On Friday, NBC released the lineup for both nights of the first Democratic debate coming up next week on June 26 and 27. With the debate happening over two nights, and the list of candidates capped at twenty, with ten candidates per night, the dividing lines had to be drawn somewhere to split the field up over two separate broadcasts. With every intention of avoiding an unfair split, where one of the nights would feature more upper tier candidates than the other, the DNC and NBC seemed to end up with a lopsided result anyway which may help or hurt certain campaigns.
For example, the first night, on June 26, will feature Sen. Elizabeth Warren as the only candidate on stage who cracks double-digits in national polling averages. The rest of Warren’s competition maxes out at 3.6% average polling support.
Low average polling for debate night #1
RealClearPolitics average of national Democratic primary polls for candidates appearing on the first debate night, June 26 (data as of June 17):
12.8% – Elizabeth Warren
3.5% – Beto O’Rourke
2.3% – Cory Booker
1.3% – Amy Klobuchar
0.8% – Julián Castro
0.8% – Tim Ryan
0.5% – John Delaney
0.5% – Tulsi Gabbard
<0.5% – Bill de Blasio
<0.5% – Jay Inslee
Warren is the only name to crack double-digits, and her stock has been rising as of late in terms of broadening support within the Democratic field. Some analysts have said Warren is the “big winner” in the debate since she won’t be sharing a stage with Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders, the two top candidates according to the RCP polling average.
However, not everyone agrees that Warren’s debate placement is a good thing. A writer at the Boston Herald, a paper from Warren’s home state of Massachusetts, laments that Warren has been banished to the “kids table,” as the author puts it:
In what amounts to the varsity debate, Sanders and Biden will be facing off against Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg and six contenders barely registering in the polls.
It’s a bad break for Warren, who was enjoying a bump in the polls thanks to her aggressive tactics and fawning media coverage.
But now she’ll be deprived of taking on Biden in the first round of what could be critical, prime-time debate showdowns on national TV.
Warren needs the chance to directly challenge the former vice president in an attempt to become the anti-Biden alternative in the Democratic race.
But she’ll have to wait until the next round of debates and hope she gets a more favorable spot on the stage.
That’s one way to look at it, that Warren’s debate night will have lower viewership since the biggest names in the field will not be present. On the other hand, however, other analysts took the exact opposite view which is that Warren basically has a two-hour debate all to herself and will be able to take control of the narrative without sharing time with other front runners.
Writing in Time Magazine, Philip Elliott says Warren caught a break by being scheduled on the first night and avoiding direct confrontation with Bernie or Biden:
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren caught something of a break at Friday’s random dividing of the Democratic debate schedule, emerging as the strongest candidate on the first of two debates and dodging what’s shaping up to be a Joe Biden pile-on during the second.
Frontrunner Biden is scheduled to come face-to-face with Sen. Bernie Sanders, a grassroots favorite from Vermont; South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who’s had a surprisingly strong showing so far; and Sen. Kamala Harris of California on the second night of debates. The division all but guarantees that Biden will be playing defense against some of his stronger opponents.
Elliott’s reasoning is that the second night, with Biden and Bernie, on June 27, will be a “Biden pile-on” in which the field will be attacking the front-runner leaving little room for serious discussion or time for expanded answers. If that’s the case, argues, Elliott, then Warren has actually been given a gift of a debate where she alone will be the biggest name on stage, able to avoid a two-hour Biden bash fest.
The LA Times echoes the Time Magazine piece urging Warren fans to “rejoice” over the debate lineups:
Elizabeth Warren fans rejoice: The Massachusetts senator and surging presidential candidate just nabbed the top seed in the easiest, breeziest debate bracket possible.
Her stiffest competition will come from Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), the presidential-campaign equivalent of March Madness teams from “mid-major” conferences such as the Ohio Valley or the Big West. And none of the three have matched the lofty hype bestowed upon them by preseason prognosticators.
The LA Times story concludes by equating Elizabeth Warren to quarterback Tom Brady being able to cruise through the regular season before facing any serious competition in the playoffs. Perhaps that’s true, but this is only the first debate, and the next debate will likely produce a very different lineup over July 30 and 31.
For the sake of comparison, here are the polling averages for candidates appearing the second night of the debate, on June 27 (data as of June 17):
31.5% – Joe Biden
15.8% – Bernie Sanders
7.8% – Pete Buttigieg
7.3% – Kamala Harris
1.3% – Andrew Yang
0.8% – Kirsten Gillibrand
<0.5% – Michael Bennet
<0.5% – John Hickenlooper
<0.5% – Eric Swalwell
<0.5% – Marianne Williamson
With four out of ten cracking above 5%, the second debate night will feature more candidates commanding more support from Democratic primary voters than the first night. Will this matter in the end? Only time will tell and it’ll be noteworthy to watch how Elizabeth Warren decides to handle her time on the first night, perhaps spending more emphasis on policy versus attacking her opponents as they won’t even be on stage with her.