The first Democratic presidential debate of the 2020 election is coming up Wednesday night, and if you haven’t been paying particularly close attention, there’s a good chance you don’t know who half of the candidates are.
We’re here to help!
Before getting into whom you’ll be seeing on stage, here are some basics on what to expect.
The first round of Democratic debates is split into two nights on NBC, with 10 qualifying candidates (semi) randomly selected for each night. Some people are thinking of night one as the Elizabeth Warren debate, given that she’ll be the only candidate on the stage who is consistently polling in the top five. But nine candidates are going to try to take the moment away, and no one on Twitter or elsewhere can seem to agree if being so central in the first debate will help or hurt Warren as she moves up the polls.
Two other candidates have a lot to win or lose Wednesday night: former Texas representative Beto O’Rourke and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker. Both have at different times been tagged as being the future of their party and have soaked up media attention (Booker was the star of a 2005 documentary about his first mayoral campaign; O’Rourke was the star of a 2019 documentary about his first Senate campaign). They’ve also both gotten off to quiet starts this year — for O’Rourke, that’s come after huge expectations following his Senate race in 2018.
Here’s who is up Wednesday night (at 9 p.m. ET on NBC) and what (in brief) you should know about them.
Job: Cory Booker has been a New Jersey senator since 2013. Before that, he was mayor of Newark.
Life: Booker, 50, is a former college football player, current vegan, and now one of only three black US senators. He’s also unmarried and, uh, dating actor Rosario Dawson.
2020: Booker’s political identity is built around a message of “radical love” and unity (he’s often characterized as being more than a bit corny). He’s been a leader in criminal justice reform in the Senate and is bringing that policy focus with him to the campaign. He also wants a “baby bonds” program that would give savings accounts to children to fight wealth inequality.
Something else to know: Joe Biden won’t be on the stage until Thursday, but Booker’s gotten traction in the last week in calling on the former vice president to apologize for his comments at a fundraiser saying “at least there was some civility” in the Senate when he worked with racist segregationists.
Job: Elizabeth Warren has been a Massachusetts senator since 2013. Before that, she helped establish the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and was a Harvard law professor.
Life: Warren, who just turned 70, grew up in Oklahoma. She’s written a slew of popular financial books, including two with her daughter Amelia Warren Tyagi — The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Parents are Going Broke (blurbed by Dr. Phil) and All Your Worth: The Ultimate Lifetime Money Plan.
2020: Warren’s campaign is built around her voluminous policy plans, on everything from canceling student loan debt to breaking up Big Tech. She’s won over audiences by tying her policy to her own biography, pitching herself as a “champion” of “everyday Americans.”
Something else to know: Warren is rising in polls — both nationally and in early-voting states like South Carolina — and could overtake Sen. Bernie Sanders as the top progressive candidate in the field. Which leads to a question that could come up Wednesday night, even without Sanders on the stage: How are Warren and Sanders different? Warren has a tl;dr answer: “He’s a socialist, and I believe in markets.”
Job: Beto O’Rourke is currently unemployed, aside from, you know, running for president all over the country. He represented Texas’s 16th District in the House from 2013 until this January, and previously was on the El Paso City Council.
Life: O’Rourke, 46, is best known nationally for his 2018 run against Sen. Ted Cruz in Texas, where he came up just short but in the process became a national figure because of how he campaigned — energetically, across Texas — and whom he campaigned against — again, Sen. Ted Cruz.
2020: O’Rourke’s political identity has been fixed on the grassroots — specifically the idea that meeting as many voters as possible in as many places as possible, listening to their ideas and building those concerns into your campaign, is the way to win. He’s already built up a wide policy platform, particularly on climate change, immigration, and voting rights and government reform.
Something else to know: Beto O’Rourke was a punk. He was in a hacker collective as a teen and wrote some weirdo poetry, and he was in a band with Cedric Bixler-Zavala, who would go on to some fame with At the Drive-In and The Mars Volta.
Job: Amy Klobuchar has been a senator from Minnesota since 2007. Before then, she was a county prosecutor.
Life: Klobuchar, 59, has one of the highest approval ratings over any senator in his or her home state, and she plays up her everyday persona (see her memoir, The Senator Next Door).
2020: Klobuchar’s national political identity is tied up in her success in Minnesota, a state Trump nearly won in 2016. She’s pitching herself as a Midwesterner — not too left or right, but someone who can clearly beat Trump. Her “Minnesota Nice” reputation took a dent this year though when former staff detailed how intense she can be as a boss.
Something else to know: Klobuchar is best known politically for her work on the Senate Judiciary Committee, particularly in her TV turns during high-stakes confirmation hearings. She rattled Brett Kavanaugh during his Supreme Court confirmation hearing, eliciting an unusual apology from the judge.
Job: John Delaney has been running for president for almost two years, since July 2017, way before any other Democrats officially joined the race. He represented Maryland’s 6th District in Congress from 2013 until this year.
Life: Delaney, 56, has founded two publicly traded companies. The first company was HealthCare Financial Partners, which was set up to get financing to health care companies. The second was CapitalSource, which gave financing to companies more broadly.
2020: Delaney is setting himself as a more traditional, business-centric Democrat — he’s recently gotten some attention for picking a fight with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and he’s detailed at length why he believes Medicare for All to be flawed policy.
Something else to know: Delaney is locally famous for his family’s annual Christmas party, which recently has drawn as many as 800 invited people, including all sorts of political celebrities (including Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts). “I was a little surprised when John ran for Congress,” Fox News host and friend Tucker Carlson told Bethesda Magazine last year, “but he’s a person who knows everybody.”
Job: Tulsi Gabbard has represented Hawaii’s 2nd District in Congress since 2013. Before that, she worked in local government and as a staffer in the US Senate.
Life: Gabbard, 38, is in the Army National Guard and has served in Iraq. She’s a devout surfer.
2020: Gabbard is unique: She has a progressive domestic agenda that made her a Bernie Sanders supporter in 2016 (and pulled some of his fans to her) and has a radically noninterventionist view of foreign affairs that has gotten her in trouble with her party (she is maybe most famous for having met with Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in the middle of his country’s civil war).
Something else to know: Do you have some time? Read this story about her family and their guru.
Job: Julián Castro is currently unemployed, outside of his presidential campaign. He served as secretary of Housing and Urban Development under president Barack Obama, and before that was the mayor of San Antonio.
Life: Castro, 44, has been pegged as a future star of the Democratic Party for years — he was the Democratic National Convention’s keynote speaker in 2012, when he was mayor. Castro’s mother Rosie is a legendary Chicano political activist in Texas.
2020: Castro is the only Latino candidate running for president. He’s put forward immigration and housing policy, believes in a host of progressive ideas (like Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and universal pre-K) and is running on his executive experience both as mayor and at HUD.
Something else to know: In 2012, Julián Castro, then a city council member running for mayor, had his identical twin brother Joaquin Castro (then a state representative, now a member of Congress) stand in for him on a city council float during the San Antonio River Parade. “When he was waving, they would say, ‘Julián,’ and he would say, ‘No, it’s Joaquin,’ but you can’t really yell at 200,000 people along the route,” Julián Castro later told local press. It was briefly a terrific scandal.
Life: Dolphin, 17, eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeEE.
Something else to know: This is not a presidential candidate; this is a dolphin. You have to stay on your toes.
Job: Tim Ryan has represented Northeast Ohio in the House since 2003.
Life: Ryan, 45, has been in elected politics from a young age — he was just 29 when he was first elected to Congress, after already serving briefly in the Ohio state Senate.
2020: Ryan’s most famous in national politics for his unsuccessful challenge to Nancy Pelosi as House Democratic leader in 2016, arguing at the time that the party needed new leadership after a bad year in the Midwest. His campaign is partially centered on trying to revive the economy in places like his Ohio district, where manufacturing and automaker jobs are slipping away.
Something else to know: Ryan is a big believer in mindful meditation (he’s written a book on the topic). “Mindfulness is no silver bullet — it doesn’t make all your problems go away,” he recently told the Los Angeles Review of Books. “But it can impact our lives in such a positive way, and when you experience something so transformative, you tend to want to share that with others.”
Bill de Blasio
Job: Bill de Blasio has been the mayor of New York City since 2014 (aside: he was sworn in by Bill Clinton). Before that, he was the city’s public advocate.
Life: De Blasio, 58, is a longtime leftist political activist who moved into government in the ’90s. His multiracial family has played a huge part in his campaigns and his mayoral administration (his wife, Chirlane McCray, is a top adviser on all things).
2020: De Blasio is one of the latest candidates to join the race and, in part because of his day job, has done limited campaigning and has few concrete policy proposals, outside his claim that he has shown as mayor that he knows how to govern as a progressive. His biggest accomplishment as mayor has been implementing a universal pre-K system in the city.
Something else to know: De Blasio has long wanted the role of national progressive leader, and now he’s got a chance to make an impression on one of the biggest stages in politics. He’s also a Boston Red Sox fan who is mayor of New York City, which is trying.
Job: Jay Inslee has been governor of Washington state since 2013. Before that, he served in the House for the better part of 20 years.
Life: Inslee, 68, is very on-message: Every year, he writes and illustrates a children’s book for his grandkids focused on climate change and the environment.
2020: Inslee’s campaign is centered on one thing: stopping climate change. His focus on a single issue sets him apart from every other candidate running for office (though he says he has more to offer, and has put out policy plans for other issues, like immigration). He’s set an aggressive climate change goal, calling for the end of coal in America and having net-zero greenhouse emissions by 2045 at the latest.
Something else to know: Inslee, who is 6 feet 2 inches tall (aside: there are a lot of tall people at the Wednesday debate), was a pretty successful high school basketball player, averaging 7.5 points per game during the Ingraham Rams’ ’68–’69 undefeated state championship season.
That’s it for the first night! But don’t worry, there are still a million more presidential candidates, 10 of whom will be up on Thursday: Sen. Kamala Harris, former vice president Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Sen. Michael Bennet, author Marianne Williamson, Rep. Eric Swalwell, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, and former governor John Hickenlooper.