The Democratic Party has the lineups for its first 2020 presidential debate ready — two nights, 10 candidates each night — and before anyone takes the stage, we already have a few winners and some losers.
The debates are the formal introduction of the 2020 candidates to a national TV audience. It’s the first time they’ll appear together at the same place, answer the same questions, and confront one another about their differences and why their vision for the Democratic Party’s future is the best path to beating Donald Trump.
But it’s not like the eventual Democratic nominee is going to be determined by whether Candidate X stood at a podium next to Candidate Y or Candidate Z on a balmy summer night in Miami seven months before anybody starts voting. Don’t take this too seriously.
First, the news. The Democratic debates will be spread out over two nights. The first night, Wednesday, June 26, will start at 9 pm ET and the candidates on stage will be: Sen. Cory Booker, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, former Rep. John Delaney, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, former US Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, Rep. Tim Ryan, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.
The lineup for the following night, June 27, also starting at 9 pm ET, will be: Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Kamala Harris, former Vice President Joe Biden, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Michael Bennet, author Marianne Williamson, Rep. Eric Swalwell, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper.
The Democratic National Committee drew the names by lottery, rather than opt for a hierarchical approach based on polling or fundraising as Republicans did with their huge presidential field in 2016. The random outcome gives some candidates reason to be happy; others might find themselves a little annoyed. Here are semi-serious winners and losers.
Loser: Elizabeth Warren
Warren has had a series of very good moments during 2020 forums and town halls so far. What she really wanted was an opportunity to be on the same stage as Joe Biden.
Not only is Biden the dominant frontrunner in the race, but she has some serious policy disagreements with him — notably over the 2005 bankruptcy bill Biden shepherded through Congress, and that Warren vehemently opposed back when she was a bankruptcy law professor (its passage inspired her to get into politics).
Now, chance is rerouting her to a debate stage filled with mostly lower-tier candidates including John Delaney, Tim Ryan, and Bill de Blasio — plus fellow Sens. Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar.
Sure, there will still be plenty of ways for Warren to distinguish herself. But in the end, any top-five 2020 candidate who is not Biden wanted to share a debate stage with Biden — hoping for a big moment to knock him off his pedestal.
Warren has been climbing in polls over the past month, and is now solidly in the top three with Biden and Bernie Sanders. The fact that Sanders — Warren’s main competition for progressive voters — will get that chance at the first debate and she won’t, must sting. Sanders will be able to own the populist, left-of-Biden lane without Warren muscling into the territory. Furthermore, she won’t even get a chance to face off against Sanders.
It may be inconvenient, but she likely has a chance to face off against Biden in the near future, building anticipation for that showdown.
Winner: Elizabeth Warren
Still, there’s a simple argument to made that Warren’s debate placement is Actually Good: She’s the biggest name on the first night, when excitement will be at its highest.
Warren will clearly enter the first debate of the campaign season as the star of her respective stage. She’s a solid third in national polls and has a distinct brand as the policy candidate, with more than a dozen proposals and counting. The candidates that come closest to her on the stage are O’Rourke, Booker, and Klobuchar, and they’re all lagging far behind Warren in the polls.
Not to mention, sitting back and letting Sanders and Biden duke it out — while taking copious notes to prepare for the second DNC debate — is a nice bonus for a candidate who seems to have strong momentum behind her.
Winner: Bernie Sanders
Sanders is one of many self-proclaimed progressives in the 2020 Democratic primary, but the Vermont senator has been deliberate about crafting a campaign message that mainly attacks the moderates. Lucky for him, he’s going to be on stage with quite a few of them. That includes the current polling frontrunner and the candidate Sanders is chasing: Joe Biden.
This debate will play straight into Sanders’s biggest campaign message so far: There’s no time for centrism, no time for incremental change. Sanders’s campaign started using the catchphrase #NoMiddleGround after a Reuters report quoted a Biden campaign adviser calling for “middle ground” on climate policy. The campaign has called out Colorado’s former Gov. John Hickenlooper for his centrism too; Hickenlooper gave a speech decrying Sanders’s brand of democratic socialism after the Vermont senator delivered remarks defending the ideology this week. Sanders now gets to go up against Biden, Hickenlooper and others like Bennet in one night.
(Then again, Bennet’s probably a winner in this scenario too. His fundraising campaign to get him on the debate stage was so he could argue against Medicare-for-all. Who better to argue about that with than the biggest single-payer champion of them all, Sanders.)
Sanders and Warren won’t be on stage together, which means he doesn’t have to differentiate himself from the other most prominent progressive quite yet. Instead, he will get the chance to show just how stark the ideological divide is in the field. Unsurprisingly, the Sanders campaign said it was “happy” with the roster. “This is a terrific lineup because there will be a real debate over the key set of choices in this Democratic primary,” Faiz Shakir, Sanders’ campaign manager told Vox in a statement.
Winners: Cory Booker, Beto O’Rourke, and Amy Klobuchar
If you look at the Iowa polls, these three candidates are registering some support — 3 percent on average for Klobuchar, 3.5 percent for Booker, 4.5 percent for O’Rourke — so they have established themselves as a small cut above the other also-rans. But they are still waiting for a breakout moment if their campaigns are to have any hope of living long after the first state on the primary calendar.
The second night is already overloaded with star power: Biden, Sanders, and Harris are all better-known among Democratic voters than this trio, according to Morning Consult. With this lineup, they will still get to take the stage with a top-tier candidate rising in the polls — Warren — but they will be at less risk of being drowned out by Sanders and Biden sparring.
Booker, O’Rourke, and Klobuchar still need to introduce themselves to the 20-30 percent of Democratic voters who say they have never heard of these three. They should benefit from being the biggest names on stage for the first debate night, at least outside of Warren.
Losers: Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper
Both of these Colorado centrists are running against the Democratic Party’s leftward drift — which could make it hard for either of them to distinguish themselves when they are on the same stage. They are two over-50 white guys with similar ideology, from the same state.
There’s opportunity for both of them in taking on Bernie Sanders. They want to offer an alternative to his leftist vision for the party. But they also have to share the stage with each other.
Winner (with strong loser potential): Kirsten Gillibrand
It’s a mixed bag for Gillibrand, who will be onstage alongside a bevy of frontrunners even as her own campaign has struggled to make a dent in the polls. But we choose to focus on the good news here for the New York senator.
Given how high-profile these debates will be, this could be just the opportunity she needs to demonstrate that her candidacy should be considered at the same level as a Biden, Harris or Sanders. Before jumping in the race, Gillibrand was seen as a leading contender alongside a number of her colleagues, though her campaign has floundered since its debut earlier this year. The DNC debates could be her best chance to change the narrative around her “failure to launch,” especially since she got a slot on the more star-driven of the two nights.
On the other hand, it could be tough for Gillibrand to secure a breakout moment given the top-tier candidates she’ll be competing with for much-needed screen time and attention (in theory, every candidate would only get about 12 minutes of airtime each, not accounting for commercials).
Losers: Steve Bullock, Wayne Messam, Mike Gravel, and Seth Moulton
These four — Montana Gov. Bullock, Miramar, Florida, Mayor Messam, former Sen. Gravel and current Rep. Seth Moulton — got cut from the debates. In such a crowded field, if you can’t even get on stage, that’s a tough blow.
Winner: Andrew Yang
Yang wanted just one thing: to be on the debate stage with Joe Biden so people would Google to find out who he is. He got his wish.
Loser: Indecisive voters
Lots of choices, folks. Lots of choices.
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