaders, will get their performances dissected by the media and highly engaged voters, but I’m more interested in the potential “surge” candidates. I think the five debate performances that will be most discussed are:

  • 5. Buttigieg: If Buttigieg were polling in the 1 to 3 point range, I’d put him at the top of this list. He’s going to be awesome — well-spoken, sincere, gregarious. But he’s already surged. It’ll be hard to climb even more, particularly with high expectations.
  • 4. Yang: A thousand dollars a month to every American, regardless of feasibility, will be sure to draw a lot of interest.
  • 3. Harris: She’s going to sound sharp and ready for a general election fight. Harris is going to make a huge run soon. You’ve been warned.
  • 2. O’Rourke: He has tremendous positive energy, which I think Democrats are craving right now.
  • 1. Booker: But in the category of “energy,” no one can match Cory Booker.

7. Can we also expect a PPFA post-debate analysis?

Don’t get greedy.


3 thoughts on “The PPFA First Debate Preview”

  1. There will be so much live tweeting and live blogging from other outlets, I don’t think it’d be worth the effort. (Could I say the same about maintaining this website in general? Yes, Just about every single day.)


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