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Here’s What To Watch For In Tonight’s Debate, Starring Elizabeth Warren And Bernie Sanders

These are some of the big questions in the first of two nights of Democratic primary debates this week on CNN.

Last updated on July 30, 2019, at 11:01 p.m. ET

Posted on July 30, 2019, at 6:31 a.m. ET


Ben Kothe / BuzzFeed News; Getty Images

Twenty of the Democratic presidential candidates are set to debate again across, like, five hours and two nights in Detroit this week. If that feels very daunting to you, here’s a rundown of a few of the things to look out for.

The first night of the debates will feature Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Amy Klobuchar; South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg; former Texas representative Beto O’Rourke; Montana Gov. Steve Bullock; Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan; former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper; author Marianne Williamson; and former Maryland representative John Delaney.

The debate is the start of a stretch run in the Democratic primary, which will quickly take the mass of candidates from Detroit to Nevada to Iowa. (If you’ve been dying to see Hickenlooper eat a fried pork chop on a stick, you probably won’t have to wait much longer!) It’s also the last time about half of these candidates are likely to be on a debate stage ⁠— the qualifications for the next debate, in early September, are much tougher. (If you’ve been dying to see Hickenlooper not on a debate stage, you probably won’t have to wait much longer!)

Here are some of the biggest questions CNN’s debate, which starts at 8 p.m. ET, can answer.

Scott Eisen / Getty Images

Will Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders be pushed into a fight?

Warren and Sanders are the two highest-polling candidates onstage Tuesday night, and they’re the two most dominant progressive voices in the primary. So the general expectation here, understandably, is that the two will clash in their first shared debate, scrounging for ownership of the primary’s left wing.

That expectation could flop. It would be a bit of a surprise to see Warren and Sanders willingly go directly at each other, though you can comfortably bet a large sum of money that moderators will try to make it happen. Both Warren and Sanders stay super focused on their own policy and political messages, and neither really wants to be explicitly compared to the other. As Warren has put it before when asked how she is different from Sanders, “He’s a socialist, and I believe in markets.”

The two candidates also don’t exactly have the same base of support: Recent polling shows Sanders with big advantages among younger voters and people without a college education; Warren excels with older voters and those with more education.

One thing that could push them into some kind of confrontation: health care. Sanders’ signature policy proposal is Medicare for All. Warren has backed the plan, as she did in the last debate, but it’s not something she’s talked about a ton on the trail. And unlike Sanders, she’s said there are “different paths” to get to Medicare for All.

Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Is Beto O’Rourke done?

O’Rourke has had a dramatic drop-off since the start of the year in terms of polling, fundraising, and general attention. Unlike many of the other candidates onstage Tuesday, he’s basically a lock for the next debate, but he could really use this debate as a turning point.

That could look like one of a few things. O’Rourke was most effective in his 2018 Senate campaign when he was able to get personal, telling stories of the people he’d met on the trail and tying an emotional pitch into a kind of lofty ideal of What America Could Be. That can be really tricky to pull off on a debate stage with nine other candidates.

He could also try a more aggressive approach and go after one of the frontrunners (Sanders’ democratic socialism presents a convenient contrast with O’Rourke’s more moderate agenda). That’s the decision he made for his second Senate debate last year, when he upped the personal attacks on opponent Sen. Ted Cruz (even using President Donald Trump’s 2016 nickname for Cruz, which he later apologized for). It didn’t exactly work out last time (O’Rourke is not a senator), but it did at least get him some energy as the polling was turning sharply against him.

In the first debate, the most memorable thing about O’Rourke’s performance was that he kept getting dunked on over immigration and other issues by lesser-known candidates. He’ll presumably want to…not have that happen again.

Jeff Kowalsky / AFP / Getty Images

Is Pete Buttigieg a top candidate?

By one measure, the answer to this question is obviously yes: Buttigieg raised the most money of any Democratic candidate in the last quarter. But other measures aren’t so great: Buttigieg’s polling has been stagnant lately behind candidates like Warren and Sanders, and he’s got dangerously low support among black voters, who are vital in the Democratic primaries. Buttigieg didn’t exactly mess anything up in the last debate, but the performance came after days of criticism in the aftermath of a police shooting of a black man back home in South Bend.

So this debate is a pretty significant opportunity for Buttigieg to prove that his campaign hasn’t already peaked. His style isn’t suited for anything too rambunctious — his political persona is all about the kind of thoughtful intellectualism that made him a star of the one-person cable news town halls this spring. But that can be hard to get across when you have only 30 seconds to talk and other candidates are breathing down your neck.

Jeff Kowalsky / AFP / Getty Images

What to make of an all-white stage?

For whatever reason, the random CNN drawing for the two nights of the debate has resulted in Tuesday’s candidate pool being all white. In a primary where candidate diversity has been so heralded, this is…bizarre.

It could also make for some particularly interesting moments if moderators or candidates choose to get explicit about it.

Can half the candidates on the stage do anything to get themselves into the next debate?

September's debate has much tighter requirements for candidates to get onstage: They must have a minimum of 130,000 unique donors and hit at least 2% support in four qualifying polls or more. About 10 candidates out of the 24 currently running are on track to hit those requirements — that includes Warren, Sanders, Buttigieg, O’Rourke, and Klobuchar.

The rest are basically left to try to do anything to keep their campaigns alive. It’s nearly impossible to think of what could push one of those five over the edge. Williamson, the breakout meme star of the June debates, is still getting nowhere in polling; Bullock, who has the credential of being the only elected official in the primary representing a state Trump won, is making his first debate appearance and hasn’t registered much nationally.

The decent bet is that Tuesday night is the last chance you’ll have to catch about half of these candidates on a debate stage. The giant field is about to shrink — enjoy it while it lasts.

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