Tonight, former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders will face each other in the eleventh Democratic primary debate.
The circumstances surrounding this debate could not be more dramatic.
Since the last debate – back on February 25th – the whole dynamic of the Democratic primary has been upended. Back in late February, Senator Sanders was the undisputed front runner, having won the popular vote count in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada (the first ever candidate to do so). He faced six rivals (including Biden), none of whom appeared to have any viable path to the nomination.
In the days following the debate, however, Joe Biden staged a record-shattering comeback; a convincing victory in South Carolina led to a flood of endorsements from powerful party figureheads, rival candidates dropping out en masse, and ultimately to a massive success on Super Tuesday.
Biden’s candidacy went from a zombie-like fugue to front runner almost overnight. Sanders, meanwhile, was left reeling and uncertain of how to proceed.
All of these developments have been dwarfed, however, by the rapidly worsening global coronavirus pandemic. Entire countries have gone into lockdown, many states have implemented draconian measures “not seen since the Spanish flu”, and Donald Trump himself had a health scare.
Consequently, the debate will take on a different tone and format.
Instead of facing each other in front of a live audience in Arizona, Biden and Sanders will debate in a TV studio in Washington D.C. without an audience, in order to mitigate the risk of viral infection.
The threat of COVID-19 will undoubtedly dominate the debate, much as it has dominated news headlines across the world.
Both candidates can potentially benefit. In a brilliant move, Joe Biden – who has portrayed his candidacy as a “return to normalcy” – made a speech addressing the crisis that came across as presidential, competent and persuasive.
The emergency measures he suggested contrasted strongly with the incompetence of the Trump Administration’s response to the pandemic.
Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, has used the global pandemic to make a more expansive argument about the entire U.S. health system.
While going after Trump’s incompetence, Sanders argued that the U.S. is particularly vulnerable to the pandemic because it lacks universal healthcare.
In light of the benefits other countries are reaping from their universal healthcare systems to combat the coronavirus, Sanders’ signature policy of Medicare for All look more and more essential every day that the crisis continues.
Since there will only be two candidates on stage on Sunday, the debate over healthcare will be more clear-cut than it has been before. Both Sanders and Biden have robust and well-thought-through policies, and voters watching this debate will be able to directly compare them, without the distracting input of Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar’s nit-picking or Elizabeth Warren’s confusing political “pivoting” that obscured the issue in previous debates.
Beyond advocating for their respective healthcare positions, the two candidates have clear – if very different – objectives for this debate.
Bernie Sanders’ candidacy may be in dire straits, but he is not out of the race. Sanders currently has about 150 fewer delegates than Biden (736 to Biden’s 890) but there is definitely room for him to catch up, since both are far below the number of delegates needed to win a majority at the Democratic National Convention (1,991). Besides, the septuagenarian socialist always thrives as an underdog – his campaign soared after Sanders suffered a heart attack on the campaign trail!
Sanders is not finished yet, but Sunday’s debate could be his last shot; two days after the debate, the states of Arizona, Florida, Illinois and Ohio hold their primaries — or, at least, they are supposed to. If Sanders can’t figure out a way to change the dynamics of the race by Tuesday, the former Vice President could rack up a delegate lead from these large states that is all but unassailable.
If Sanders wants to turn the tables on Biden, he needs to shake the former Vice President’s grip on his base of elderly and African American voters.
To do that, Sanders needs to make Biden own his past support for cutting Social Security benefits for the elderly and his opposition to “busing” programs intended to bring about racial desegregation in the country’s schools.
Critiques like these have worked before – last summer, Senator Kamala Harris received a significant bounce in public opinion research surveys at the expense of Biden after taking on the former Vice President in the first Democratic debate.
However, Harris and Sanders have very different debating styles.
Sanders has frequently exasperated progressives by failing to be sufficiently tough in confrontations with neoliberal Democrats such as Biden.
Biden’s main objective is simply to stay the course; all he needs to do is appear presidential, stay calm, and come across as reasonably likable.
Barring any major gaffes, Joe Biden can simply surf to victory.
However, Joe Biden is a man who has turned the gaffe into an art form. Over the past year on debate stages, the former Vice President has said that the solution to domestic abuse is to “keep punching,” gone on an epic and baffling rant about record players, and even tried to send supporters to the wrong campaign website.
Biden is prone to gaffes when under pressure – his best debate performances have come when the spotlight is decidedly away from him (such as the Bloomberg pile-on a month ago). However, there will be nowhere for Biden to hide on Sunday, and there is no guarantee that he can keep his head if Sanders applies the pressure. On the other hand, he only has to worry about debating one opponent.
The stakes in this debate are perhaps higher than they have ever been for the 2020 race, which should hopefully make for good viewing! The debate can be watched on CNN, CNN en Español, CNN International, and Univision beginning at 5 PM Pacific Time. It will also be livestreamed on CNN.com.