/Cheat Sheet for Tonight and Tomorrow’s Democrat Presidential Debates

Cheat Sheet for Tonight and Tomorrow’s Democrat Presidential Debates

Lambert Strether of Corrente

As so often (and especially after the writers got their Union), the Onion sums it up: “‘I Just Want A Substantive, Issues-Oriented Democratic Debate,’ Lie Thousands Of Americans Hungry For Unhinged Trainwreck.” If you’re still reading, I’m going to go through the logistics and setting of the debates (networks, moderators, candidate arrangement), then the role of the press, and then I’ll look at the form of some of the candidates, although I’m not going to do the idiotic horserace thing of calling winners, then at some sideshow events, and conclude (for now).

Debate Logistics

Date and Time. The debates will take place on NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo from 9 to 11PM EST tonight (Wednesday, June 27) and tomorrow (Thursday, June 28) in the Adrienne Arsht Center, Miami. According to NBC, the June debates will be streaming online for free on NBCNews.com, MSNBC.com, the NBC News app, and Telemundo’s digital platforms.

The Moderators. NBC anchors Lester Holt, Savannah Guthrie, Rachel Maddow, Jose Diaz-Balart, and Chuck Todd. “Holt will moderate the first hour, with Guthrie and Diaz-Balart appearing alongside him; Holt will also appear in the second hour, with Todd and Maddow moderating, NBC News announced.” Note the diverse ascriptive identities. Candidates “will have to be succinct: The debate’s rules grant 60-second answers and 30-second follow-ups. There will be no opening statements.

The Candidates. Tonight: Cory Booker, Bill de Blasio, Julián Castro, John Delaney, Tulsi Gabbard, Jay Inslee, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke, Tim Ryan, and Elizabeth Warren. Tomorrow: Joe Biden, Michael Bennet, Pete Buttigieg, Kirsten Gillibrand , Kamala Harris, John Hickenlooper, Bernie Sanders, Eric Swalwell, Marianne Williamson, Andrew Yang. Warren got an easy bracket.

Candidate Placement. For candidate placement in space, the New York Times has these handy charts. Tonight’s debate:

Kamala Harris

(Beto and Warren are positioned for a dramatic face-off, but I think it’s a shame that Inslee, whose signature issue is climate, is way off at the edge.)

And tomorrow’s:


(Sanders and Biden are positioned for a dramatic face-off.)

These arrangements should create some interesting personal dynamics. The Times once more:

NBC placed the best-known and highest-polling candidates center stage. On the first night, Ms. Warren will have the largest target on her back, as the only candidate on stage who is polling in double digits. She will be surrounded by candidates in search of a breakout moment.

[On the second, elder statesmen Sanders and Biden,] who have each held elective office for decades, will be flanked by a pair of candidates making the case for a new generation of leadership: Ms. Harris, 54, and Mr. Buttigieg, 37.

For candidate placement in time, Time explains:

NBC News went to great lengths to make sure there wasn’t a main event and an undercard, unlike four years ago when it was the Republican Party that had such a mass of candidates. Network organizers this week divided the field into two camps: those polling about 2% and those below. NBC officials wanted to spread out the tiers across two nights and drew folded sheets of paper to [***cough***] randomly [***cough***] assign half of the top tier to one night and the rest to go later.

But fortune is blind, and it still feels like night two is the main event, given the cluster of better-polling candidates on that night. That gives Warren a primetime chance to pitch her big ideas against candidates who, frankly, may seem less serious of a threat.

I don’t mean to be overly cynical about the coin fli — er, folded sheets of paper drawing, but come on: There’s a lot at stake. Like “big ideas.”

The Audience. Not exactly randomly selected. From the Miami Herald:

Thought you couldn’t get a ticket to the first presidential debate in Miami?

If you’ve got about $1,750 to burn, you’re in luck.

According to a private invite obtained by the Miami Herald from a Democratic politician, the Florida Democratic Party is offering exclusive access to the highly sought-after event in the form of sponsorship packages.

For $4,500, a sponsor gets two tickets to a pre-debate reception on June 26 and two tickets to both debate nights. For $3,000, a sponsor will get the two tickets to the reception and two tickets for one of the debate nights, though it is unclear if the person gets to pick which night. A $1,750 donation to the party covers one ticket to the reception and one ticket for a single debate night.

They just can’t help themselves, can they? And that “Almost 40% of Americans Would Struggle to Cover a $400 Emergency” puts the low end, $1750 price of admission into perspective. Now, to be fair, not all the tickets were auctioned off:

The Miami-Dade Democrats were also given a block of tickets, which were allotted to grassroots activists and Democratic leaders who were active in voter registration and “Democratic engagement,” chairman Steve Simeonidis said. The distribution of the tickets was agreed upon by the county party’s leadership team of elected officers.

So, Democrat high-rollers and Democrat establishment. Remember all this when you see who and what’s applauded and who and what isn’t.

The Next Debates. The DNC is doing a big sort. Vox:

The second Democratic debate, on July 30 and 31, will be a similar two-night affair, with similar qualification rules.

But after that, the DNC has said, it’s raising the bar. Candidates will have to hit 2 percent in at least four polls, and they’ll also have to have 130,000 unique donors. The donor threshold in particular will be challenging for many candidates who currently don’t have national followings. So the third debate could well have a far smaller lineup.

The Role of the Press

History shows that the press is adept at picking debate winners. The canonical case for the modern era is the the first debate between Al Gore and George Bush in 2000. The great Daily Howler (who really originated “the media critique”[1] and has been blogging since the 90s) gives the sordid details.

Here was the press’s immediate (“hot take”) reaction: They picked Gore as the winner:

WHO “WON” BUSH AND GORE’S FIRST DEBATE? Again, there’s no perfect way to judge that objectively. But at MSNBC, pundits offered surprising reactions as soon as the session ended. Host Brian Williams turned to Chris Matthews, requesting “your assessment of what went on tonight.” And Matthews, a long-time, lusty Gore-basher, said Gore had won—overwhelmingly. The vice president had been “overpowering,” Matthews said. “Al Gore was effective in dominating the format. He dominated the time, and I have to say he dominated the debate.” Matthews was far less kind to Bush. “I don’t know whether he’s tired tonight, people say he had a cold,” Matthews said. But according to Matthews, Bush had repeatedly failed to respond to Gore’s critiques of his programs. “There was a little bit of Michael Dukakis out there tonight, and that’s very dangerous in politics,” he said. The following night, on his own program, Matthews said that Gore “cleaned [Bush’s] clock.” Given his endless denigrations of Gore, Matthews’ assessment was somewhat surprising. But when Williams turned to conservative Peggy Noonan, she made a similar call. “Well, Brian, I think Gore dominated from the get-go, to tell you the truth,” Noonan said. “As he stood and gave his statements, I think he seemed to be a person of greater sophistication, greater stature, greater subtlety. He was in his zone. Bush seemed to me, I must tell you, unfocused, a little bit tired in time, a gentleman who forgets the predicate of the statement.”

But after a few days, the press (which collectively literally “groaned, howled and laughed” and booed at Gore in the press room during his debate with Bradley at Dartmouth) had changed — or re-engineered — the story:

But even as these pundits spoke, an alternate view was sweeping the press corps. Gore had done better “on points,” pundits said, but Bush really won, by “exceeding expectations.”… By normal standards, this reaction was startling. By most assessments, Gore had substantially outperformed Bush; as noted, he would end up winning all five viewer polls, by an average margin of ten percent. But TV pundits said something more pleasing: Gore may have done somewhat better “on points,” but Bush had exceeded those low expectations, and therefore had gained more than Gore. And this assessment was hardly confined to TV. Indeed, when the nation’s newspapers appeared on October 4, this view was offered all over the country…. Margaret Carlson offered a different thought about why the corps couldn’t “embrace Gore as the winner, ” and her explanation takes us to the second stage of the mainstream coverage of this event. “The sigh [Gore had audibly sighed when Bush repeated some particularly stupid talking point] kept Gore from winning the debate,” she said, referring to a foolish new flap which was already sweeping the press corps. “The media just couldn’t bring itself to give it to Gore because of what the sigh symbolizes.” Sadly, even by Wednesday afternoon, Carlson’s reference to “the sigh” needed no explanation. Once the press corps finished saying that Bush had exceeded those low expectations, a second wave of punditry started, built around alleged sighing and lying. For the next week, Gore was battered for alleged bad manners—and he was battered for alleged lies. In short, the press corps reverted to the Gore-bashing themes which had driven its work from the start.

To recap, immediately after the debate, the press said Gore won. Viewer polls agreed! But within a few news cycles, the press had determined that Gore lost (the sighs). And that became the official story. Watch for a similar pattern, nineteen years later.

The Candidates (Some of Them)

I can’t go through all twenty candidates (though it’s clear that all those who are not frontrunners will be seeking “a moment” that will help them break out of the pack, ideally comparable to Reagan’s “I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green!” in 1980). What I will do is focus on the candidates at the center of the stage, and see whether they have form. On the first night,; on the second, Biden, Sanders, Harris, and Buttigieg.

Candidates on the First Night: Warren, Booker, and Beto.

Warren, as it turns out, was a champion high school debater who went to college (GW) on a full debate scholarship (although she converted it to an academic one). “Fellow debaters described Warren’s style as a sort of polished brutality.” Warren, then, has form; we can look to her 2012 Senatorial debates with Scott Brown to see (four debates were scheduled; Brown bowed out after three). Here’s an exchange:

One of the sharpest exchanges came over women’s rights. Brown said he supports women’s rights, while Warren talked about his vote against equal pay for women.

“I live in a house full of women,” said Brown, referring to his wife and two daughters. “I have been fighting since I was 6 years old to protect women’s rights. We are both pro-choice. I believe very much in women getting the same pay and benefits. … When you refer to paycheck fairness, you know, right idea, but the law is the wrong bill.” He added, “You can cherry pick votes certainly and try to distort things, but I’m very happy with what I’ve done and I’m going to work.”

Warren said she had “no doubt” that he was a good husband and father. “He’s had exactly one choice to vote for equal pay to equal work, he had exactly one chance to vote for insurance coverage for birth control and other preventive services for women,” she said. “He voted no. He had one chance to vote for a pro-choice woman from Massachusetts to the United States Supreme Court, and he voted no. Those are bad votes for women. This one really matters. There is a lot at stake.”

“You have another 20 seconds if you wish,” said moderator Jim Madigan, who meticulously kept time.

“No, you know, I think that says it all,” Warren said.


Booker had two Senatorial debates with Republican Steven Lonegan (who he beat handily in the election) in 2013; the first was characterized as a draw. The second was characterized as a “slugfest.” Here’s an exchange:

Later, Booker said Lonegan would want to gut environmental regulations, using the polluted Passaic River as an example of the need for them.

“You may not be able to swim in that river, but it’s probably, I think, because of all the bodies floating around of shooting victims in your city,” Lonegan shot back.

“Oh my god,” Booker replied. “This is what he thinks of our cities – bodies floating in the river. How insulting is that?”

(Pretty insulting, though not as insulting as Lonegan comparing Newark to a “black hole” (!!)). A good riposte, but in the reading perhaps a little week. The Times asks, correctly “Is Cory Booker Too Nice? (And Is That Bad?).” I’m not sure “nice” is the way to deal with “polished brutality” (to be clear, I don’t think that’s a bad thing; I don’t want to have a beer witih any of the candidates, for pity’s sake).

Beto had his own Senatorial debate with Ted Cruz. Beto, too, has form (and notice the play to the moderator):

“Ted Cruz has put his career above the interests and priorities of Texas,” O’Rourke said. “Ted Cruz is for Ted Cruz.”

“Cruz tried to respond to the comment but was cut off by the moderators because it was not his allotted time for a response.

“I have to respond to that,” Cruz said. “I get 60 seconds for rebuttal.”

As Cruz and the moderators spoke over each other, one voice could be heard coming through.

“That’s not what you said when you established the rules at the outset,” O’Rourke said.

That’s a moment.

Candidates on the Second Night: Biden, Sanders, Harris, Buttigieg.

Biden, surprisingly for such a relaxed, loveable, deeply sincere dude, has form, even without sunglasses. From Water Cooler, June 17, 2019:

“Joe Biden’s greatest (and not-so-greatest) debate hits” [WaPo] • From 2012, still germane. (1) “Moments of genuine emotion are rare in politics. In his debate against Palin, Biden choked up when he talked about his ability to relate to Americans’ struggles, as he mentioned the tragic death of his wife and daughter in a car accident and discussed what it’s like to be a single parent.” So we can expect Biden to milk his son’s death in debate. (2): “[H]e’s also capable of unleashing colorful zingers against the opposition. Case in point: A 2008 Democratic presidential primary debate in which he had this to say about then-GOP presidential contender and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani: ‘There only three things he mentions in a sentence: A noun and a verb and 9/11, I mean, there’s nothing else.’” • Biden’s tag stuck to Giuliani, too. (Biden also eviscerated Paul Ryan.)There’s no reason to think that Biden will do badly in the debates, especially with the press having pre-positioned their anti-Sanders storylines.

Personally, I think Biden milking his son’s death of money and votes is about as unseemly as it gets, but I have no doubt the press will eat it up with a spoon. Biden may have lost a step since 2012, but it won’t do to underestimate him.

Sanders will naturally be relentlessly on message. Whether Sanders has an instinct for the jugular in the moment is not clear to me. “I think the secretary of state is right, the American people are sick and tired about hearing about your damn emails” suggests that Sanders, like Booker, has (in my view) a problem with being too nice.

Harris has participated in a single Senatorial debate (with another Democrat, Loretta Sanchez). Here in excerpt from the Sacramento Bee:

On the debate over police body cameras, Sanchez said, “My opponent was absent.”

Harris, sitting on a lead less than five weeks before the Nov. 8 election, did not shrink from the verbal lashings, using the question about police shootings and law enforcement transparency to prosecute Sanchez’s legislative record.

Harris has said she didn’t support the measure, Assembly Bill 86, because it would have taken discretion away from district attorneys. At the debate, she seized on Sanchez’s use of the word “absent,” citing a recent report showing she has nearly the worst attendance record in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“I think it is is important that you show up,” Harris shot back. “You can travel and have a lot of stamps in your passport, but when you have been appointed to be the chair of the anti-terrorism task force and you don’t show up once, that should call into question your commitment to protecting our country’s national security interests.”

Harris is not bad, but (as it should, frankly) Harris’s response sounds canned. (Attendance is also a gotcha whose lameness is on a par with demands for tax returns.) But this exchange should give Harris supporters pause. From NPR, “A U.S. Senate Candidate Just Dabbed At The End Of A Debate

The two Democrats vying for the Senate spot, California Attorney General Kamala Harris and Sanchez, a representative for California’s 46th congressional district, were held to time constraints by the debate’s moderator. When it was time for Sanchez to wrap up, she kept talking over the moderator until she struck a final pose: stretching one arm out to the side and lowering her head into the crook of her elbow.,,,

(The pose, a millennial dance move, hence used to pander to them, is called a “dab.”) But here is Harris’s response:

Californians watching at home only saw Harris reacting to the strange pose from her opponent. She raised her eyebrows and pressed her lips tightly together before saying, with a laugh, “So, there’s a clear difference between the candidates in this race.”

I don’t think Harris seized that moment. So, whether she can improvise is open to question.

Buttigeig, so far as I can find, has not engaged in a mayoral debate. I would expect him to be prepared and on-brand. However, if you look at what happened in latest Town Hall, he may stumble when challenged. From CBS News:

2020 Democratic hopeful and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg told protesters in his city on Friday that there will be a review of the police department after a white officer shot and killed a black man without his bodycam on. “I’m not asking for your vote,” Buttigieg told one protester, who responded “you’re not going to get it.”

That’s a moment, but not a good one.

Sideshow Events

During the debates, the Club for Growth will run attack ads in Iowa against Biden, based on their polling (“[V]oters are less inclined to vote for Biden if they were told he previously had taken positions that include opposing slavery reparations and busing of school children as part of desegregation system”). Of course, the biggest sideshow of all — the man has his own tent! — is President Donald Trump, who started a rumor in the Wall Street Journal (“tentatively“) he would live tweet the event, but now seems to have backed off (“it just seems very boring, but I’m going to watch it because I have to”). If Trump does, consider adding “He’s got a point….” to your drinking game.


Having started with The Onion, let’s end with Politico, “Democratic bigwigs fear debates will devolve into horror show“:

Interviews with nearly 20 Democratic elected officials, party chiefs, labor leaders and operatives the past week revealed an air of foreboding verging on alarm that the debates will degenerate into a two-night, bare-knuckle brawl. With the divisive 2016 Democratic primary fresh in their minds and the current presidential candidates starting to take swipes at one another, the fear is that voters will be left with the impression of a bickering, small-minded opposition party.

Well, it’s hard to see how that can happen[2]. But if it does, good. Great!


[1] The Howler’s How He Got There is a good companion to the classic What It Takes.)

[2] Don’t they see that a child of six could translate Establishment statements like “an air of foreboding verging on alarm that the debates will degenerate” into “we’d better rig the outcome?”

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