This is the week we’ve been talking about since late December when the Democratic National Committee first announced the schedule of twelve 2020 primary debates. Night one of the first Democratic debate happens on Wednesday followed by the second night on Thursday of this week.
There are many storylines happening right now in the Democratic primary and many different lines of attack opening between the Democratic candidates and against President Trump. Here’s a quick look at where this week is headed.
Biden coasts into debate week largely unscathed
The Associated Press notes that Joe Biden, for all the talk of his weaknesses and vulnerabilities, he has made it to this point largely unscathed by his Democratic opponents. Some of the lower-tier candidates have taken shots at him, but they haven’t stuck:
The early front-runner , former Vice President Joe Biden, has so far fended off the relatively gentle wrath of his rivals. The shortcomings of his most ambitious opponents like Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren have been largely overshadowed. And the fiery concerns of lesser-known candidates, such as former Maryland Rep. John Delaney and entrepreneur Andrew Yang, have been all but ignored.
That dynamic now changes as Democrats enter the most consequential week of the young 2020 campaign season.
The difference this week, with a nationally televised debate, is that attacks on Joe Biden will actually get some press and will receive attention from voters. Up to now, most voters still aren’t paying attention since we’re so far off from the actual Democratic primary next year. However, Biden won’t be able to coast much longer without addressing some of the criticism or taking on some of the attacks directly.
Biden stumbled last week when he mentioned that he was able to work successfully with segregationists despite his difference of opinion with them. The comments were condemned and there was fear that this off-the-cuff statement could begin to erode some of Biden’s support among African-American voters, specifically in South Carolina. However, Biden attended an event there over the weekend and didn’t skip a beat:
After Joe Biden said that he “got things done” with two staunch segregationists, his Democratic presidential rivals were quick to criticize the comments. But in South Carolina, where a significant portion of the Democratic electorate is black, many voters say they’re still open to backing the former vice president.
“I’m looking at which candidate can beat Trump, and Biden was at the top of that list. I have not dismissed him based on the comments,” said Kimberly Taylor, a teacher from Columbia, S.C., who is African American.
Mr. Biden took heat from some of his Democratic primary rivals, including the only two black Democrats in the Senate, Sens. Cory Booker (D., N.J.) and Kamala Harris (D., Calif.). Mr. Biden pushed back against calls from Mr. Booker for an apology and said that it was the New Jersey Democrat who should apologize for publicly rebuking him.
Once again, Biden’s perceived ability to be competitive against Donald Trump will help him be forgiven among a swath of Democrats who simply want to win more than anything. This topic will likely come up during the debate, especially since Biden’s opponents pounced on the comments and called for an apology.
Warren still broadening her appeal
Elizabeth Warren heads into this week at a pivotal moment in her campaign having recently started climbing in national polls. She’s getting more attention from voters, as the Wall Street Journal points out:
A Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey this month found that the number of likely Democratic primary voters enthusiastic about or comfortable with Ms. Warren had risen slightly since a March poll. The number of voters enthusiastic about or comfortable with Messrs. Biden and Sanders dipped between March and June.
It’s not that the debates will be “make or break” for Warren, but they will either help boost her already increasing numbers or serve as a way to knock her back down the list of candidates that voters are warming up to. She’s heavy on policy proposals, and she’ll be basically the only big name candidate on the first night (Wednesday, June 26) so she’ll have a lot to gain from the debate.
Candidates fear aggressive debate attacks
While the upper-tier candidates can afford to play more cautiously since their poll numbers are at good levels, the lower-tier, which is most of the field, cannot afford to sit back and let things roll by. As the AP notes from the same article above, there is concern among party backers and the DNC that the debate could quickly devolve into gladiator arenas where the low-polling candidates go all-out with every intention of making a name for themselves:
Privately, the better-known Democratic candidates concede that an overly aggressive posture could backfire at this early stage. It’s also unclear, in such a crowded contest, who would benefit should Biden or another top-tier candidate fall several months before the first primary votes are cast.
“We’re all going to focus on the issues,” Perez said when asked about the debates. “We’re not going to be talking about hand size,” a reference to GOP personal attacks from 2016.
Underlying the calculus is a real concern among party leaders, donors and strategists that Democratic infighting could threaten their chief goal: beating Trump.
But the lesser-known candidates cannot afford to be cautious. And for the first time, they will have the opportunity to voice their concerns on prime-time television facing their opponents.
Perez can say it’ll be all about the issues but rarely do these types of events stay focused on the issues. Every candidate says that and every party tries to maintain that, but candidates are unpredictable and ultimately it is up to the people on the debate stage to decide where they want to take the questions or how they want to approach their fellow candidates.
It’ll be time for campaigns, such as Beto O’Rourke, who have stalled and diminished in the polls, to come back and try to stake out some ground at the expense of other campaigns. If he can’t make headlines or make some good soundbites, he may be left behind and see his poll numbers fall further.
Buttigieg stalled by police shooting
Most of these candidates already have elected positions where they serve. For Mayor Pete Buttigieg, the city of South Bend, Indiana, is currently his domain. The city was rocked days ago by events that unfolded where a white police officer fatally shot a black man. At a town hall over the weekend, Buttigieg took a barrage of criticism:
Buttigieg said he would call for an outside investigation of the shooting of 54-year-old Eric Logan by Sgt. Ryan O’Neill.
The 37-year-old mayor said he would send a letter to the federal Department of Justice’s civil rights division and notify the local prosecutor that he’d like an independent investigator appointed. He conceded that his administration had failed on two key initiatives.
“The effort to recruit more minority officers to the police department and the effort to introduce body cameras have not succeeded and I accept responsibility for that,” Buttigieg said.
Prosecutors investigating said that the shooting was not recorded by O’Neill’s body camera.
The town hall grew contentious when some community members questioned whether the mayor had done enough to reform the police department in the city of 100,000 people, which is about a quarter black.
“Get the people that are racist off the streets,” one woman in the audience said. “Reorganize your department. You can do that by Friday.”
Whether the criticism is legitimate or not, Buttigieg, as mayor, is where the buck stops for city government. The police department and all other city services are accountable to the mayor’s office and the mayor is accountable to the people. The matter took Buttigieg off the campaign trail for several days and forced him to cancel some fundraising events out of state. There’s no doubt this matter will come up as a topic on Thursday night when Buttigieg appears on the second round of the first Democratic debate.
Follow the 2020 Democratic Debate schedule page for the latest debate information and live stream details for Wednesday and Thursday evening.