What You Need to Know About the Second Democratic Debate

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Democratic Presidential Candidates Hold First Debate In Las Vegas
Photo: Joe Raedle/2015 Getty Images

The next Democratic debate is Saturday night — yes, on a weekend.

The debate was supposed to focus mainly on the economy — but in the light of Friday night’s horrifying attacks in Paris, CBS has now indicated that the subject matter of the event will be changed to focus more on the issues of terrorism, national security, and foreign affairs.

If you already have other plans, here’s a guide to help you decide whether it’s worth canceling them to stay home and stream it.

When and where is the debate being held?
The Democrats are congregating in the Sheslow Auditorium at Drake University in Des Moines. The debate will start at 9 p.m. and last two hours. This will be the only Democratic debate held in Iowa before the caucuses on February 1

Let’s say I have a friend who has no plans on Saturday and wants to watch the debate. How would they do that?
CBS News and the Des Moines Register are co-hosting the debate, so you can watch it on your local CBS affiliate or listen to it on a CBS News–affiliated radio station. It will also be streaming on CBSNews.com, so all exceptionally cool party hosts can just litter their houses with laptops and tablets playing the debate. 

Who’s debating?
The Democratic race shrank quite a bit in the month since the last debate. Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O’Malley are the only people left running.

Wait, there were other people running?
Therein lies the rub. There were three other candidates vying for the Democratic nomination, but they didn’t have much luck getting anyone to pay attention to them. And when they finally had a chance to introduce themselves to the public in October … they failed miserably. The day after the debate, Wolf Blitzer asked Lincoln Chafee, “So at what point will you drop out?” The answer turned out to be “soon.” Jim Webb spent most of the last debate complaining about how no one would let him answer any questions, and later dropped out and said he was thinking about running as an independent instead. Lawrence Lessig, a campaign-finance advocate and law professor, dropped out of the race after it became clear he was never going to make it on the debate stage. While the Republican primary contest remains so large that two separate debates are necessary every time the party takes the stage, the Democratic debate, with only three candidates, is going to look pretty empty. 

What about Joe Biden?
Nope, he’s still not in the race. He announced last month, shortly after the first Democratic debate, that it was too late for him to enter the race. Since a month has passed, it seems probable that the same logic holds. However, he did say he “will not be silent,” which means he will probably be watching the debate at home tomorrow, periodically yelling at the screen with the answers he thinks they should give. 

So why is this debate on a Saturday again? 
Good question. The Democratic National Committee has been criticized extensively for its decision to hold only six prime-time debate — the Clinton camp was reportedly pushing for even fewer. Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley have been particularly incensed about losing the chance for more exposure. The prevailing theory for why the DNC is sanctioning only a few debates is that the committee is trying to help Clinton keep her lead — preventing the possibility of a drawn-out primary that leaves the nominee weakened for the general election. The DNC disputes this theory. 

Once you look at the debate calendar, however, it’s hard to believe that the people planning these events weren’t secretly writing “The Guide to Throwing a Party Where No One Shows Up and You Can Have Your Cake and Eat It Alone.” According to Vox, only 7 of the 100 debates held since 2000 took place on a Saturday. Half of the Democratic debates scheduled this year will take place on the weekend — including one on a Saturday before Christmas and a Sunday before Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The next two won’t take place until February and March. The only one scheduled to take place during the week already happened.

Saturday’s debate — which is taking place in Iowa — happens to have a scheduling conflict with a big Iowa Hawkeyes game, too

The Republican National Committee scheduled ten debates before April — and many of them have already broken viewership records, thanks to Trump. “Left unchecked,” Democratic consultant Stuart Rosenberg wrote in an op-ed in Time, “the superior RNC schedule could easily reach 50 to 100 million more eyeballs than the current Democratic schedule — meaning tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars of lost opportunities to persuade, engage and excite the audiences all Democrats will need to win in 2016.” 

As of now, however, the next three Democratic debates will all be held on the weekend. 

And how am I supposed to stay awake during this debate?
According to moderator John Dickerson — host of Sunday show Face the Nation — the debate will focus a lot on the economy, which should be more than exciting enough to keep you from falling asleep! (Update: This guide was written on Friday, but as of Saturday, the debate will now focus more on terrorism and national security in light of the Paris attacks.)

I fall asleep every night listening to a recording of Bernie Sanders talking about stagnant wages and Glass–Steagall.
Hmmm, well … the smaller lineup — and Clinton’s growing lead in the polls — could make for some suspenseful moments onstage.

In the weeks since the last debate, when Sanders announced that he was tired of hearing about Clinton’s damn emails, the front-runner managed to make the Benghazi committee look bad and win a few union endorsements. Sanders is expected to be a bit tougher on Clinton in their second round on stage — highlighting her “evolution” on issues like the Keystone XL Pipeline, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the Iraq War. “I disagree with Hillary Clinton on virtually everything,” Sanders told the Boston Globe editorial board last week. He added to the Burlington Free Press, “Also, how we came to our point of view — and when we came to our point of view — is something that I think the voters in the Democratic primary process should know about, and they will know about.” These are things he’ll probably try to mention at least a few times on Saturday. He also talked to the Globe about those damn emails, saying that she was still being investigated over them. “I didn’t let her off the hook. There is a process going on in this country. There is an investigation. The FBI is doing what it is doing. … Whatever happens with the email thing will happen. I don’t know. I’m not an expert. Let it take place.” Clinton currently leads the Iowa polls — but Sanders keeps getting closer. Clinton came in third place during the 2008 Iowa Caucus.

He’s closely studying her past remarks, trying to get a greater understanding of her past and present positions, so he can make the strongest substantive case for their differences on issues and decision-making,” one Sanders adviser told the New York Times. However, it’s not clear that Sanders is willing to go completely negative — his campaign definitely doesn’t want him to relinquish the essential Bernie-ness that made him so surprinsingly effective in the first place — but don’t expect him to give away a handshake photo op to the competition this time around. 

Sanders, in turn, will have to face criticism from his opponents on his past stances on gun control as the senator of a rural state. It seems likely his rivals will also question the feasibility of many of his ambitious plans to help reduce income inequality. 

Martin O’Malley is already a pro when it comes to listing all of the reasons he thinks Clinton and Sanders are wrong about everything — given how far behind he is in the polls, his potential success is predicated on Clinton or Sanders shedding a bunch of supporters in the near future. In the few moments when the focus shifted away from Sanders and Clinton in the first debate, O’Malley made sure to stare right into the camera and give a stump-speech-esque declaration for why he was such a better choice than his two far more successful opponents. (The stare-into-the-camera-to-try-and-hack-voters’-minds method was last tried by Chris Christie, who is desperate to find new fans after being demoted to the happy-hour debate this week.) The former Maryland governor has received some good press recently — he was profiled in a Rolling Stone article titled “Why Martin O’Malley Could Be the Future of the Democratic Party.” The candidate has tried to latch on to immigration as a way to distinguish himself from his opponents, according to the Times — although immigration is debated endlessly among the endless number of Republican candidates, it hasn’t played quite as big a role in the Democratic contest. If O’Malley doesn’t become a scene-stealer, it’s not clear that he has many more debates in him. He only raised $1.3 million in the last fund-raising cycle.

In other words, you’ve got two candidates eager to topple the front-runner — in a nerdy substantive way that doesn’t make them look like negative meanies, of course — and you’ve got the person leading the race, who also happens to be the most gifted debater, eager to keep floating so high above them that she can stay out of reach of their barbs. 

Who else will be asking questions?
The other moderators will be CBS reporter Nancy Cordes, local anchor Kevin Cooney, and Des Moines Register columnist Kathie Obradovich. According to Politico, Dickerson met with each of the campaigns to learn more about their platforms. Cordes told Politico“The beauty of having just three candidates is that you can spend more time on each issue and with each candidate,” Cordes said. “You don’t feel like you need to jump from topic to topic so quickly that you never get to explore what it is that the candidate would do and how they deal with perhaps some of the drawback of the plans they have proposed. We can go beyond the 35- or 45-second talking point you hear in their stump speech all the time.”