Politics

Do You Really Have to Watch the Debates?

And five other questions we have about the two upcoming Democratic showdowns.

Collage of Bill de Blasio, Tim Ryan, Julian Castro, Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, Tulsi Gabbard, Jay Inslee, John Delaney, Marianne Williamson, John Hickenlooper, Andrew Yang, Pete Buttigieg, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Michael Bennet, and Eric Swalwell.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Win McNamee/Getty Images, Sean Rayford/Getty Images, JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images, Ethan Miller/Getty Images, Drew Angerer/Getty Images, Scott Olson/Getty Images, Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images, and Zach Gibson/Getty Images.

Over the course of four hours Wednesday and Thursday nights, the Democratic presidential candidates will debate for the first time this cycle. That’s both an excruciatingly long time to listen to Democrats and not much time at all, since those four hours will be divided among 20 candidates. The debates, in Miami, will run from 9 to 11 p.m. each night on NBC.

The debate lineups, thanks to the Democratic National Committee and its propensity for meddling, lack coherence. On Wednesday night, the fastest-rising candidate in the field, Elizabeth Warren, will not face off against the other first-tier candidates. Instead, she will debate Cory Booker, Beto O’Rourke, Amy Klobuchar, Bill de Blasio, Tim Ryan, Julian Castro, Jay Inslee, John Delaney, and Tulsi Gabbard. On Thursday, front-runner Joe Biden will face off against Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, John Hickenlooper, Eric Swalwell, Michael Bennet, Kirsten Gillibrand, Andrew Yang, Pete Buttigieg, and Marianne Williamson. Candidates Steve Bullock, Seth Moulton, and Wayne Messam did not qualify for the debates, nor did Mike Gravel, whose presidential campaign exists on a conceptual plane accessible only by teens.

For most of the long-shot candidates, these debates and the ones in July will mark both the first and last opportunities to catch a spark in their “what the hell, I guess I should run too?” campaigns, after which the debate threshold rises. Most of them—perhaps all of them—will fail.

But what else should we look out for in this indulgent, overstuffed double album of a debate debut?

Will they fight?

According to political consultants I’ve spoken with, the question of whether a candidate should attack fellow candidates in the first, early-cycle debate hinges on one thing: Is the candidate a moron? Because going negative in your national debut, especially before a Democratic electorate and its repulsive let’s-get-along-and-work-together ethos, can be a moronic move. No one is going to win the presidential contest in the first debate, but candidates can sharply drive up their own negatives by making distasteful first impressions with voters. The percentage play is for candidates to introduce themselves positively, squeeze in a viral line or two, and share their distinctive visions for the country’s future to the extent that they have them. It doesn’t mean they can’t debate. Candidates can explain how their health care plans are different or draw other policy distinctions. But it probably wouldn’t be wise, in June 2019, for a candidate with a realistic chance at the nomination to try lighting another candidate’s home on fire. (Metaphorically, that is. Literally lighting another candidate’s home on fire could play—we need boldness in our candidates, etc.)

That said, the contest has become chippier in the past couple of weeks, as Cory Booker and Joe Biden entered a multiday spat about whether it was OK to have segregationist Senate friends in the ’70s, while Bernie Sanders, who has spent months needling Joe Biden, fired a warning shot toward Elizabeth Warren. How Sanders, Buttigieg, and Harris treat Biden, especially, will be the most interesting dynamic. While he’s got the biggest target on his back and there’s plenty of material to use against him, Biden is still exceptionally popular among Democrats, and trying to take him out early could backfire. And taking out Biden also doesn’t mean that you, the candidate who did the deed, will inherit his support.

Will Elizabeth Warren’s draw be a boon or a bust?

Warren, fortunately, won’t have to negotiate a strategy around Biden because she’s not on the same stage. But the downside of not being onstage with the front-runner is that you’re not on stage with the front-runner. Though the DNC used the random-draw technique to avoid the perception of a kids’ table debate, the debate that doesn’t include the front-runner will be viewed as the kids’ table debate anyway.

From the moment the lineups were announced, compelling arguments have been made on either side of the question of whether Warren’s draw was good or bad luck. She will be top seed on her own night, while candidates the next night have to decide whether to try roughing up Biden. On the other hand, viewers might see that she isn’t onstage with Biden, Sanders, Buttigieg, or Harris and assume that she sucks and no one likes her. Or they might not watch the first debate at all, because four hours of “politics on the TV” is a large sacrifice of both time and the soul, and if you’re going to watch one, it would be the one with more of the candidates who matter and are likelier to fight.

These first lineups, then, will at least be an interesting exercise in data gathering ahead of the July debates. If this draw works for Warren, then we’ll know that the goal of the July debate draw is to be the highest-polling candidate in the non-Biden debate. If it doesn’t work for her, then the non-Biden debate will be recognized de jure as the kids’ table.

Which quasi-realistic candidate will be the thirstiest for a “moment”?

Cory Booker, hands down. As the New York Times wrote this week, “Few other contenders are under as much pressure to distinguish themselves at this debate, and the one next month, as he is.” He is going to try so hard! Expect BIG ENERGY.

Which candidates are most likely to have a “moment,” though?

We see two types of moment-having. We’ll call one pool of potential moment-havers the Ben Carsons. Here, a distant candidate with very little chance of winning the nomination, and with whom most of the country is completely unfamiliar, can get a real surge that eventually peters out once more scrutiny is applied. That could be, in this case, author and activist Marianne Williamson or tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang.

The other pool, for which we don’t have a name because no perfect 2016 analogue comes to mind, comprises second-tier (or lower first-tier) candidates whose poll numbers haven’t matched their potential. That could mean Booker, yes, but it could also mean O’Rourke or Klobuchar. We’d even include Buttigieg and Harris in this category. Though they had great launches, both have stalled out recently, and both know how to create “moments.”

Do these debates matter?

It’s not like the first debates are going to determine the presidential nominee, but sure, they can matter! They are great opportunities, as we mentioned above, for candidates with potential to elevate themselves in the conversation. They’ll also offer insight into some big questions that have been out there. Does Joe Biden’s front-runner status collapse, for example, when he’s challenged pointedly? Does Bernie Sanders have something new in the tank to jump-start his stalled campaign? The first debates are the first good shake of the campaign, and could bend the trajectories of some of the major candidates.

OK, but should I watch them?

Meh. You certainly shouldn’t feel obligated; it’s just politics. You go have a nice meal out or watch Netflix, and then visit Slate, where we’ll tell you everything that happened.