vision 2020

No One Knows How to Prepare for the Democratic Debates

The January 2016 Democratic primary debate in Charleston, South Carolina. Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Some Democratic presidential campaigns have dispatched staffers to comb through tape of the Republicans’ 2016 debates, studying ways to break through the noise, like a zinger-ready Carly Fiorina did, or to avoid getting embarrassed, like a robotic Marco Rubio.

Others have started blocking off time in their schedules to stand their candidate in a semi-circle with nine other people mock-jockeying for attention as practice.

Others still have aides drilling candidates on the policy questions they’re most likely to face whenever they get a free second on the road. Some have simply thrown up their collective hands and decided it’s not worth doing any of this for a few more weeks.

But each of the 20-something campaign teams, secretly convening in hotel meeting rooms and living rooms across the country, with June 26 and 27 circled on their calendars, has come to at least one joint conclusion. No one has any idea how on earth a candidate is supposed to be fully prepared for the first debates.

It’s not just that the field of candidates is hilariously large, which means the group will be divvied up into two “heats” of ten candidates over two nights — an arrangement none of them, or the expert debate coaches who have been hired, has ever experienced before. And it’s not that the candidates don’t yet know who’s actually going to make the stage, let alone who they’ll be facing on their night. (The campaigns will find that out in two weeks, but they can’t fully design their attacks until then, since going after someone who’s not there to defend him- or herself is a tricky task.) It’s not even all the looming questions about the debates’ format, which they assume will be sorted out in the coming days — who’s asking the questions? How much time will any of them get? (Enough to even make a point?) What are the ground rules for responding to other candidates? Will they be sitting, or standing, or roving?

It’s that they all know the contest for the 2020 nomination might now be just weeks away from turning into a televised free-for-all, and they have to figure out how to one-up nine other people onstage without being too cringe-inducing about it. “You’re trying to have a moment, or at least do some good for yourself, when a lot of people are tuning in for the first time,” says a top aide to one campaign. “You have to prep now, and you have to put a lot of time into it, even though the reality is you may only get five-to-ten minutes. You have to make those five-to-ten minutes work,” offers another. And that’s because, with an unsettled field, a hated incumbent, and a restless primary electorate, explains Dan Kanninen, a senior party operative, “these debates are going to be, as much as debates ever have been, appointment viewing for Democratic voters.”

Each of the campaigns is operating under the assumption that their candidate won’t actually have much time to make his or her points onstage in Miami. But ask four different campaigns how much time they’re expecting and you’ll get four different answers, though all think the sweet spot is somewhere between five and ten minutes. But, goes their obvious follow-up, will the questions be distributed evenly — will Eric Swalwell get as much time to talk as Joe Biden — or by poll standing? The teams have bombarded both the Democratic National Committee and NBC News, which is hosting the first debates, with such questions, and they’re starting to get some answers about what to expect. They were told on Friday that the candidates polling above 2 percent — a threshold for qualifying is polling at one percent — will be split evenly over the two nights, so there’s no chance of accidentally creating a de facto JV debate.

But with a field so sprawling, and with wildly differing paths to victory for each of the 20 candidates who will make it onstage, each must now determine how best to use the likely limited time. “You have to look at it as: What is the list of things that only my candidate, on that stage, can say?,” explains a top adviser to one candidate who’s looking to use the debates as a breakthrough from the bottom tier. Many such candidates have spoken with their teams about trying to engineer such an emergence next month, and the imperative to do so became all the more urgent on Wednesday, with the DNC announcing tightened qualifying criteria for the third debate in September. That means long shots have little time to turn themselves into real contenders. At the same time, multiple middle-of-the-pack candidates think there’s a chance for one of them to get a serious look as a potential top-tier contender if they perform better than expected. Some of the leading candidates in the race — or in individual ideological lanes — meanwhile, simply want to solidify that position, and defend themselves from attacks from below. In practice, says Dave Hamrick, who managed Martin O’Malley’s 2016 campaign, that means “each candidate has to come up with a strategy for what they’re trying to achieve. Are you trying to have a viral moment? Drive a message on a certain issue? Certain news stories with certain headlines? Something you want to pop for fundraising potential? Not make a mistake and do no harm?”

The task is likely most complicated for the longest-shot candidates who make the stage, many of whom expect the field to go through a significant winnowing as money and attention, and space on the fall debate stages, gets tight late in the summer. Advisers to such campaigns say they’re trying to engineer a move similar to the one GOP candidate Fiorina made in an early “undercard” debate last cycle, where she outshone the rest of the pack and rose in subsequent polling. If you’re one of these underdogs, says Hamrick, “the five or six minutes you have must be must-see-TV moments. You need to get the stories written about you, so you need to swing for the fences. And you need to prepare for that.”

As a result, these teams are weighing a variety of tactics to make headlines, including attacking the best-known candidates or making onstage pledges or challenges to other contenders. One campaign aide said her team was scouring 2016 debate tapes for tactics for how to butt in and claim more time than initially allotted.

The risk, though, is a debate full of gimmicks, or ten monologues with little substantive engagement. Overpreparing one-liners can lead to overly mechanical-seeming moments onstage, like when Rubio repeated a canned line about Barack Obama four times in a New Hampshire debate, leading to significant embarrassment. “It’s really hard in a debate of ten people to plan your moment anyway, it’s setting a bar that’s pretty impossible to meet,” says another senior campaign aide. “You gotta go in there and just try to do something good for yourself. You can’t sit around and say, ‘We’re going to make a viral video.’” Some of the major candidates are already taking stock of some expected attention-grabbing gambits: One said that when her campaign team was gaming out potential debate scenarios, they always plan for Jay Inslee to complain there isn’t enough of a climate focus.

There are, of course, some traditional prep methods that still make sense for candidates today. “You start early for the first debate with the issues prep,” for example, explains one Democratic operative who’s prepared candidates for debates over recent cycles. “Even if you’re Joe Biden or Elizabeth Warren, or another candidate with massive substance and experience, you still need to refresh on every issue. You need the 80 questions that might come up, and what your basic answer might look like,” at least two months in advance. And “I would run a mock session,” says Mark Longabaugh, a longtime party operative and a senior adviser to Bernie Sanders in 2016, “to make sure the candidate is comfortable with that kind of a give-and-take.”

But there isn’t even much agreement about the best way to design even that staple of debate prep. While some campaigns have been wrangling nine staffers or volunteers to stand around their candidate and pretend to be their rivals, to create the most accurate preview of Debate Night, others have been holding smaller sessions with just three or four mock opponents at a time, so as not to waste the candidate’s time standing around while others talk. And while some campaigns are digging through video of the Republicans’ 2016 debates to look for tactics in a crowded field, others have dismissed that idea as useless, since Donald Trump so thoroughly dominated those events, and there’s no Trump-like center of gravity in this race.

All of which is why there are some campaigns — including some leading ones — that simply don’t have much of a plan yet at all. A handful of candidates who take questions frequently, either at their own events or in televised town halls, believe that’s practice enough. “We’re operating under: It’s impossible to prepare for, so let’s not overprepare,” says a top adviser to one candidate. “You don’t know what question you’re going to get. You don’t know what attack you’re going to get. So you don’t prepare for anything.”

Such teams are hoping that an old rule of debates holds true: that the best, most memorable moments are the ones that candidates have a vague idea are coming but for which there’s no prewritten script, so they can shine on their instinctive responses. Sanders’s advisers had prepped him to dismiss Hillary Clinton’s email scandal at the first debate in Las Vegas in 2015, for example, but they didn’t know how he’d do it or when. “The American people are sick and tired about hearing about your damn emails” became the line of the night.

Then, of course, everyone knew there’d be discussion of Clinton’s server. This time, there’s no such obvious looming issue. “If you’re someone who needs to have studied opponents and planned attacks, this is going to be very difficult for you,” predicts Erik Smith, a veteran Democratic strategist who’s been closely involved with debate planning for years, including helping to coordinate the DNC’s program through much of the 2016 primary. “If you don’t know who the nine other people are on the stage, it does not benefit the planners. It benefits the improvisers.”

So for now, at least, everyone is improvising. Many campaign schedulers have blocked off chunks of time in June for more serious prep once the debate lineups are announced. But even then, the candidates know, there will only be so much they can plan for. “At the end of the day, you’re going to have nine other humans onstage with you, so [their identity] is not worth worrying about,” says Kanninen. “And, in some ways, that’s freeing.”

No One Knows How to Prepare for the Democratic Debates