The number of presidential candidates for Thursday’s Democratic debate has been reduced to seven. In theory, that means more room for people to talk. More time to make your case. More opportunities to engage in conflict. More chances to say things you instantly regret.
The pressure on the candidates to manufacture drama will be considerable. With 46 days before the Iowa caucuses, no one holds a commanding position in the race. The four leading candidates—Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren—have to balance the desire to remain nobly above the fray with the need to knock their chief competitors off track. And the three candidates on the stage who are mostly polling in single digits—Amy Klobuchar, Tom Steyer and Andrew Yang—have to draw enough attention so they will get invited to the January 14 debate, the last one before Iowa. The Democratic National Committee hasn’t announced what the exact criteria will be, but any raising of the thresholds could leave all three out on the street.
Yet the candidates all seem to be rightly wary of open conflict, out of fear of backlash from voters who just want everybody to get along. The candidates who have thrown the hardest punches in the debates—including Cory Booker, Julián Castro, Kirsten Gillibrand and Kamala Harris—are either not on stage this week or are out of the race entirely.
How to walk the line between inspiring and unsparing? Here’s what each candidate needs to do tonight to win.
Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren: Stop pretending you’re on the same team
Much of the time, Sanders and Warren act as if they are a progressive tag team, joined in battle against the party establishment. But with each passing week, the conundrum facing their campaigns becomes clearer: There isn’t room for two hard-left candidates in this primary. One of them needs to consolidate the party’s left-wing faction to have a chance at the nomination.
But it’s also tricky for Sanders and Warren to attack each other. Going after a fellow progressive could backfire and cause one’s supporters to defect out of sympathy. Still, each candidate should be trying to articulate why he or she would be the best standard-bearer for the left, in electoral and legislative terms. They need to emphasize what each has to offer that the other doesn’t.
Sanders can say that of the two major candidates striving to deliver big, structural change, he is the one who’s built a diverse movement. Many progressives believe that the way to beat President Donald Trump is to boost turnout from young, nonwhite voters. The fact that Sanders is the leading candidate among young African Americans and Latinos—and in some polls, among Latinos overall—is a big point in his favor.
He doesn’t have to say out loud that Warren has lagged behind him with people of color for that message to be received. And in all likelihood there are white progressives in Iowa—the same folks who gave Barack Obama his first 2008 victory—who are uncomfortable with a nominee who doesn’t attract strong multiracial support.
Warren can, in turn, argue that she is the most determined to steamroll Republican attempts at congressional obstruction, by placing the abolition of the Senate filibuster at the top of her to-do list. (Sanders stops short of ending the filibuster, and instead offers to liberally interpret the budget reconciliation rules to circumvent the filibuster, which some filibuster opponents argue is an excessively complicated, even timid, approach.) Progressives want to build a diverse grassroots movement to win the presidency, but they also want the presidency to produce meaningful legislation. So what may seem like a dry process issue to low-information voters is of huge importance to the Democratic Party’s progressive base.
Sanders and Warren are most comfortable drawing contrasts with party moderates, by criticizing the influence of donors and pledging to check the power of corporations. But left-wing voters already know they are well to the left of Biden and Buttigieg. What they need to hear is why they should choose one progressive over the other.
Pete Buttigieg: Take a punch, and take it easy
Last month’s debate took place right after Buttigieg seized the lead in multiple Iowa polls, raising expectations that he would face a blizzard of attacks. He didn’t.
Since then, Buttigieg’s opponents have become more willing to take him on. Warren recently jabbed Buttigieg for his reliance on large donors, and for incomplete transparency about who those donors are and what he says to them at closed-door events. On Monday, the Sanders campaign sent out a small-dollar fundraising email mocking reports that Buttigieg held a private fundraiser in a glitzy “wine cave.”
How has Buttigieg responded to the pressure? By seeming prickly.
When he was pressed on when he would make a decision on whether to allow reporters into his fundraisers, he gave a series of curt and vague responses through a tight smile and gritted teeth. A Warren supporter with a modest Twitter following posted a clip of the answer, deemed it “devastating” to Buttigieg and generated 2 million views.
Then, in response to Warren’s implication that he offers big donors “special access,” Buttigieg shot back, “The thing about these purity tests is that people issuing them can’t even meet them,” an apparent allusion to the closed-door fundraisers Warren held during her Senate campaigns. Perhaps Warren is vulnerable to a hypocrisy charge, but Buttigieg’s response didn’t address the idea that his large donors hold disproportionate influence over him.
When under attack, a politician with a confident posture can instill confidence with voters. But confidence looks like arrogance when legitimate questions don’t get satisfying answers. Buttigieg should make sure the answers about his record are substantively sound, and smoothly delivered, before he attempts to turn the tables.
Joe Biden: Don’t be weird
Biden is arguably having his best month since his first month of the campaign. The weeklong “No Malarkey” bus tour of Iowa seems to have paid off. One woman, who came to a Biden tour stop as a skeptic and left inspired, told POLITICO: “He was fluent. He was articulate. He spoke without notes.”
So how does Biden get that guy to show up at the debate?
Biden will always be prone to making a poor word choice—such as promising to keep “punching” domestic violence—or to garbling an anecdote, as when he inaccurately conflated three stories of others’ military heroism into one.
But sometimes his disjointed responses come when he’s faced with a question he doesn’t want to answer directly. The “record player” moment from the September debate happened when Biden was asked, “What responsibility do you think that Americans need to take to repair the legacy of slavery in our country?”
Biden is one of the few Democratic candidates who has not said he would sign legislation to formally study the possibility of reparations. Considering his meandering answer from September, I can only conclude that he didn’t want to give a clear answer on an issue that deeply divides white and black voters.
The candidate most opposed to malarkey, who has been able to make all sorts of provocative statements without bleeding support, should be able to take any debate question head-on, without resorting to cringe-inducing discursions.
Another awkward debate performance from Biden will almost certainly not destroy his chances—after all, the other ones didn’t. But the debates have constrained his ability to build such a commanding lead that he can lock down the nomination quickly and avoid a messy primary and convention. Biden should worry less about avoiding controversial statements, and more about avoiding weird statements.
Amy Klobuchar: Keep it slow and steady
The low-key Klobuchar is not going to win the race on charisma. Her lone hope is to be last safe person in the race after voters sour on everyone else left standing. She doesn’t need to try to manufacture a dramatic moment.
She’s done well in the past two debates by making a more forceful case for pragmatism. She didn’t hesitate to draw ideological contrasts with Warren and Sanders, or to knock Buttigieg’s résumé. But an attempt to deliver a vicious blow would be incongruous with her Minnesota Nice persona and could even risk encouraging more stories about her allegedly harsh treatment of her staff.
Andrew Yang: No whining, more fighting
Yang has had the least amount of speaking time in every debate but one. After the last debate, which was sponsored by MSNBC, Yang complained about it and announced he wouldn’t go on MSNBC unless he received an on-air apology.
But Yang is a long-shot candidate, and long-shot candidates typically get less time. (In the October debate, Tom Steyer spoke the least.)
The way for long-shot candidates to overcome shabby treatment from debate moderators is to earn the support necessary to justify better treatment. Yang, who just barely made it in to this debate, should prepare to make the most out of whatever questions he gets.
If anyone should be instigating conflict with his rivals, it’s Yang. More conflict ensures more speaking time. And it presents opportunities to prove his vision of universal basic income offers more sweeping change than anything else being offered. Yang can’t assume the few questions he is likely to get will relate to what he calls the “Freedom Dividend,” but picking fights over the economic plans offered by other candidates will guarantee that his signature issue gets discussed.
Tom Steyer: Don’t talk about you
The way things are going, Steyer’s political legacy will be that he blazed the path for future unqualified white billionaires to go on presidential campaign “bucket list” vacations, while boxing out candidates of color with solid résumés and serious policy platforms. Steyer is on the stage again only because has spent nearly $50 million on ads in early states that have goosed his poll numbers.
Steyer should announce on the December debate stage that from now on, all of his campaign money will be devoted to ads designed to boost the numbers of Cory Booker and Julián Castro, so they can make the January debate. He could then proceed to answer every question with praise for the policy proposals offered by Booker and Castro.
The way for Steyer to salvage his reputation is to use his money to lift other voices, instead of drowning them out.