With just one day to go before night one of the first Democratic debate of the 2020 primary season gets underway, candidates have been working hard in recent weeks to plot their unique and individual strategies to simultaneously advance and defend their position in the field. For veteran politicians, such as former Vice President Joe Biden, who have already spent time on the national stage, the planning sessions take on a different meaning and become more of a strategy not to win, but to get out of the battle without taking much incoming fire.
For newcomers and candidates working hard to dig out of low poll numbers, the debates become an opportunity to swing hard and put their opponents on the defensive. Here’s a look at how some of the candidates have spent their time in debate prep for the matchups this week.
Joe Biden plots defensive course
For Biden, a candidate with decades worth of a political career to defend, much of his night will be eaten up by explaining his prior positions and using his answers as a way to pivot into the things he’d prefer to talk about. The Wall Street Journal gives us a glimpse inside Biden’s debate prep strategy:
Mr. Biden has been preparing in recent weeks with the help of an experienced debate team, led by Ron Klain, a longtime Biden adviser who has overseen debate prep for every Democratic presidential nominee since 2004.
Mr. Biden’s team has suggested any criticism will backfire.
An adviser to Mr. Biden said that unlike the former vice president, the other candidates are still introducing themselves and any attacks lodged by an opponent would mean the candidates are giving up time to talk about themselves.
Biden will be easy to criticize, as him team acknowledges, but that criticism will open up an opportunity for the former vice president to address and rebut the attacks before a national audience. Furthermore, as the Biden team also believes, if other candidates spend their time talking about Joe Biden, then they’re not talking about themselves. This creates a situation where Biden wins by default if the debate ends with the status quo intact.
According to New York Magazine, Biden will be staying far away from attacking anyone while he spends all his time touting his positive campaign message:
“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.
Biden will be responding to many attacks, but he’s leading comfortably in the polls, so there’s no reason to appear as yet another person on stage lobbing attacks against someone else.
Kirsten Gillibrand needs a breakout moment
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, of New York, has been struggling to find any footing in the field or, quite frankly, define herself as a candidate and give voters a reason to support her. Gillibrand is polling near the bottom and the debate serves as a chance to advocate for her candidacy, an opportunity she is taking very seriously as this New York Times report details:
The ambush came seconds after Senator Kirsten Gillibrand began launching into a pitch for one of her core policy proposals: a system of publicly financing elections. As she began describing her idea, a man to her right interrupted.
“I’m sorry, I have to step in here,” said the man, who was going by the name of Andrew Yang, one of Ms. Gillibrand’s rivals.
Ms. Gillibrand rebuffed him, parried a skeptical moderator’s question and returned to her main argument: that a proposal like hers would help neuter special interests like the National Rifle Association.
“Let’s talk about the real cost to taxpayers: the fact that Washington is so corrupt,” Ms. Gillibrand said. “The fact that any big idea that we’re going to hear from this debate stage tonight — none of them can get done until you get the money out of politics.”
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Mr. Yang was speechless — or, at least, a simulated version of him was.
For Ms. Gillibrand was not sparring with Mr. Yang and Lester Holt of NBC News on a stage in Miami; she was practicing for the upcoming primary debates with a group of 10 campaign aides in a converted auto dealership with a neon-colored mural of John Lennon on the wall. With Ms. Gillibrand squeezed between them in a row of podiums, two of her campaign consultants, Raghu Devaguptapu and Brandon Hall, rotated through a list of roles that included Mr. Yang, Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Michael Bennet of Colorado, and Joseph R. Biden Jr., the former vice president.
Gillibrand needs to prepare and be ready to deliver her policy views in just a few short minutes with each answer. She needs to be able to defend when necessary, and go on the offense when the opportunity presents itself.
However, perhaps more than anything, if the 2020 Democratic contenders can take something they could learn from Donald Trump, they may have to create the opportunity themselves. As a debater, Trump stood out in the Republican primary debates by grabbing attention and working hard to hold on to it. In a large field, the Democratic candidates this week will need to master doing the same thing in order to squeeze some extra minutes of facetime on the screen.
Every candidate hopes to emphasize their strengths
Every candidate goes in with a plan to hit the few major policy positions which they feel they’re best qualified to address. For one candidate, it may be climate change, for another, it may be campaign finance reform, etc…
Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, a fastidious moderate, said she has watched the crowded Republican primary debates of 2012 and 2016 to soak in the highly fluid format. Allies of Senator Cory Booker, who challenged Mr. Biden assertively last week on matters of race, said he has been holding extended study sessions, breaking up his preparations by doing push-ups on the floor and wedging one practice session into a car ride between Washington, D.C., and his home state, New Jersey.
Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington said in an interview that he had been practicing mock debates with his former chief counsel, Nick Brown, playing a number of rival debaters. But Mr. Inslee said he was mainly focused on explaining his record as governor and his vision for addressing climate change as a national emergency.
“For a candidate like myself, who is essentially unknown, this is a great chance to make a first impression on the nation,” said Mr. Inslee, adding, “I think the dialogue will be much more between the candidates and the viewers, than between the candidates.”
Inslee’s desire to make a great first impression is laudable, but he must absolutely practice that introduction and be prepared for it to be cut short or diced in many different ways. The name of the game is thinking fast on your feet and scoring points in the eyes of the viewers which may mean wandering way off the prepared script that candidates spend a lot of time finetuning and dialing in.
The candidates who tend to stick to their allotted time, only speak when called on, and not use every opportunity to push their message are the ones who tend to be the most inconsequential at the end of the night. The exception to that rule, of course, is that front runners, like Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, or even Elizabeth Warren, don’t have to speak as much as their low-polling colleagues on stage.
Follow the 2020 Democratic Debate schedule page for the latest debate information and live stream details for Wednesday and Thursday evening.