The world has to wait until 3 November 2020 to see if Americans will elect Donald Trump to a second term, but his opponent is in the process of being chosen. The Democrats are yet to decide who they’ll rally behind, and with just five months to go until the first primary contests, candidates are jockeying for position. On 12 September, ten of the twenty remaining candidates will assemble in Houston for the third primary debate. Who is running? What’s at stake? What on earth is going on?
So far in the campaign there have been two series of debates, in June and July, with attending candidates needing to pass one of two criteria. Either their candidacy achieved 2% in four different polls accepted by the Democratic National Committee, be it nationally or in the first four contest states (Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina), or they pass a fundraising criterion: 130,000 unique donors, with at least four hundred donors per state in at least twenty states. To qualify for the Houston debate, you needed to satisfy bothcriteria. The winnowing of the field began, and only ten qualified.
With that in mind, let’s look at the debating candidates. There’s a former vice president (Joe Biden), five senators (Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren), a former congressman (Beto O’Rourke), a mayor (Pete Buttigieg), a former Cabinet secretary (Julián Castro), and a businessman (Andrew Yang).
It’s probably safe to say that one of these ten will be the Democratic nominee; in fact, it’s probably safe to say that outside of a miracle, there are only five real contenders: Biden, Buttigieg, Harris, Sanders, and Warren. The other five are, as less-kind pundits have suggested, running for the vice presidency or a Cabinet job. Biden is the undisputed front-runner, polling just shy of 30% nationally and ahead in the first contests. Sanders and Warren, the progressive firebrands, are fighting for second with around 16-17% each, and yet in recent weeks polling has shown Warren to be nipping at Biden’s heels in Iowa and New Hampshire. Harris and Buttigieg had surges in support earlier this year: Harris performed well in the first debate, and Buttigieg’s status as the first gay candidate for the presidency and, at 37, by far the youngest, gives him wider appeal. Both, however, lag behind at 5-8% nationally, performing only marginally better in early states.
The early states are important, as they set the narrative. While Biden leads nationally, for example, early Warren victories would, as Politicorecently put it, set Warren’s ‘rock star’ appeal on a collision course with Biden, the ‘rock’ of the race. That’s why the debate on 12 September is so critical. It is not in Biden’s interests as the front-runner to attend; the debate gives other candidates a chance to shine, present their case, and potentially go viral. Harris’ humiliation of Biden over busing in June, or Sanders’ spirited defence of universal healthcare in July (memorably declaring that he knew how it would work because “[he] wrote the damn bill!”), went viral and boosted both campaigns. For candidates with lower name-recognition, the debates also provide an opportunity for the electorate and the news cycle to familiarise themselves with their candidacy.
The debates are an opportunity to reassess their impressions
It is also necessary to talk about the lower-tier five on the stage. It can’t be nice to put everything on the field and run for president, only for some postgrad on the other side of the world to label you ‘lower-tier’, but sometimes the truth hurts. In the latest DNC-approved national poll, Biden took 32%; Castro, also on stage, polled below 1%. To qualify for the debate ten, however, also raises points of expectation. It is remarkable that Andrew Yang stands on stage alongside other candidates. He is feasibly a fringe candidate, possessing no political experience and running entirely on the issue of a universal basic income. That he has qualified for what is likely to be the final ten is a great achievement. On the other side of the expectations game, you have Beto O’Rourke. The former congressman became a Democratic rock-star last autumn after running a spirited, if unsuccessful, bid to unseat Republican senator Ted Cruz in Texas. With poll numbers surging, he declared his candidacy soon after; a close second in Iowa polling in December, the latest polls show him under 1%. That he is underperforming is perhaps an understatement.
Yang and O’Rourke reinforce the importance of next month’s debate. For both it is an opportunity to, for a night at least, claim an equal platform with the frontrunners. For the audience, the debates are an opportunity to reassess their impressions. Biden’s reputation as a political titan, and his poll numbers, took a sizeable hit after poor performances in the last debates. Warren has the reverse case. Announcing her candidacy with relatively-low polling numbers and amidst a scandal about Native American heritage, her detailed policy proposals and strident defence of progressivism have given her second wings. Having stood on different stages during the June and July debates, all eyes are on how Biden and Warren interact in Houston.
If Beto O’Rourke scores a landslide win in Iowa on the back of inspirational debate performances, and Andrew Yang takes South Carolina after his UBI proposal surges in popularity, don’t say I didn’t warn you that debates can matter.
Just don’t put any money on it either.