On Wednesday and Thursday, NBC News will host the first two Democratic debates for the 2020 election, in association with the re-tweaked platform rules managed by the Democratic National Committee. As Julia Azari argued recently on FiveThirtyEight, debates often have the most impact on voter preference “when voters have relatively little information about the candidates”. As the first round of debates in the Democratic nomination race, and especially for the lesser known candidates, it provides the ripe prospect of stealing the headlines through a memorable counter-attack, riposte on a policy stance, or a well-placed zinger. I’ll be doing more analysis of the debates once they’ve aired, but I wanted to offer some potential strengths and disadvantages each of the major candidates face, and what could possibly unfold.
Ex-veep Joe Biden, still leading the race by around 15 points, is going into the debates as an enviable, yet vulnerable, front-runner. However, since launching his bid, he has helped normalise the presence of more conservative Democratic candidates, which could do him some favours when it comes to going against nominees like Sen. Bernie Sanders. Prior to Biden’s lead in the race, there was an almost feverish expectation by candidates to play to the Twitter-focused, left-wing elements of the party, where, as Vanity Fair’s Peter Hamby brilliantly illustrated back in March, it was a race guided – to a somewhat unhealthy degree – by policy litmus tests dominated by only a portion of the membership. Even as a left-winger in favour of Sen. Warren and Sen. Sanders’ policies, the lack of air given to these discussions, outside of the AOC-Twittersphere, was a little concerning, and was not conducive to actually getting these policies implemented in my opinion. So Biden’s intensely moderate presence has contrastingly given some breathing space to less enthusiastically left-wing candidates, and voice to the influential, conservative section of the Democratic membership who want Trump out of office but want nothing to do with a Bolshevik like Sanders. All of this could work extremely well in Biden’s favour.
Using the debates as a means to exercise a hazy, feel-good, Obama-era nostalgia could be highly effective, and only help shore up Biden’s commendable lead in the polls. But contrastingly, it could end up going against him, and he could very likely face questions over his insensitivity over social and racial issues. To Biden’s credit, the recent spat over his relationship with segregationist politicians as a young senator has been a little unfair, and did reflect a certain naivety contemporary audiences may have expected from a veteran politician who had to negotiate legislation in the ugliness of a post-Civil Rights act Congress. But Sen. Cory Booker was right to note the insensitivity of the ex-Veep’s seemingly-affectionate recollection over his relationship with segregationist Senator James O. Eastland, with Biden remarking that, “He never called me ‘boy,’ he always called me ‘son,’”. The clear racial insensitivity of this statement drew sharp reactions from a range of Democratic politicians, such as African American presidential candidates Sen. Kamala Harris and Sen. Cory Booker. Biden’s refusal to apologise over the remark hasn’t helped things either. However, Perry Bacon Jr.’s own reaction to Biden’s remark argues that it may not have much effect on Biden’s overwhelmingly positive numbers among African Americans, and could as easily be forgotten by the time the next round of debates come along. In my opinion, what is more likely to damage Biden’s poll numbers is an all-too obvious refusal of meaningful policy during the debate, or worse, outright, joking dismissals of substantive policies put forward by the likes of Andrew Yang, Warren or Sanders. While Biden’s susceptibility to gaffes can be seen as part of his unpolished charm as a politician, I feel a refusal to at least appear as some form of change candidate will not go down well among major areas of the Democratic membership. While crystallizing his support among moderates, it could very easily damage his ability to reach beyond this demographic, and set a poor standard for Biden in his first appearance in the Democratic primary debates.
Sen. Warren, who has in recent weeks shored up a substantial number of liberal and extra liberal voters expected to go to Sanders, could gain a huge amount from her appearance in the first debate. While she will be the major frontrunner in the first debate (in terms of poll numbers), debate expectations rarely favour the lead candidates. However, Warren’s impressive rhetorical skills gives her more of an advantage against a group of candidates struggling to break 1% nationally, and the immense popularity of her policies on student debt in particular will all but guarantee her positions are a highlight of the first debate. Furthermore, her meek rhetorical approach could easily paint her as a powerful underdog that steals the debate. However, as much as Warren is potentially able to offer a more compromising approach to big policies like eliminating student debt in a way that Sanders’ more absolutist stances refuse to, she could as likely come under intense scrutiny over the financial viability of the plans, and her lack of political experience – in comparison to Sanders – could do some damage to her campaign during a live debate. Furthermore, her timid demeanour, while praised in aiding Warren when it comes to detailing policy, may fall flat in the theatrical element of a live nominee debate. Unfortunately, there is also the added issue of certain voters being less inclined towards female candidates – particularly female voters – in the same way that others are less predisposed against older candidates such as Biden and Sanders. However, like Obama’s mastery as a candidate in turning what was once seen as a political disadvantage (being African American) into a political advantage, Warren’s appearance on a major national appearance could warm sceptical voters to the idea of a female nominee. Given her current trajectory this early in the campaign, Thursday’s debate could very likely put Warren over Sanders in the national polls, but questions over her electability, or whether or not she would have a real chance against President Trump in the general election, could likewise hinder her making as much progress as her base may expect during the debate.
For Sanders, the last few months for this campaign haven’t been exactly grim, but there are a lot of warning signs that it’s not going in the direction they want. From a policy ally that the Sanders campaign could warmly embrace when she was standing in single digits, Warren has become a major threat to his bid for the White House as she is now digits away from overtaking him in the national polls. As Sean Sullivan noted on Monday, the Warren campaign’s presentation of the senator as a more reasonable, yet policy-heavy, candidate is becoming a major threat to Sanders, where in comparison to the Vermont senator, she is able to position herself as “impassioned but reasonable”. There are signs that this is worrying the Sanders campaign in the run-up to the debates, especially in its somewhat aggressive response to Politico’s coverage of Warren’s embrace by centrist Democratic think-tanks as a “compromise nominee” who would assuage fears over his own candidacy. While only the first in a round of debates, it’s beginning to feel like Sanders’ appearance on Friday’s debate could be a very significant indicator of his chances at the nomination. One saving grace that comes courtesy of the Friday night debate is that Sanders will likely dominate major portions of it by vying against and contrasting himself to Biden on Friday night, while Warren will be responding to less well-known and less experienced candidates in the separate, first debate on Thursday. It’s hard to gauge how Warren will do exactly in her first appearance as a presidential candidate, but Sanders would be in contrast well equipped for a showdown with an intensely establishmentarian candidate like Biden, given his proven chops against Hillary Clinton and his overall, highly-polished debating skills. Certainly it could be argued that it will harm Warren to not be in a debate with Sanders this time round, as they are both focusing on winning over the same liberal demographic, whereas Sanders could romp home on a strong, populist message in comparison to the painfully establishment ethos of Biden. Furthermore, there is an expectation from other candidates that the second debate could go in this direction. As The New York Times’ Alexander Burns notes in his chronicling of the candidate’ differing approaches to preparing for the debates, Sen. Kamala Harris, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg have been prepping to amplify their own policy focuses while “navigating the complicated dynamics of sharing a stage with Mr. Biden and Mr. Sanders.” For a form of political debate that can often lean towards the gladiatorial, Sanders could end up coming out of Friday’s debate as a major force, and redeem a flailing campaign. Contrastingly, Biden could successfully paint Sanders as too radical, too out of touch, and not receptive to the wider values and expectations of the membership. With Biden’s favourability ratings among Democrats equalling Sanders, he could turn out to be a far harder opponent to the Vermont senator than Clinton ever was. And, unfortunately for Sanders, the age question could factor into the debate. While Biden is only a year younger than Sanders, and as superficial as it may seem, under the intensity of such a major media appearance, and in comparison to the relatively younger looking ex-vice president, Sanders could be one curmudgeonly gesture or loud cough away from doing real damage to his campaign.
In terms of the more minor candidates, everything is to play for. The whole “progressive who gets thing done” ethos played by Hillary Clinton could be tweaked and end up being a winning strategy for the likes of Biden or Sen. Kirstein Gillibrand, and candidates like Sen. Booker could win audiences over by focusing on issues like criminal justice. Contrastingly, the mood may go for more left-wing candidates, at the expense of the likes of Biden. It may end up being a bit of a flop and do nothing to push the candidates forward in any meaningful direction. Regardless, I will be doing more coverage of the debates as they unfold later in the week.