What’s better than one night of a Democratic primary debate featuring 10 presidential candidates, many of whom you may have never heard of? TWO NIGHTS of a Democratic primary debate, each featuring 10 presidential candidates, many of whom you may have never heard of!
Part two of the first Democratic presidential debates is coming Thursday night, and it’s the big one. Before getting into what you should know about each candidate, here’s the overview of what to watch for.
The two nights of the first debate were determined (mostly) randomly, but it just worked out that Thursday has four of the biggest names in the race: former vice president Joe Biden, Sens. Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris, and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
Expect Biden to be the debate’s focus. Biden has been at the top of polls since he joined the primary. He’s got a giant target on his back: A huge part of his appeal for voters is the idea that many see him as the candidate most likely to beat President Donald Trump, and that idea can be blown right up if Biden comes off as faltering or unable to best his Democratic opponents Thursday.
Here’s who is up Thursday night (at 9 p.m. ET on NBC) and what (in brief) you should know about them.
Job: Kamala Harris has been a California senator since 2017.
Life: Harris, 54, was a prosecutor before becoming a senator — she was San Francisco’s district attorney from 2004 to 2011, and the state’s attorney general from 2011 until 2017. Her mother was Indian and her father is Jamaican. She’s an HBCU grad (she went to Howard University in Washington) and is in the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority.
2020: Harris has played up her prosecutorial identity in her presidential campaign: Her slogan is “For the People,” and she frequently talks about "speaking truth" against Donald Trump. A lot of her policy ideas — on issues from gun control to immigration — focus on using executive power alone and not relying on Congress to get things passed into law (which can be...difficult).
Something else to know: Harris is on the Senate Judiciary Committee and has made a name for herself with her prosecutorial grilling of Trump officials and nominees like Brett Kavanaugh. She considers herself a “progressive prosecutor,” something that can still get complicated on the left today.
Job: He’s out of work now, but you know the deal: Joe Biden has been in American politics since 1972, most recently as vice president under Barack Obama.
Life: Biden, 76, was first elected by Delaware to the Senate when he was 29. His life has been intertwined with the last four decades of American history, good and bad.
2020: Biden has been leading polls since joining the presidential race, campaigning on bringing America together and going back to a pre-Trump era. He hasn’t put forward a ton of policy as of yet (exceptions include a climate change plan), and he has largely skipped events that put him before reporters’ questions or directly next to other candidates. To repeat: Thursday is set up to be a big night for him.
Something else to know: Honestly you probably already know more about Joe Biden than you know about anyone else running for president. If you want more now, read this on Biden’s campaign to stop time.
Job: Bernie Sanders has been a senator from Vermont since 2007. Before then, he represented the state in the House beginning in 1991.
Life: Sanders, 77, has been here before. He’s the only candidate onstage to have been in the 2016 presidential debates (or any presidential debate since Biden last ran in 2008). He considers himself a democratic socialist.
2020: Sanders’ current campaign is in some ways a continuation of his last one: He is still campaigning against wealth inequality, still talking about millionaires and billionaires, still pushing for Medicare for All, still running against the political establishment. He’s also, though, tried to bring a little more of his life into his campaign (like growing up relatively poor in Brooklyn) and is running on new policy ideas, like universal student debt forgiveness.
Something else to know: Sanders plays basketball. Still. In a jacket!
Job: Pete Buttigieg has been the mayor of South Bend, Indiana (population: roughly 102,000), since 2012.
Life: Buttigieg, 37, is the first high-profile LGBTQ presidential candidate in the US. He is married — his husband Chasten has been another unexpected star of this campaign cycle. Buttigieg is also in the Navy Reserve and served in Afghanistan while mayor.
2020: Buttigieg is running as a generational change candidate, a millennial out to fix what the previous generations screwed up. He doesn’t have a ton of specific policy proposals, but he has a lot of ideas about how government should work differently, and that’s where his focus has been. Those ideas include potentially radically altering the Supreme Court and Congress.
Something else to know: Buttigieg has spent the last week in a crisis at home, after a white South Bend police officer shot and killed a black man during an investigation. Race issues in South Bend have been tense under Buttigieg, and he is now being criticized for the police response.
Job: Kirsten Gillibrand has been a senator representing New York since 2009. Before that, she was a member of Congress from upstate New York.
Life: Gillibrand, 52, is a former corporate lawyer who has become best known in the Senate for her advocacy for women’s rights, including around sexual harassment issues in the military.
2020: Gillibrand’s campaign has been centered around her role as an advocate for women and LGBTQ people, and she's been particularly out ahead on abortion rights. But she hasn’t gotten much traction so far, especially in a field with multiple other strong women candidates.
Something else to know: Gillibrand first got to the Senate after being appointed to the seat left open by Hillary Clinton when she moved into the Obama administration. She’d been close with the Clintons for years (Bill Clinton campaigned for her when she first ran for Congress), but that relationship has gotten more complicated recently — Gillibrand said last year that she thinks Clinton should have resigned as president because of his relationship with Monica Lewinsky.
Job: Michael Bennet has been a senator from Colorado since 2009.
Life: Bennet, 54, comes from a political family — his grandfather worked for president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and his father once worked at the US Embassy in India (Bennet was born in New Delhi) and later worked in the Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton administrations. His brother James Bennet is currently the editor of the New York Times’ editorial page (James has recused himself from 2020 coverage because of his brother’s campaign). Before being appointed to a vacant Senate seat in 2009, Bennet was the superintendent of Denver Public Schools.
2020: Bennet considers himself a pragmatist and is calling for a new period of bipartisanship. He has pushed against some of the further left ideas in the primary, like Medicare for All. Bennet, when he launched his campaign, said he would focus on health care, education, and increasing economic mobility.
Something else to know: Bennet was diagnosed with prostate cancer soon before starting his campaign (he announced that his treatment was successful this spring). “That gave me a chance to think about whether I really wanted to run or not. And in the context of getting the diagnosis, my reaction was disappointment at the idea I couldn’t run,” he said while announcing his campaign.
Job: Jason plays guitar in a band.
Life: Jason, middle school–age, is very cool. He plays guitar in a band.
2020: Jason’s entire political and life identity is rooted in spreading the message of 1-877-KARS4KIDS, K-A-R-S, KARS 4 KIDS. He believes in car donation, today.
Something else to know: This person is fictional and not running for president, unfortunately. If you live in the New York City area, though, he will be on your TV jamming in an ad for the entirety of your life, and if that’s not being president, then what is?
Job: Marianne Williamson is a speaker and bestselling author.
Life: Williamson, 66, is probably more famous than most of the politicians running for president this year. Her books, like the best-selling "A Return To Love," have been read and publicly fawned over by loads of celebrities — Gwyneth Paltrow has called her a “spiritual legend.”
2020: Williamson got in the race early, and while she’s a long shot, her message has occasionally broken through. She’s obviously got a talent for speaking to and inspiring crowds. She also came out early in favor of a big slavery reparations program as part of her call for “a moral and spiritual awakening in the country.”
Something else to know: Williamson's campaign blended her policy and spirituality together in an exceptional press release before Wednesday's debate: "Every time someone talks about the green new deal, strike an eagle pose. It’ll relax your shoulders and remind you that the green new deal is not only to create jobs and save energy but to save our environment and stop climate change." If you want to learn more about Williamson’s unique campaign for president and renewing the soul of America, read this from BuzzFeed News’ Katherine Miller.
Job: Eric Swalwell has represented California’s 15th District in the House since 2013.
Life: Swalwell, 38, quickly moved into politics — he led a student protest to the Maryland State House as a college student, complete with silly props, and wound up in Congress at 32. He’s grown his national profile over the last couple years from his perch on the House Intelligence Committee, often landing on cable news to talk about former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
2020: Swalwell has tried to differentiate his campaign by focusing in on gun control, including launching his run at an event in Parkland, Florida.
Something else to know: Swalwell has been using some EXTREMELY corny lines during his campaign, such as, “To my fellow candidates, I consider us all a part of being the Avengers. The Republicans in 2016, that was the Hunger Games.”
Job: Andrew Yang is an entrepreneur who has worked in a series of startups, including in the health care and test-prep sectors.
Life: Yang, 44, is Taiwanese American, something he plays on in a go-to applause line at campaign rallies: “The opposite of Donald Trump is an Asian man who likes math!” Yang started a nonprofit in 2011, Venture for America, with the mission of bringing young entrepreneurs into economically troubled cities (it did not go like he had hoped).
2020: Yang’s campaign is built around a few core ideas, none more than the Freedom Dividend, Yang’s proposal to give every American over the age of 18 a universal basic income of $1,000 a month. Yang is concerned with what ever-improving robotics will do to American jobs, and his policies are in part designed to address that.
Something else to know: Yang’s campaign has taken off in some unexpected corners of the internet, drawn principally to his basic income plan (or Yang Bucks). His online followers are the Yang Gang. His campaign is the closest thing 2020 has to a living meme.
Job: John Hickenlooper was governor of Colorado from 2011 until this January.
Life: Before getting into politics, Hickenlooper, 67, was a geologist and then a beer magnate. He helped found Wynkoop Brewing Company in Denver, which still exists (on a recent visit by this reporter, they were serving up a beer brewed with bull testicles) and helped launch him into politics as the city’s mayor in 2003.
2020: Hickenlooper is running as a pure moderate out to unify the country. “If we want to beat Donald Trump and achieve big progressive goals, socialism is not the answer,” he said at a recent party convention in California, to boos. He doesn’t favor progressive policies like Medicare for All, preferring an option to buy into government-run insurance. He calls himself a “pragmatic progressive,” running on executive experience as governor.
Something else to know: Hickenlooper has face blindness, a medical condition called prosopagnosia that makes it difficult for him to recognize faces. So he also does not know who some of the people are onstage with him. “If you were going to torture a person with face-blindness, you would put them in charge of running a high-volume restaurant,” Hickenlooper once told an interviewer, “and then you would make them governor of a state.” He, of course, did both of these things.
That’s it for the first round of debates! Many, if not all, of these candidates will be back for the next round at the end of July. From there, the Democratic National Committee has made it more difficult to make the stage, raising the requirements to qualify and likely halving the number of candidates who are able to make it into September’s debate. So cherish this unwieldy field while you can.