MEMO: What DFA is expecting at the first 2020 Democratic Debate

It’s no overstatement to say that Wednesday and Thursday’s debates may be two of the most important, election-altering nights of the 2020 Democratic nominating process so far.

Over the course of two nights, Democrats across the country will finally have the opportunity to see how the race’s top 20 candidates present themselves to a national audience, make the case for their vision for the future of the country, and interact with one another.

After watching how progressives’ views of the field have changed over the course of the first quarter via our Presidential Pulse Poll in December 2018 and April 2019 Presidential Pulse Poll, we know Democracy for America (DFA) members, in particular, will be watching these debates closely. And, as DFA’s Chair and CEO, respectively, here’s what we’re anticipating seeing:

  • Biden’s debate experience should pay off.
    Fmr. Vice President Joe Biden regularly benefited from low expectations early in this race (e.g. the false concerns about his ability to fundraise from large dollar donors), but when he hits the debate stage this week he’ll not only be the only candidate who has navigated a crowded primary debate stage before, he’s the only candidate who has participated in Presidential-level debates in four different presidential elections. Biden brought the fire in his last debate performance -- the pivotal 2012 Vice Presidential Debate -- so anything less on Thursday would be a disappointment. As the front runner on this stage, he will have a target on his back and, after a week of blunders on the stump, it will be interesting to see how he responds to attacks on his record or character.
  • Sanders has the opportunity to prove he can beat the field.
    Back in 2015 and 2016, Sen. Bernie Sanders was consistently underestimated by the Washington pundit class to such an extent that, even when he parried Clinton to a draw, he came out with a real boost of momentum from those looking for a real alternative to the political establishment’s preferred candidate. While he’ll likely still be underestimated by a pundit class that loves to hate him, he walks into the 2020 primary debates with a new goal: Proving that he’s the progressive best suited to not just beat Donald Trump, but also the rest of the Democratic field -- including Joe Biden.
  • Warren is in the driver’s seat on night one.
    Much has been made of Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s lucky draw, which made her the top candidate on the first night of the inaugural debate series. The challenge of Warren’s position as the top candidate on night one is to not let the possible target on her back distract her from taking on Trump directly and making her argument for structural change that’s electrified voters on the trail.
  • Harris’ grace under pressure could give her a breakout moment.
    Sen. Kamala Harris has been a top-tier candidate from the start of this race, but she’s ready for her break-out moment and this debate could be it. If she can combine the cool, prosecutorial incisiveness she’s demonstrated with her standout performances in Senate Hearing rooms with the warmth and energy she exudes on the trail, Harris has an ideal opportunity to capture the hearts and attention of the huge audience watching these debates. America needs to not just see her proven track record as a leader, she needs viewers to see her as someone they’d want to hang out with.
  • O’Rourke and Buttigieg have the chance to see their bubbles grow into movements -- or deflate.
    Fmr. Rep. Beto O’Rourke and Mayor Pete Buttigieg have both surfed huge surges in media and grassroots interests over the early part of the campaign -- arguably, as our April Pulse Poll results suggested -- coming from a very similar group of Democratic voters. Appearing on separate nights, this debate offers O’Rourke the chance to regain some of the air that’s slipped out of the bubble of interest he had in the early part of the year. Meanwhile, it gives Buttigieg the chance to turn his current bubbling support into a movement committed to him over the long haul. And how each candidate interacts with others on the stage may also help answer a key lingering question about their candidacies: Are they really in this for the big job? Or merely auditioning for VP?
  • Corporate lapdogs Bennett, Delaney, and Hickenlooper will keep up their attacks on progressives.
    Sen. Michael Bennett, Fmr. Rep. John Delaney, and Fmr. Gov. John Hickenlooper have already tried to find their way into relevance in this contest by smacking at the Democratic Party’s progressive base. While it may thrill a few pundits, these are ultimately self-defeating strategies in a primary and general election. The real question is whether they will actually go after the other candidates for standing with the millions who support a bold, inclusive populist agenda or just use their time to win praise from the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board for attacking Medicare for All or being open to Social Security cuts.
  • We’ll likely see a new voice establish a beachhead or strengthened position on the second tier.
    Over the course of our two pulse polls, we’ve seen a relatively stable top-tier, typically including Sanders, Warren, Biden, Harris, and either O’Rourke or Buttigieg. We’d be surprised if progressives’ top-tier of candidates is altered dramatically by the first debate. What we do expect is that this debate will help either (a) give a candidate currently in the top ten a shot at the fifth position in the top tier and/or (b) give a candidate that most don’t perceive as having a real shot a new place to grow from in the second tier. These debates are the first major opportunity for a shake-up in the contest, and we’d happily wager that we’ll see some kind of surge in enthusiasm for at least one candidate most are talking about today.
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