It’s time for Round Two. Twenty Democrats will descend on Detroit on Tuesday and Wednesday for the next presidential-primary debates, and the stakes are rising for all of them. The calm of the campaign’s first few months has disappeared for those at the front of the field, with Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Pete Buttigieg now engaged in a dizzying array of policy fights shaping the national conversation on the left. For the rest, time is running out to prove their viability before the field gets winnowed for the next debates.
Here, based on interviews with leading strategists from across the party, are nine things that the best-informed viewers are expecting to see on Tuesday night.
1. History Suggests CNN Wants a Fiery, Conflict-Filled Debate
Ahead of the first Democratic primary debates last month, some campaign hands spent hours reviewing footage from the 2016 Republican primary debates that were also hosted by NBC properties or that had similar formats. They were looking to understand the rhythm of a ten-person debate and for hints about what kinds of questions might get asked. In the weeks leading up to this week’s edition, hosted by CNN, many did the same. This time, in the old CNN tape, they found fire and fury — questions designed to pit candidates against each other, touchy political flash points front and center, and no hesitation from the moderators to let the candidates fight it out themselves with little interruption. So it makes sense that Joe Biden’s team has already started punching back at his rivals.
2. Expect More Slings and Arrows for Biden
Like in June, Biden will be the center of gravity when he debates on the second night of programming. But this time, he might start taking fire on night one.
Biden’s opponents view him as a serious contender, but not even close to the kind of powerful front-runner he and his team see when they look in the mirror. Not one candidate felt it would even be useful to mention him during the first night of debating last month, figuring his high favorability ratings would diminish over time anyway. But when Kamala Harris went after him the next evening, the rest of the field saw the upside she’d identified: an opportunity to dig at his record and burnish their own standing. Now, Biden maintains a strong polling lead nationally, but he’s also been taking increased fire from a wider array of opponents than ever, led by Bernie Sanders — who’s fighting him on health care — and Cory Booker — on criminal justice. Julián Castro is expected to join in on Wednesday night — on immigration — as is Kirsten Gillibrand — on child tax policy.
3. But Biden Will Probably Fire Back This Time
Biden’s team knows that one of the big knocks it took last month wasn’t just on policy but on the perception that the former vice-president was in some way the obvious pick to stand up to, and beat, Donald Trump. That’s a cornerstone of his overall campaign pitch. And that makes this week’s event a significant test of Biden’s ultimate strength in the contest. It’s why he’s not just preparing to play defense — he’s been on the offensive. Last week Biden’s deputy campaign manager circulated a statement responding to Booker’s criticism and scrutinizing his record as Newark’s mayor, “since next week’s debate format will give Senator Booker twice as much time to make his attacks than it allows Vice President Biden to respond to them.” On Monday, the same aide, Kate Bedingfield, went after Harris’s new health-care plan, which she said “both backtracks on her long-promised — but then-hedged — support of Bernie Sanders’s Medicare for All legislation while at the same time committing to still unraveling the hard-won Affordable Care Act that the Trump administration is trying to undo right now.” She threw in an extra dig at Sanders along the way: “To their credit, the Sanders campaign has been honest that the only way to enact Medicare for All without substantially raising taxes on the middle class would require ‘unicorns’ and ‘magic wands.’”
4. Lower-Tier Candidates Will Lob Hail Marys
It’s dropout season, and not just because Eric Swalwell exited the race earlier this month. This week’s debates are almost certainly the last chance for about half the field to not just make waves but to remain viable at all in the fall. The challenge isn’t just that attention is increasingly centered on five top-tier candidates but that the nominating process’s structure makes breaking through almost impossible after Wednesday: The next debate, in September, will be significantly harder for candidates to reach thanks to the Democratic National Committee’s rules. And that means candidates will be desperate to do something — anything — to be taken seriously by enough voters and donors to stay afloat both financially and politically. That applies particularly to Steve Bullock, who’ll be onstage for the first time, and John Hickenlooper, who replaced much of his senior campaign team after the last debate and who’ll be eager to show off a new side of himself. And everyone from Tulsi Gabbard to Marianne Williamson to John Delaney will be clamoring for scraps of attention, too, between the expected headliner clashes.
5. Middle-Tier Candidates Will Try to Look Like Top-Tier Candidates
But this week’s debates will actually be most important for a different set of candidates: Booker, Castro, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke, and Andrew Yang. That group appears likely to make the September debate — joining Biden, Sanders, Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Pete Buttigieg — but now those candidates need to make the case to voters that they deserve to be taken as seriously as the first five, who are beating them in money and polling.
There’s huge variety in this middle tier. Booker, O’Rourke, and Klobuchar have big campaign organizations, for example, while Castro is building up after getting a fundraising bump following his first-debate success. Yet each will be using their time onstage this week to prove they belong, and some will be looking to generate enough excitement among donors both big and small to give them a much-needed money boost so they can comfortably make it through the lean summer months. And at least Booker — who announced he’d qualified for the next debates on Monday — and O’Rourke — who’s trying to turn the campaign trail into the comeback trail — are expected to design their debate-stage appeals, and attacks, to prove they don’t just belong in the race but in the same conversation as the top contenders.
6. Bernie Sanders and Liz Warren Won’t Scrap
If you’re expecting to tune into Tuesday’s debate to watch Sanders and Warren rip into each other, in a battle of the leading lefties, you might want to make other plans. Both sides have signaled that’s not in the cards, because the two senators genuinely like each other, have a private nonaggression pact, and see no obvious political gain in such a fight. Plus they’re both expecting to be under pretty constant fire from the rest of the candidates onstage, a noticeably moderate roster (including not just Buttigieg, O’Rourke, and Klobuchar but also Hickenlooper, Delaney, and Ryan).
7. That Doesn’t Mean Bernie Won’t Come Out Fighting Though
You still might see a more combative Sanders than you did last month. Some of Sanders’s staunchest allies were disappointed he didn’t get more of a word in while Harris and Biden sparred next to him, seeing it as a missed opportunity to knock Biden down a peg and prove Sanders’s own credibility on civil-rights issues. To those in this camp, Sanders is at his best when he’s fighting an avatar of the Establishment — proving to voters that he’d be their best advocate against entrenched forces lined up against them. They see this week’s debates as a chance to vigorously make a case for his brand of aggressive progressivism, reminding all the voters who were with him in 2016 why they were so excited about him then — and why all these centrists surrounding him onstage, and, in Biden’s case, leading him in the polls, represent weakness and the past.
This, however, is far from a lock. Sanders has in the past resisted advisers’ attempts to get him to talk more about his own biography and sidestepped when asked about the strategic wisdom of some of his decisions — scheduling a big speech about democratic socialism just as Warren’s rise was the dominant media narrative, for example. He does what he wants to do.
Sanders has been eager to criticize Biden’s health-care policies in recent weeks, and his patience with the former vice-president appears to have dried up. But without the two of them appearing on the same night, there’s a big difference between Sanders actively choosing to draw that contrast on a debate stage, by name, and simply continuing to push his tried-and-true — and, to be clear, popular — lines about political revolution. The posture Sanders decides to take on Tuesday could foreshadow a lot about how Sanders sees the race shaking out.
8. Expect Kamala Harris to Get Specific on Health Care This Time
The consensus that Harris did herself the most favors of anyone in the first round of debates came with a fairly significant asterisk: When the candidates were asked if they would do away with private health insurance to make way for a government-run plan, she raised her hand, only to clarify after the debate that she’d misinterpreted the question and believed she was expressing that she, as an individual, would replace her insurance plan with Medicare. The problem for Harris was that this was the second time she’d been unclear on her position about private insurance’s role in her ideal system, fueling complaints of vagueness from her opponents. This time, she’s eager to do away with all that, kicking off the week by unveiling her own vision for expanding coverage in part by empowering people to buy into Medicare programs administered by private insurers.
It’s no surprise Harris wants to get more specific now: Voters regularly put health care at or near the top of their list of concerns, and as the first tier of candidates solidifies, some have faced increased pressure to respond to Sanders’s famous Medicare for All legislation with their own detailed proposals. Sanders’s team, for one, has called on opponents who signed onto his bill to clarify whether they actually support it — co-sponsors of the latest Senate version include not just Harris but Warren, Booker, and Gillibrand too — and in the last debate, Warren went out of her way to explain, “I’m with Bernie on Medicare for All.”
9. And Look for a Bernie-Biden Health-Care Clash
Every campaign New York has spoken with in recent days expects the intense focus on health care to only sharpen on Tuesday and Wednesday, driven in part by moderators eager to force candidates to clearly spell out their policy distinctions. But this is also a fight both Biden — who sees it as a chance to defend Obamacare, remind voters of his ties to Barack Obama, and present himself as a voice of moderation — and Sanders — who views it as central to his political vision and his identity — are eager to have. And depending on how in-the-weeds the candidates get, and how stark their disagreements prove to be, the health-insurance divide could shape the race heading into the fall.
But the biggest schism on the topic is still between Sanders and Biden, and sniping between the two camps has increased in recent weeks as Biden has unveiled, and begun campaigning on, his own plan focused on improving the Affordable Care Act and implementing a public-insurance option. Meanwhile, over the weekend Sanders took a trip to Canada, not far from this week’s Detroit debate venue, to discuss drug pricing.