They’ve been crisscrossing Iowa, leaping on counters, showing off fluffy bellies, collecting endorsements, and publishing cringey, probably staged text exchanges, and now your future president, or at least 20 people who improbably believe that they could be that, will argue in front of a national audience for sport. Congratulations, everyone: Hell, I mean democracy, is upon us!
The first Democratic debates of the 2020 presidential cycle will take place in Miami on Wednesday and Thursday, with the slate broken into two nights of 10 candidates each; the order was arranged at least in part to “maximize viewership”—i.e., to keep you and your mom entertained. Politics as entertainment has never failed us yet.
Your handy cheat sheet of who’s who, when, and where—moving from the left side (for viewers) of the stage to the right (proximity to center stage was assigned based on highest poll results)—is below. Both two-hour debates begin at 9 p.m. Eastern.
Wednesday night: New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, U.S. Representative Tim Ryan, former housing secretary Julián Castro, U.S. Senator Cory Booker, Senator Elizabeth Warren, former representative Beto O’Rourke, Senator Amy Klobuchar, Representative Tulsi Gabbard, Washington Governor Jay Inslee, and former representative John Delaney
Thursday night: Author Marianne Williamson, former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, businessman Andrew Yang, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former vice president Joe Biden, Senator Bernie Sanders, Senator Kamala Harris, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Senator Michael Bennet, and Representative Eric Swalwell
If some of these names are, um, less than familiar, I am delighted to tell you that this is a “them” problem and not a “you” problem—and the Inslees and Swalwells of the slates will surely attempt to use their moment in the spotlight, or at least near the spotlight, to tell you who they are. Some may even succeed! Rejoice in this rare moment of getting to watch also-rans as they are literally also-running. The debate is capped at 20 participants, meaning that a handful of others—Steve Bullock, Seth Moulton, Wayne Messam, and Mike Gravel, assuming you consider the teens standing on each other’s shoulders inside Gravel’s raincoat to be a candidate—didn’t make even this generous cut, which was determined based on polling. As that classic American adage goes: sad!
Below, some items to watch out for as the fun and/or chaos gets underway. Order your salads and get your hair clips ready, because this is going to be a wild ride.
Will anyone dunk on Joe Biden?
As the front-runner, Biden will almost certainly be the primary story line coming out of the debates. A poor—or even neutral—performance would bolster the sense that he’s already peaked. Historically, Biden has done well in debates: His last two on the national stage, campaigning as Barack Obama’s running mate against Sarah Palin in 2008 and Paul Ryan in 2012, were tours de force. “That’s a bunch of malarkey,” he memorably declared to Ryan. He is good at this. Still: His last dominant debate was seven years ago.
That Biden has been the default headline story means that for the nine candidates sharing a stage with him, memorably attacking him is an easy way to make it onto the front page themselves. For that to work, of course, the blows would have to land, and Biden has historically been adept at avoiding damage in this kind of setting. There’s a danger in too many candidates dedicating themselves to attacking Biden onstage: A free-for-all against the front-runner would certainly make news, and perhaps bring Biden down in the polls, but probably not in a way that would do much to single out any of the jabs. Lower-performing candidates in particular need to differentiate themselves, so, well, you could say it’s time for some game theory.
Biden’s performance will have ramifications even when he’s not on the stage. This is one of the places where Warren’s draw—she’ll be on the significantly less high-profile Wednesday ticket (more on that later)—hurts her most. Warren, whose campaign has gained traction over the last month, is uniquely qualified to attack Biden. They have history: As Politico recently detailed, back in 2005, when Warren was a law professor at Harvard, she came before a Senate hearing to argue against a bill meant to address the rising rate of bankruptcy. Biden, who was advocating for the bill, spent 36 years representing Delaware in the Senate and is much warmer on banks than many Democrats, let alone 2020 hopefuls—especially Warren. Many major banks use Delaware as a hub, and one does not spend three and a half decades representing the state without making oneself known as a friend to the industry. In the 2005 hearing, Biden tried to deflect Warren’s attacks with his most Biden-y folksy schtick; she was unmoved, and her sharp rejoinders clearly won the exchange. What worked with Ryan in 2012, making the veep look both affable and in control, instead made him look out of touch. It’s easy to imagine Warren getting a similar result now, particularly if she again pushes him on his economic positions, but—at least in this first debate—she won’t get the chance.
Your next weird viral moment is …
Count on some of the more obscure hopefuls to do as much as they can to get attention. The second debate is one month from now in Detroit and will likely feature a similar setup with similar requirements to make the stage. But by the third debate—September 12 with a possible second night on September 13—the Democratic National Committee has made clear that it’s done with long-shot sideshows: To make that stage, candidates must be polling at 2 percent or above in at least four major polls (or in polls conducted in the first four states in the Democratic primary calendar) and must have a substantial national donor base (130,000 unique donors total and 400 unique donors in a minimum of 20 states). Those marks are far beyond what many of the lesser-known candidates who will debate this week have achieved; to stay in the race into the fall, they’ll need to do something to raise their name recognition and attract new supporters. That might not be anything truly outlandish—we’re unlikely, alas, to see anyone wear a boot on their head—but doing something flashy in Miami or Detroit is the last, best shot for many of the candidates.
Some candidates hope that just being visible onstage will do the trick: Andrew Yang—of the Yang Gang—has said that one of his debate hopes is to get people to ask, “Who’s the Asian man standing next to Joe Biden?” (He’ll actually be two people away from Biden—Pete Buttigieg will be in between them—but he’s reasonably close to the center of the stage, so he may get his wish.)
Others want to make sure that their national introduction gets attention for the right reasons: On Tuesday, Marianne Williamson’s director of communications went so far as to send a missive to members of the media specifying that the candidate’s occupation ought to be listed as “best-selling author and activist” and not either “spiritual guru (or any type of guru)” or “Oprah’s BFF or Oprah’s guru. (Or any title that rightfully belongs to Gayle King).”
What’s Warren doing at the kids’ table?
OK, OK, Beto O’Rourke, Cory Booker, and Amy Klobuchar aren’t to be dismissed. But the major candidates are heavily concentrated on Thursday’s slate. Warren, meanwhile, will be the only one on Wednesday’s stage who is polling above 5 percent.
Will she look über-competent in comparison with the many relatively unknown politicos by her side, or will she seem diminished by it? Will viewers even bother to tune in to Wednesday’s debate if they know the bigger candidates are coming the following night? At the very least, Warren is missing out on an opportunity to join in the inevitable fireworks that will come on Thursday. Still, she has a chance to own Wednesday’s coverage, and if Thursday devolves into a dogpile on Biden, she might do well to stay away from the fracas (for now!) and keep the conversation on her policy platforms.
Buttigieg has problems back home.
On June 16, a white police officer in South Bend, Indiana, shot and killed Eric Logan, who was black, while answering a call about a man breaking into cars. Buttigieg, who has been South Bend’s mayor since 2012, suspended his campaign and returned to the city. Then, early Sunday morning, a mass shooting at a local bar killed one and injured 10. On Sunday, Buttigieg hosted a tense town hall to address the police shooting.
Buttigieg has already had trouble convincing skeptics that his tenure as the mayor of South Bend—a city of scarcely 100,000—is sufficient experience to take on the presidency. Now even that is in tumult, just as his national ambitions are about to be challenged. Will he be able to take the decidedly national questions about policing, gun violence, and race that these incidents have raised and translate them into something that resonates with voters and shows a clear line from South Bend to the White House?
Is this make-or-break for Sanders?
In recent weeks, Bernie Sanders has remained second in the polls, but he’s been losing ground to Warren. Since 2016, Sanders’s critics have been keen to lampoon him as little more than a rabble-rouser who’s equally—or more—interested in upsetting the traditional Democratic field as he is in defeating Trump.
The debate offers him a chance to show that that’s incorrect—and to make the case, naturally, that traditional Democratic politics aren’t the right way forward. He’s clearly eager to make a splash: This week, he trotted out an ambitious student loan forgiveness program.