The field of candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for president next year is so large it doesn’t all fit on one stage. It doesn’t even all fit on two stages.
But 10 of them will square off tonight in a debate hosted by NBC and its affiliates in Miami. A different 10 will be on the same stage Thursday night. Both two-hour debates start at 6 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time.
With a field that large, many of the candidates beyond former Vice President Joe Biden and former 2016 presidential candidate and current Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders will be unfamiliar to the average voter. For Washington residents, however, there will be at least one other familiar face: Gov. Jay Inslee.
He’ll be the second candidate from the end on the right, as you look at your television screen.
To qualify for the debate, the Democratic National Committee said a candidate had to have at least 65,000 individual donors and have a showing of at least 1% in at least four recognized polls.
At least four actively campaigning candidates didn’t hit those marks, either because they entered the race relatively recently or haven’t developed a workable strategy to meet the fairly low thresholds.
By the luck of the draw, Biden and Sanders are in Thursday night’s debate. The best known candidates in tonight’s debate are probably Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas. All were drawn from the list of candidates who are polling above 2% in recognized surveys.
They’ll be at center stage, which suggests more attention will be on them, along with more pressure to score points on issues or impress viewers with personality or resume. The pressure may be greatest for Warren, who has been climbing in recent polls, to set herself apart from the field, and for O’Rourke, who started his campaign with much fanfare but lately has seemed stuck in single digits.
Inslee was in the drawing for the other group of candidates who have the required minimum number of individual donors but have not reached 2% in many, or any, polls. His campaign, which officially kicked off in March, centers on the need to take steps to halt and reverse climate change, with a promise to make it the key issue of his presidency.
The opening debate is likely to cover a wide range of issues, so while Inslee likes to bring many issues back to the need to combat climate change, he’ll still have to match up with the other nine candidates on other topics.
Along with some of his rivals and a wide range of environmental groups, Inslee has called on the Democratic National Committee to schedule a debate just on climate change, arguing the vital issue received short shrift in 2016. The committee has so far refused, and even warned candidates they could be barred from future Democratic debates if they participate in an unsanctioned climate debate sponsored by an outside group.
Holding the debate in Miami – which is facing significant problems with warmer temperatures and rising sea water that affects everything from drinking water to development to tourism – might put climate change in the spotlight, at least for a few questions.
Inslee has spent this week campaigning in Miami, calling it “ground zero” for climate change and unveiling a plan to wean the nation off fossil fuels.
But debates in the year before the election are followed most closely by the Democratic base likely to turn out for primaries and caucuses. While climate change is important to them, so are progressive issues on the economy, taxes, minority and women’s rights, and who has the best chance of beating Donald Trump in November 2020.
The biggest problem for candidates in the first debate may be that they aren’t in the second debate, which has Biden, Sanders and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who had been climbing in polls and receiving flattering coverage from the national media until recently.
Last weekend, Buttigieg had to leave the presidential campaign trail and return to his city for a town hall to answer questions from the community about the shooting of an African American suspect by a white police officer. The incident also turned a spotlight on questions about the lack of diversity in the police department during his tenure as mayor.
After the drawing that put those three in the Thursday debate, some began referring to tonight’s debate as the warmup, or making comparisons to the 2015 Republican presidential debates when candidates considered less viable were shunted off into a separate debate dubbed “the kids’ table.” Most had trouble raising campaign contributions after that and exited the campaign early.
Unlike 2015, the Democratic National Committee took steps to make the debates as equal as possible, scheduling them on successive nights in prime time. They have a second round of debates on July 30 and 31, with a new drawing that should produce a different lineup.
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