Special Briefing: Democrats Hunt for Their Viral Moment in the Sun

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Why you should care

Get to know the candidates — and how they might battle it out this week.

This is an OZY Special Briefing, an extension of the Presidential Daily Brief. The Special Briefing tells you what you need to know about an important issue, individual or story that is making news. Each one serves up an interesting selection of facts, opinions, images and videos in order to catch you up and vault you ahead.

WHAT TO KNOW

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Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.

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What’s happening? The top 20 Democratic presidential contenders will gather on Wednesday and Thursday in Miami for the first formal debates of the 2020 campaign season. And while general election debates rarely move the needle for one candidate or another, primary debates — which are more about choosing a candidate and less about preexisting partisan allegiance — have been shown in some studies to have a polling impact comparable to the Iowa caucuses.

 

Why does it matter? The candidates are starting to get chippy — witness the rising heat on front-runner and former Vice President Joe Biden — and the debate stage is where we’ll likely see the first real punches of the campaign season thrown. Debates are also an opportunity for lesser-known candidates to break onto a wider radar for the first time. They’ll all be playing for a memorable riff, not just for the audience tuning in at 9 pm ET/6 pm PT each night on NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo but also for the replays across cable news and Facebook feeds in the following days. Here’s a brief look at the 20 candidates.

HOW TO THINK ABOUT IT

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Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

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Woman with the plan. Night One (Wednesday) will spotlight Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, 70. Her “I have a plan” mantra has helped her catch fire with the Democratic base, as a series of detailed policy proposals on everything from canceling student debt to breaking up tech giants have become a rallying cry. Look for her to draw more attention to her working-class upbringing in Oklahoma and her struggles early in her career in academia. Moderators or other candidates could press her on whether her quest to essentially remake the American economy is feasible, and on whether she played up her (negligible) Native American heritage for career gain.

Young guns. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, 50, has been running on a message of “love,” but also took aim at Biden’s recent comments about working with segregationists (the former veep commented that Mississippi Democratic Sen. James Eastland called him “son,” never “boy”). Expect the moderators to ask Booker to elaborate. The star has faded for former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, 46, even as the quirky, social-media-savvy candidate has kept up a relentless road schedule and is skilled with the baby-kissing, diner-visiting side of the trail. He’ll be seeking a viral moment, such as his defense of NFL player protests that propelled his U.S. Senate campaign.

All in moderation. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, 59, wants to be Biden without the baggage. The eat-your-vegetables moderate will pitch pragmatism and her electoral strength with rural heartlanders back home, and could clash with Warren, as could Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, 45. So will former Maryland Rep. John Delaney, 56, who was the first candidate to announce in 2017, and has been running on a pro-compromise platform.

Playing to strengths. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, 58, has been either ridiculed or ignored since he joined the race, but his punch-a-bully-in-the-mouth approach to Trump could win him applause in Miami. Former HUD Secretary Julián Castro, 44, the only Latino in the race, has gone big on immigration (proposing to decriminalize illegal border crossings) and will try to grab the Barack Obama oratory baton. Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, 38, will want to pivot to foreign policy, where her strongly anti-interventionist views could make her stand out when talking Iran. But when it comes to crises, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, 68, has a one-track mind — climate change. Expect him to gripe that the Democratic National Committee won’t allow a whole debate on it. 

Night Two, election boogaloo. Biden, 76, will be at the center and taking arrows from all sides. While he’s by far the most experienced presidential candidate (this is his third attempt) and debater onstage, he’s never been in a position like this. Biden leads in polls by drawing on widespread goodwill from eight years as Obama’s White House wingman, his goofy “Uncle Joe” persona and the expectation across the Rust Belt that he’d be the most formidable foe against Trump. But the “electability” argument could fade quickly if he stumbles onstage. This is the most important night of his run so far. 

Mister Mayor. South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, 37, has been the surprise of the cycle, surging into the top tier of polling and fundraising with a future-oriented message and an out-of-this-world bio (a gay, Harvard-educated Navy vet who speaks Norwegian and plays piano with Ben Folds). He’s starting to take hits, though, for being light on policy and for his response to the recent killing of a Black man by a South Bend police officer. At a town hall event Sunday, he faced jeers from Black South Bend residents over whether he’d done enough to make sure police use body cameras. 

Good on camera. Back again after yanking the party to the left with his 2016 run, Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, 77, is the hipster lefty of the bunch: He was proposing “Medicare for All” and free college before it was cool. His most memorable debate line of his last campaign was when he told Hillary Clinton, “The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails.” Meanwhile, California Sen. Kamala Harris, 54, has had some of her best moments in televised Senate hearings deploying her prosecutorial skills against political foes, but her campaign has not lived up to early expectations. The biggest question for Harris is whether she’ll try to mix it up with her competitors or play it safe.

Mavericks. The two biggest wild cards onstage are the non-politicians: self-help author Marianne Williamson, 66, and entrepreneur Andrew Yang, 44. With her spiritual renewal message, Williamson could reach an untapped mass of voters who aren’t super politically engaged. Yang, the king of memes, will try to expand a young base he’s hooked with ideas like universal basic income and abolishing the penny. If they find traction, keep an eye out for other candidates swiping their ideas and language. 

And the rest. New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, 52, has been considered a presidential contender for years but has underperformed so far. She’ll try to lean in hard on abortion politics; watch for her to take on Biden for flip-flopping on a ban on federal abortion funding. The Coloradans — former Gov. John Hickenlooper, 67, and his onetime protégé, Sen. Michael Bennet, 54 — are bringing the let’s-all-compromise style for Night Two. You’ll probably hear Hickenlooper talk about his craft brewing career, and Bennet talk about beating back a recent cancer scare. California Rep. Eric Swalwell, 38, is still trying to find his stride as the gun control candidate, proposing to ban and buy back every “assault rifle” in America. 

WHAT TO READ

What We Know About the Impact of Primary Debates, by Julia Azari at FiveThirtyEight

“While vote choices in general elections are mostly shaped by partisanship — and thus debates have a limited effect — primary voters are looking for other differences, such as whether candidates are likable, electable or compatible with them on issues.”

Debate Veterans’ Advice for a Crowded Stage: Be Brief and Ready for Broken Rules, by John McCormick and Tarini Parti in The Wall Street Journal

“All of the candidates will try to deploy a memorable zinger, and doing so successfully is rarely an accident.” 

WHAT TO WATCH

It’s 2020 24/7

“If you lose by just a little bit, people are like ‘That’s my guy!’”

Watch on The Daily Show on YouTube:

How the Democratic Candidates Are Trying to Go Viral at the Debates

“The reason there are so many candidates running is because there is no real front-runner.”

Watch on The New Yorker on YouTube:

WHAT TO SAY AT THE WATERCOOLER

What about your gaffes? Debates don’t necessarily make a candidate, but they can help break one: Think Rick Perry being unable to name all three federal departments he wanted to abolish in 2011, Marco Rubio repeating himself and looking robotic in 2016 or Dennis Kucinich talking about seeing a UFO in 2007. While not mortal wounds for front-runners, the gaffes did serve to reinforce existing negative notions about the candidates — and accelerated their slides toward the exits. We’ll see if the bell tolls for anyone this week.

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