What You Need to Know About the Fourth Democratic Debate

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DEM 2016 Debate
Don't expect them to smile at each other much this time.Photo: David Becker/© Corbis. All Rights Reserved.

The last Democratic debate took place on the weekend before Christmas — and it was unsurprisingly the least-watched presidential debate of the whole season. 

The next debate will take place this Sunday at 9 p.m., during the middle of a three-day weekend and football playoffs. The Democratic contest has gotten far more interesting, as the race between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders has narrowed considerably, but it seems likely that won’t be enough to make the spectacle as much of an event as the sixth Republican debate that took place on Thursday — even if the debate itself is massively interesting. As the Boston Globe points out:

When these debates air matters a lot in ratings. When the first Democratic debate aired on CNN on a Tuesday, 15.6 million watched. When the last two debates aired on CBS and ABC on Saturday nights, the ratings were 8.5 million and 7.85 million, respectively.

If you plan on watching — or even if you have other plans — here’s what you need to know about the debate and the primary race.

If you plan on watching — or even if you have other plans — here’s what you need to know about the debate and the primary race.

When and where is the debate being held?
Just like the Republican debate on Thursday, this one’s in Charleston, South Carolina. NBC News is hosting, which means you can watch it on NBC or online at NBCNews.com. It will start at 9 p.m.

Will that other guy be there?
You mean former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley? He made it — but just barely. NBC originally said that only candidates with an average of 5 percent in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina or nationally would get onstage. All three candidates complained, and NBC said they would round up and let O’Malley in. Forty-two percent of likely Democratic caucusgoers in Iowa still aren’t sure if they have a favorable opinion of O’Malley or not.

And who’s moderating?
Lester Holt and Andrea Mitchell. Holt took over for Brian Williams on Nightly News, and Mitchell interviewed Hillary Clinton last September — and got some help from Bernie Sanders following another Democratic debate after she got caught in a dangerous press scrum. 

Since Mitchell is a foreign-affairs correspondent — and given the emphasis on foreign policy in recent debates — it seems likely that the debate will focus quite a bit on ISIS and what’s happening abroad. This issue obviously plays to the former secretary of State’s strengths, and will likely frustrate Sanders, who just really wants to talk about income inequality.

I’ve been out of the loop because of the holidays. What’s going on in the Democratic race?
Well, it’s a lot closer now. Hillary Clinton’s lead has shrunk considerably in Iowa, and Sanders has a slight lead in New Hampshire. The Clintons, both on the trail now, have said that this was always bound to happen and races always get more competitive, while Sanders says that the polls are getting closer because people are finally starting to hear his message. 

FiveThirtyEight just released its forecasts for the first two primary states, and the models seem pretty confident that Clinton will be able to win both contests at this point. However, there are still a few weeks to go. 

After Iowa and New Hampshire, the race heads to far more diverse states — ones where Clinton seems to have an advantage, although Sanders has been working hard to change that. There hasn’t been a poll in South Carolina in a month, but the last one had Clinton up about 40 points. Which is why Sanders will be trying extra hard to sound extra presidential on Sunday — and why Clinton will be trying to do just as well in this debate as she did in the last one.

So does this mean Bernie won’t be talking about how he agrees with Hillary this time?
Probably not, especially given how both campaigns have acted the past few weeks. Sanders still doesn’t want to talk about those damn emails, but he also wants to win this election. 

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The way it was.Photo: Joe Raedle/2015 Getty Images

As a longtime politician from a very rural state, Sanders has a record of protecting the gun rights of his constituents, and he voted against the Brady bill. However, he also agrees with most of his Democratic colleagues on expanding background checks, and he supported the president’s executive actions, saying that “[a] vast majority of the American people, including responsible gun owners who are sickened by the deaths of so many innocent people, agree with the common sense reforms announced today.”

Despite the fact that Sanders agrees with Clinton on many gun-violence issues, she has still chosen this as a point of contrast on the stump, in ads, and in previous debates.

And it’s definitely going to come up in Sunday’s debate. Politico points out that the event will take place only a block away from where the Charleston massacre took place in June.

Sanders’s campaign is very aware that the issue will come up, too. His state director told Politico, “Obviously, we’re thinking about it. My son goes to school five blocks away from where the shooting took place, I know people who go to that church. That, obviously, will be something that will be brought up. But I think we’ve been very crystal clear about where the senator stands on this.”

Clinton has also gone after Sanders’s ideas on single-payer — as one of the architects of the failed 1993 health-care push, she has strong feelings about what kinds of health care are doomed to fail — another thing that will probably come up this weekend. Ezra Klein called the Clintons’ attack against Sanders’s health-care plan “dumb” for not focusing on the actual weaknesses in the plan, and said she should clearly say why she disagrees with Sanders on this issue in a way that best highlights her pragmatism and expertise, instead of relying on cheap, easy barbs that mask the fact that she’s probably queasy about single-payer. “Instead,” Klein argues, “in her effort to avoid that disagreement, she’s blundered into a position that no one agrees with and no one respects. Worse, it’s a position that makes people think Clinton doesn’t respect them.”

In other words, Clinton has some work to do if she wants to mark differences with Sanders in the most effective way possible — and she’s running out of opportunities to do so.

If the two candidates articulate their differences on these two issues alone, things could get very interesting on Sunday.

Will it hurt Bernie’s rise if Clinton goes a little negative?
It remains to be seen how Sanders will perform in a potentially more confrontational debate, but, regardless, it should do wonders for his fund-raising. After Clinton’s attacks on his gun and health-care records ramped up earlier this week, his campaign raked in at least $1.4 million. If anything gets messy, Sanders’s staffers will definitely be at the ready to send out some shocked emails to supporters. 

If he doesn’t win in Iowa or New Hampshire, he’ll at least have the money to keep chugging on for quite a while longer.

And why is this on a Sunday again?
Ask the DNC

The Democratic Party only scheduled six prime-time debates this election cycle. Half of them were sentenced to take place on a weekend. 

Meanwhile, the Washington Post reports that Democrats in Congress have begun to whisper about what this unexpectedly close primary could mean for their electoral chances this year. “There’s definitely an elevated concern expressed in the cloakroom and members-only elevators, and other places, about the impact of a Sanders nomination on congressional candidates,” retiring representative Steve Israel told the Post. However, it’s worth noting that Israel has also endorsed Clinton and may have an interest in whispering about Bernie-related worries.

To figure out what will happen, we’ll just have to wait and see what transpires in the debate, and then two weeks later in Iowa.

But wait! What’s going on with Martin O’Malley?
He’s probably not destined to do much except periodically complain about how little he gets to talk and mention how he turned Maryland into a paradise on Earth. O’Malley is also reportedly under investigation for buying some cheap furniture from the governor’s mansion.

As The Atlantic pointed out on Thursday, O’Malley probably doesn’t have enough fans to make a splash at the caucuses, but his supporters could have an important effect based on where they defect — something they may sadly be considering during the debate.