early and often

‘That’s Hell’: Democrats’ Debate Prep Gets Real

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photos: Getty Images

Often in the early evening over the last few weeks, Joe Biden’s team has told reporters that the front-runner doesn’t have a public campaign schedule for the next day, but that he instead “will meet with advisers.” Biden has lots of meetings to attend to, but increasingly this has been code for prep sessions as the former vice-president and his aides think through how to counter a wide array of inevitable attacks in what will likely be just six and a half to nine minutes of talking time on the debate stage in Miami on Thursday.

Biden debated well during the 2008 cycle and as the vice-president in 2012, but it’s been seven years, and now he knows he’s everyone’s top target. Multiple candidates who are set to debate him next week are expecting both Kirsten Gillibrand and Kamala Harris to go after his flip-flop on the Hyde Amendment, Harris to attack him on his criminal-justice record, Bernie Sanders to criticize his “middle-ground” plans, and Pete Buttigieg to knock him in his signature generational terms. On both nights, they suspect, candidates will bring up Biden’s recent comments about working with segregationist senators. And Biden is preparing for all of it.

“The one-minute answer debate format makes it challenging to go in-depth on issues, and we know candidates will seek breakout moments during the debates,” said one Biden adviser. “But any attacks by fellow Democrats will simply contrast with the vice-president’s positive message about his agenda and his emphasis on the extraordinary stakes of this election.”

Biden, leading in every poll, has little incentive to attack anyone. Almost everyone else, however, does. And now that they finally know who they’ll be debating, and when, their preparation has gotten far more specific, and far more time intensive. Gone are the days when Harris could prepare for weeks without any mind to individual opponents, her team not wanting to waste her time practicing debating someone who wouldn’t end up on her stage. Now she knows she’ll face Biden, Sanders, Buttigieg, and Gillibrand, as well as five others. With that level of specific knowledge, all the campaigns have entered a new phase of preparation.

For a few weeks now, whenever Julián Castro has been out on the campaign trail, an aide has been calling ahead to his next hotel to book its conference room for a few hours of prep time. But now his team’s work to hone his answers — while his aides systematically present him with big-issue questions and offer him body-language tweaks — has reached crunch time. The setup isn’t exactly the same as when Castro preps back home in San Antonio, but by now they’ve grown used to settling in around hotel-conference tables, looking up at the big screen they requested at the front of the room. Cory Booker, too, has been holing up with his team — including a pair of senior advisers who’ve been working with him on debates since 2013 — wherever he can, often at home in Newark, at his place in D.C., or wherever they can find space on the road. They’ve spent hours on end practicing his answers on the biggest issues, too, making sure they’re concise, but also prepping responses to the tougher questions and attacks they anticipate coming his way.

John Hickenlooper has started spending longer stretches at home in Denver to buckle down with advisers, ahead of what they hope is a campaign-boosting Thursday evening, now that they know which nine of the research books on fellow candidates they need to concentrate on. And now Tim Ryan’s aides know which of the 2016 GOP debates had a similar set of rules, so they can more efficiently comb videos for effective strategies.

There was a fair amount of drama involved in the unveiling of the lineups. Campaign teams were alerted last week that they should send a representative to NBC News headquarters at 30 Rockefeller Plaza for a 6 a.m. drawing on Friday to determine who would be on what stage. After some grumbling, the time was pushed back to noon. The campaigns expected the event — which was closed to the press — to be perfunctory and (per the Democratic National Committee’s promises) random, so they dispatched whichever aides happened to be in, or could get to, New York. Harris sent a senior adviser with an apartment in Brooklyn; Gillibrand sent a top aide who’d remained in the city rather than moving to Troy, New York, where her campaign is based, and Buttigieg tapped a staffer who’d stayed in the city rather than relocate to South Bend; Jay Inslee — who recently hired a full-time debate director, Geoff Potter, to lead his preparations — sent his campaign’s lone New York–based employee, a fundraiser.

After an uncomfortable but cordial wait, the rivals were greeted by a team from NBC and brought into a conference room. There, on the table, were the candidates’ names written out on slips of paper arrayed in front of two boxes — one for the candidates polling at two percent and above, and another for the rest. The NBC representatives folded the names and placed them in the boxes, and began the drawing, taping the names up on a pair of easels, labeled “Purple” and “Orange” to represent the two different debate nights, as they went along. Once all 20 names were assigned to a group, the NBC executives surprised the gathered operatives by announcing they’d leave the room to determine which group would debate which night. When they reemerged and announced the plan, it was a senior aide in a top-tier campaign who asked how, exactly, they had picked the schedule. They wanted to maximize viewership, they responded, at which point DNC communications director Xochitl Hinojosa stood and registered the committee’s complaint: They preferred full randomization. But the schedule was set: Elizabeth Warren, Beto O’Rourke, Booker, Amy Klobuchar, Inslee, Castro, John Delaney, Tulsi Gabbard, Bill de Blasio, and Ryan would go on Wednesday. Biden, Sanders, Harris, Buttigieg, Gillibrand, Hickenlooper, Michael Bennet, Eric Swalwell, Andrew Yang, and Marianne Williamson would take Thursday.

Among lesser-known contenders, the big hope — and the plan — is a viral moment or shining performance that can set them apart from the pack before the field is further winnowed later this summer. Many are practicing one-liners and attacks that they think might provide that spark.
The strategies among the underdogs also might end up varying by night. Some of those drawn into the first evening are now planning to use more of the time to introduce themselves rather than to attack better-known candidates, since they’re betting Warren, O’Rourke, Booker, and Klobuchar won’t dominate the spotlight as much as Biden, Sanders, Harris, and Buttigieg would the next night — giving everyone more space to speak on his or her own terms. Those in the second heat seem to be planning lines designed to break through a noisier environment. They’re also planning to watch the first night closely for tips on how to debate on a sprawling stage. None of them have ever experienced anything like it.

There are some elements that seem predictable: Teams debating Wednesday are now writing “Inslee makes a scene about how there’s not enough of a climate focus” into their plans, while the Thursday crowd is expecting a “Hickenlooper attacks socialism” moment. And, with full clarity on the stage configurations, the campaigns have also mapped out what specific attacks they expect to see and what they might look like onscreen.

Meanwhile, now that NBC and the DNC have laid out the exact debate timing rules — 60-second answers, 30-second follow-ups — more long-winded candidates, and those who’ve rarely debated before, have been practicing keeping their answers as tight as possible. Inslee’s team, for example, has been peppering him with questions whenever they find time to practice short answers; Ryan’s has been pointedly timing his responses, too.

Learning the specific rules has also encouraged some of the campaigns to zero in on one specific Republican debate from 2016 in search of general tips. The October 2015 CNBC debate, when there were ten GOP candidates onstage and the timing rules were similar to next week’s, offers a basis for what rhythm to expect, and to understand how moderators enforce the guidelines. Other campaigns have given up on rewatching 2016 tape, figuring that Donald Trump distorted the stages in a way that will never be replicated.

Similarly, a handful have abandoned running full mock-debate sessions, figuring it’s a waste of the candidates’ time to plop them in a line with nine aides pretending to be other candidates for two hours, though some are still blocking off time for smaller versions in the final days before Miami.

Yet most are trying to leave plenty of time for something — anything — to go wrong before the debates begin. Senators’ teams are expecting Mitch McConnell to schedule Senate proceedings on Wednesday and Thursday to force them to fly to the debate directly from D.C. rather than getting to situate themselves. And some have purposely limited the amount of debate-prep time on their schedules, worried that an over-prepared candidate is a robotic candidate onstage.

That, however, is not a consensus tactic. For some of the longer-shot candidates, these debates may be their best, or only, opportunity to break into national viability. And some of those campaigns are planning to prep until the final second, not leaving anything to chance.

“No staffer wants to see their boss come up with a new line on a stage like that,” said one senior adviser to a candidate in search of a breakthrough. “That’s hell.”

‘That’s Hell’: Democrats’ Debate Prep Gets Real