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.
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.