In a matter of days, a dozen 2020 Democratic candidates will gather in Ohio for the fourth debate this year. The stage will be the largest single-night event since the debates began back in June, with all twelve major candidates wedged in together on one night.

CNN/New York Times Democratic Debate (Fourth Debate)
Date: Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019
Time: 8 pm ET (5 pm PT)
Location: Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio
Sponsors: CNN, New York Times
Moderators: CNN hosts Anderson Cooper and Erin Burnett, along with New York Times National Editor Marc Lacey

With a lot of political news swirling from impeachment to Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s rise in the polls, to Sen. Bernie Sanders’ heart health scare, here are some key questions that next week’s debate might help us answer.

1) Is Warren’s polling lead going to last?

Just this week, Elizabeth warren crossed the threshold of surpassing former vice president Joe Biden in the RealClearPolitics average of national Democratic primary polls. Biden has led this average since before most candidates even announced their intention to run, so the fact that Warren has finally overtaken Biden, even if only for a day, and if only by fractions of a point, speaks to the weakness of Biden’s position, and the groundswell driving Warren’s campaign right now.

On Wednesday of this week, Warren led Biden in the RCP average 26.6% to Biden’s 26.4%. By Thursday, however, the numbers shifted, and Biden was back ahead with 27% to Warren’s 26.8%. These numbers indicate a statistical tie, with a very fluid race that seems to show Warren moving in the right direction and consolidating a voting base, while Biden seems to be languishing.

Warren’s RCP victory made news this week:

Vox noted that, “Warren also appears to be the only candidate with a steady upward trend in the RealClearPolitics polling average.”

“Warren has led in four of the five most recent polls averaged by RealClearPolitics, although in many cases her lead is still within the margin of error,” the media outlet added.

“And with that Quinnipiac poll, Biden falls out of the lead on the RCP average for the first time all year. Now a co ‘front-runner’ with Warren.

Does this matter? That depends on who you ask. The RCP average of polls gets a lot of praise and criticism depending on your view of the importance of public opinion polls.

In the October debate, can Warren solidify this lead and drive Biden’s numbers down further? She’s at a fork in the road of continuing her climb or stalling, and letting it slip away like so many other candidates have done in the past.

2) Does Biden have something new for voters?

Biden’s debate game has been a mix of playing defense while trying not to make unforced errors. He responds to attacks, and he has battled with candidates to the left of him politically, such as Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Biden has generally made his case that if you want to see someone other than Trump in the White House, and you don’t want to move as far left as Bernie Sanders, then Biden is your man.

The only problem with that argument is that it hinges entirely on Biden’s perceived electability. From the inception of the campaign, Biden has remained the “most electable” candidate in the eyes of many voters. However, that perception is starting to fade with Biden being caught up in the Trump/Ukraine impeachment news tornado happening right now.

What else can Biden bring to the table that would rebuild some of his perceived electability advantage? It seems as though he’s slowly losing support, and that support doesn’t seem to be returning as it chips away little by little.

Perhaps one area which is working in Biden’s favor is the overly large stage with 12 candidates. Biden will get to spend less time talking, and less time being forced into defensive positions, in theory. On the other hand, maybe he’ll be taking more incoming fire from even more of the stage since they see him faltering.

None of the candidates seem happy with 12 podiums on stage, but maybe this plays to Biden’s advantage if he can hide in the crowd.

3) Can Bernie bounce back?

Following his heart procedure last week, questions have begun swirling about whether Bernie Sanders can really continue to run such a grueling campaign that will get even tougher next year. None of this is meant as a criticism of the Senator, but it’s a reality that voters must begin considering. At 78 years old, with an existing heart condition, and doctors advising him to slow it down a bit, Sanders does not seem ready and able to continue with a campaign pace that will only increase.

As the WSJ notes, Bernie’s age is now an issue, whether anyone likes to admit it, or not:

The candidates’ ages, which have bubbled up as an issue for some throughout the primary, is now the source of renewed concern, according to interviews with strategists, Democratic county chairs in early states and voters in Iowa, which hosts the nation’s first nominating contest.

“It factors into the discussions that people have locally,” said Peter Leo, chairman of Carroll County Democrats in Iowa. “I don’t know if it’s anyone’s No. 1 concern, but there is some trepidation.”

Mr. Leo said some activists and likely caucus-goers he has talked to have mentioned the importance of having a younger vice presidential candidate on the ballot in case Mr. Biden, Ms. Warren or Mr. Sanders is the nominee.

It may be considered “rude” or “ageist” to talk about it, but you can bet that voters are talking about it, to themselves and others, even if campaign strategists don’t want to admit it.

Can Bernie bounce back at the October debate and quell these concerns? He needs something new, some kind of break out to turn around his lagging numbers.

4) Is Beto O’Rourke basically done?

Former Texas Representative Beto O’Rourke has been teetering on bad polls and lagging support for months now. His escalator has been stuck in a steady and swift downward direction.

Despite his move left on gun control, and giving the “boldest answer” last month at the September debate about confiscating AR-15 rifles, his poll numbers haven’t budged. He’s stuck sitting at one to two percent national, depending on the poll. He’s at risk of missing the November debate entirely.

The October debate is basically his last chance for relevance in this primary, though it’s arguable that he’s been irrelevant for months.

Beto needs several qualifying polls to have a chance at reaching the November stage. If he can’t make something happen next week at the October debate, he’s likely done with this campaign.

October’s debate will be make-or-break for Beto, so keep an eye on what kind of message he decides to deliver.

5) Is Andrew Yang’s candidacy for real?

Not only did Yang easily make the cut for the September debate, but he also made the cut to be one of eight candidates on the November stage as well.

CNN calls him a “rockstar” with his supporters, but then questions whether that can continue propelling him through the primary:

Yang, with his non-political background and free-wheeling style, is a unique political figure. But what makes him truly singular in the Democratic field are his rallies, which appear more like concerts than political gatherings. The stage may be devoid of instruments, but Yang’s stump speech has become so familiar to his devoted following that many in the audience are acutely aware with the ebbs and flows of his remarks and come prepared for their political idol to play the hits.

Any mention of “MATH” — a pseudo rallying cry for the Yang faithful that means “Make America Think Harder” — elicits prolonged chants. When Yang mentions using PowerPoint during his hypothetical State of the Union, the audience chants the name of the Microsoft software. And so many questions are in the speech that members of the audience gauge their knowledge of the candidate by how quickly and easily they can shout answers back at him.

Yang has figured out a formula to keep his supporters excited about his campaign. He’s coming to politics with goals and ideas from an outsider perspective. In many ways, his campaign resembles that of Donald Trump’s during the 2016 Republican primary. Yang, like Trump, has no prior political experience, which he counts as one of his best credentials. If voters believe, as many do, that Washington is broken, then why keep sending the same politicians and keep rearranging the deck chairs of the Titanic?

Yang will get the October debate and then at least the November debate to continue building national name recognition. He’s still stuck at around 3% polling support on average, but it’s enough to keep him alive and far better than what Beto is pulling in.

6) Are Harris and Buttigieg bookends or can they break out?

Sen. Kamala Harris and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg have both spent a lot of time standing just to the left or right, on stage, of the front runner candidates. Neither of them, short of Harris’ short-lived spike after the June debate, have been able to capture any long-lasting voter support that has moved their numbers much.

In the October debate, both candidates will be once again just off center-stage, with Harris standing to the right of Bernie Sanders, and Buttigieg standing to the left of Elizabeth Warren.

The question is pretty simple. Can either one of them prove that they are more than an asterisk in the 2020 campaign? Buttigieg has raised a ton of money, much more than Biden in the third quarter, yet he doesn’t seem to be connecting with voters as much as he connects with high-dollar donors.

Harris and Buttigieg need to step it up and break out of whatever box voters have put them in. They need to appear able to tackle President Trump next year, and able to connect with key voting groups along the way.

There are other questions, of course, but these are the major narratives to watch heading into the next Democratic debate on Oct. 15.