The Democratic presidential candidates debate on CNN
The Democratic presidential candidates debate on CNN

This week, twen­ty Democ­rats will once again face each oth­er in two con­sec­u­tive nights of debates. The stakes are high for all the can­di­dates, as this is like­ly the last oppor­tu­ni­ty the major­i­ty of them will have to make a good impres­sion on the elec­torate; the polling and dona­tion require­ments for the third debate – set to take place in mid-Sep­tem­ber – are sig­nif­i­cant­ly high­er than the first two rounds of debates, pro­hib­i­tive­ly high for the many can­di­dates polling at 1% or under.

The debates, host­ed by CNN, will take place in the Fox The­atre at the cen­ter of Detroit at 8 PM East­ern (5 PM Pacif­ic) on the nights of July 30th and 31st.

So, what should view­ers expect from this round of debates?

First­ly, there will be a lot of sim­i­lar­i­ty to the first round of debates, on June 26th and 27th. The cast of char­ac­ters lin­ing up to impress the Amer­i­can pub­lic is the exact same as last time, with the very minor sub­sti­tu­tion on the first night of Gov­er­nor Steve Bul­lock, replac­ing Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Eric Swal­well of Cal­i­for­nia, who has already dropped out of the race (and will run for reelec­tion to the House.)

Like last time, the debates are like­ly to be very noisy. With ten can­di­dates on stage per night – at least two thirds of whom are high­ly like­ly to be exclud­ed from the Sep­tem­ber debate – there will be a real scrap for each per­son to make his or her pitch, to get in a great sound-bite, or land a good punch on one of the front-run­ners – any­thing to make sure they get noticed and, hope­ful­ly, gain support.

The risk of sim­ply fad­ing into the back­ground is very real; in the last debate Andrew Yang (one of the least-expe­ri­enced can­di­dates) man­aged to get less than six hun­dred words in edge­ways, dis­ap­point­ing many who want­ed to hear about one of the most rad­i­cal eco­nom­ic plat­forms in mod­ern politics.

Look­ing at the night-by-night line up, it seems clear that one thing to expect from the debates is some­thing that cable tele­vi­sion loves – con­flict. CNN have placed can­di­dates with each oth­er in a way that seems guar­an­teed – espe­cial­ly with the mod­er­a­tors stir­ring the pot – to pro­duce clash­es of pol­i­cy and personality.

On Tues­day night, two sep­a­rate con­flicts are like­ly to erupt.

First­ly, the two lions of the Amer­i­can left, Bernie Sanders and Eliz­a­beth War­ren, have a chance to com­pete direct­ly with one anoth­er for the sup­port of pro­gres­sive Democ­rats (in June, they were billed on dif­fer­ent nights).

Sanders and War­ren reput­ed­ly agreed to a “non-aggres­sion pact” ear­ly in the cam­paign to avoid frac­tur­ing the pro­gres­sive wing of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, but there are hints that the “pact” may be under strain – Sanders’ cam­paign have tweet­ed anti-estab­lish­ment mes­sages that have been inter­pret­ed as a sub­tle dig at Warren’s warmer rela­tions with pow­er­ful fig­ures in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party.

Tues­day night will reveal if the pro­gres­sive pact has frac­tured. CNN’s mod­er­a­tors will cer­tain­ly be push­ing for the two to be at each oth­ers’ throats, since cable news often views con­flict as a bet­ter dri­ver of view­er­ship than content.

How­ev­er, such a intra-pro­gres­sive bat­tle is by no means a certainty.

Sanders’ sup­port­ers have always been more aggres­sive and crit­i­cal of his rivals than the man him­self. Giv­en the choice, Bernie may well choose to avoid crit­i­ciz­ing War­ren – just as he chose to avoid crit­i­ciz­ing Hillary Clin­ton over her email scan­dal in 2016 – even if some pun­dits believe it could cost him.

For her part, War­ren has a great deal of momen­tum, where­as Sanders has stalled in the polls. A strate­gic view of the sit­u­a­tion would call for her to con­tin­ue her cor­dial rela­tions with Sanders and slow­ly sap his support.

To attack Sanders – who is viewed as a hero by many pro­gres­sives (includ­ing her own sup­port­ers) for his quixot­ic 2016 cam­paign – would be a tac­ti­cal blun­der, incit­ing Sanders’ fero­cious­ly loy­al base against her needlessly.

The oth­er clash like­ly to hap­pen is between two rel­a­tive new­com­ers to nation­al pol­i­tics: May­or Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, and for­mer Texas rep­re­sen­ta­tive Beto O’Rourke. Both men are seek­ing to fill out a par­tic­u­lar niche in this pri­ma­ry cam­paign: both are young white men, new to the nation­al polit­i­cal stage, who hope to appeal to both pro­gres­sives and par­tial pro­gres­sives with­in the party.

The prob­lem for O’Rourke and Buttigieg is that there is only a small amount of room in the elec­torate for this kind of can­di­date, and not enough room for two of them. The kind of sup­port­ers both men attract most – young, white and bicon­cep­tu­al – make up a tiny part of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic elec­torate, only 12.4% accord­ing to ana­lyst Nate Sil­ver. While that might be big enough to form the base of a win­ning coali­tion, it isn’t enough to share with anoth­er can­di­date (by com­par­i­son, the pro­gres­sives over whom War­ren and Sanders are com­pet­ing make up between a quar­ter and a third of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic electorate).

The stakes are par­tic­u­lar­ly high for O’Rourke; the “Beto Boom” of his ear­ly cam­paign has gone bust at an alarm­ing pace, and he has watched Pete Buttigieg’s cam­paign eat into his own sup­port. That’s got to sting Beto on a per­son­al lev­el as well as a polit­i­cal one, and may increase the like­li­hood of a clash.

How­ev­er, the biggest, most inevitable fight won’t come until the sec­ond night.

The biggest dra­ma of the June debates came when Sen­a­tor Kamala Har­ris elo­quent­ly dis­sect­ed Joe Biden’s record on deseg­re­ga­tion – point­ing express­ly to his recent remarks about big­ot­ed U.S. sen­a­tors and his stance on school bus­ing in the 1970s – leav­ing the for­mer-Vice Pres­i­dent to waf­fle his way through a thin and unim­pres­sive defense. He round­ed of a ram­bling response with poten­tial­ly sym­bol­ic words: “Any­way, my time is up. I’m sorry.”

In Wednes­day night’s debate, a high­ly-charged rematch is inevitable: After her suc­cess­ful assault on Biden, Har­ris saw her polling num­bers rock­et up; sens­ing a chance to up his own poll num­bers, New Jer­sey Sen­a­tor Cory Book­er has sig­naled that he will also con­front Biden on mass incar­cer­a­tion; for his part, Biden has told sup­port­ers that, “I’m not going to be so polite this time.

The sec­ond night of the debate includes every non-white can­di­date in the field (Har­ris, Book­er, Tul­si Gab­bard, Julián Cas­tro, and Andrew Yang), so the inevitable argu­ment over race could, this time, turn into an all-against-one brawl.

This could be exac­er­bat­ed by the pres­ence of Bill de Bla­sio and Kirsten Gilli­brand, nei­ther of whom are afraid to make pow­er­ful ene­mies.

How­ev­er, the debates will not whol­ly be defined by the can­di­dates, as much as they prob­a­bly would like to think so.

The loca­tion of the debates could be a key fac­tor in the kinds of issues raised. Detroit is a city that has had, to say the least, a rough time of it in the past few years. Pover­ty, eco­nom­ic malaise, vio­lent crime, polit­i­cal mis­man­age­ment and cor­rup­tion have all blight­ed the city for decades.

More­over, in 2016 the State of Michi­gan was one of the for­mer­ly Demo­c­ra­t­ic Great Lakes states that tipped the Elec­toral Col­lege for Don­ald Trump.

Michi­gan is a micro­cosm for many of the chal­lenges Democ­rats face in 2020, and CNN’s mod­er­a­tors will be keen to press the can­di­dates on those challenges.

The top­ics addressed at the debate might not only be influ­enced by the loca­tion. The Sun­rise Move­ment, a coali­tion of envi­ron­men­tal activists, plans to ral­ly thou­sands of pro­test­ers to Detroit to demand that the can­di­dates address the envi­ron­men­tal cri­sis. The pro­test­ers have been demand­ing a cli­mate-focused debate for months, and CNN would be excru­ci­at­ing­ly out of touch if its mod­er­a­tors failed to push cli­mate change as an issue in the debate.

Of course, all of this is mere­ly speculation.

The only way to real­ly know what hap­pens is to watch the debates!

They can be viewed on CNN and streamed for free through CNN’s web­site and apps. Please also join us here on the Cas­ca­dia Advo­cate for our live cov­er­age, as we will be break­ing down the play-by-play as we watch along with you.

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