Five things to watch in the first Democratic primary debates

Five things to watch in the first Democratic primary debates

Today, the first set of Democratic primary debates will begin, where the 20 (that’s right, 20) qualifying candidates will attempt to stand out in a very crowded field and present himself/herself as the best candidate to take on President Donald Trump in the November 2020 general election.

There was a convoluted process for the candidates to qualify for the debate that did little to narrow down the number of candidates who will be on stage. As a result, the debates will take place over two nights, with ten candidates on stage per night.

So, what should viewers expect in the first Democratic primary debate 500 days short of Election Day 2020?

1. Issues heavy

Universal healthcare, climate change, debt-free college, immigration, and social inequalities are just some of the issues that candidates have been talking about on the campaign trail and are likely to be the dominant topics of discussion. Candidates are rolling out their plans to address these issues, but in recent weeks, Senator Elizabeth Warren has emerged as the candidate who has a plan for everything.

She has been travelling to early primary states and participating in townhalls, where she details her plans to provide everything from Medicare for all, to breaking up big tech and forgiving student loan debt. Her policy-heavy speeches have garnered attention from many voters and it’s been reflected in the polls. Other candidates will feel the pressure to share details about their plans, making these debates truly about the issues.

2. What about foreign policy?

Foreign policy is not something that voters typically care too much about, especially in a primary. But with Trump feuding with US allies over tariffs, and European governments not supporting US intelligence findings on oil tanker attacks in the Gulf of Oman, some believe the United States is losing its standing in the international community. So, what do the candidates have to say about repairing foreign alliances and improving America’s reputation around the world? Probably not much. However, Iran and China are likely to come up during the debates. Watch for candidates to tie these countries back to issues that directly resonate with voters, such as “Tariffs against Mexico and China mean higher prices for Americans, which hurt our farmers” or “War with Iran means we’re putting our soldiers in harm’s way.”

3. Going after Joe Biden

Just because candidates will mostly focus on the issues, doesn’t mean the debates won’t get dirty.

Many of the candidates who will be on stage this week took a unity pledge to focus on the issues and not attack their primary opponents. But since Joe Biden joined the race and has been surging in the polls, other candidates have been quick to attack the former vice president on anything from his past history of supporting a 1994 “tough on crime bill” that many Democrats claim resulted in mass incarceration of Black Americans to working with segregationist lawmakers.

While some voters see Joe Biden as the best candidate to defeat Trump in a general election – early polls have Biden beating Trump in the general election polls – others see him representative of a party establishment that is out of touch with a younger, more diverse base.

4. Look out for the emerging star(s)  

Typically, political pundits will look to declare a winner from the debates, and while these declarations are always subjective, some candidates have seen small bumps in the polls post-debates. Looking at past primary campaigns, we saw unlikely candidates see a small surge in the poll that was coupled by the media paying a bit more attention to their campaigns. These are names that are quickly forgotten in just a matter of weeks. Think Herman Cain or Carly Fiorina, both Republican candidates from 2012 and 2016, respectively. It’s likely that these bumps are only small and temporary.

But with such a crowded field, candidates will seize every moment they get. Candidates such as Senators Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand and Amy Klobuchar are hoping that they will have their moment on the debate stage and provide the soundbite of the night. But other candidates who are polling in the single digits and have nothing to lose – like Andrew Yang – will try to use the national spotlight to stand out in a crowded field in the same way that Donald Trump stood out during the 2016 cycle.

5. Impeachment

Trump’s potential obstruction of justice is one of the most contentious points among Democrats. Just about all the candidates have made comments that they believe President Trump should be investigated and he may have committed obstruction of justice.

Following the release of the Mueller Report, there’s growing support among the Democratic base to begin the process of impeachment and candidates are feeling the pressure to support impeaching the president. While some are more vocal on this than others, voters will want to know how candidates will try to hold Trump accountable. Impeachment is a seen as a risky move that could alienate voters in the general election despite being popular among Democratic primary voters. The reality is that no one really knows how this is going to pan out.

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