Debates are do-or-die for candidates at the back of the pack

Debates are do-or-die for candidates at the back of the pack
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There will be 10 Democratic presidential candidates on stage Wednesday and again on Thursday for the first round of debates in Miami. The large number of candidates each evening will confuse many people but here is some guidance for viewers that will help them sort through the chaos.

There may be 20 candidates in the mix but at his point, there are only five candidates who have made any impressions nationally and in early caucus and primary state polls. The first-tier candidates are former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenCNN's Anderson Cooper mocks WH press secretary over Fox News interview Yang cautions Democrats: Impeachment might not be 'successful' Ocasio-Cortez: Sanders' heart attack was a 'gut check' moment MORE, South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegSenate Democrats want Warren to talk costs on 'Medicare for All' Sanders seeks spark from Ocasio-Cortez at Queens rally Biden seeks to fundraise off fact he's running out of money MORE and Sens. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisKamala Harris reacts to supporter who got tattoo of her handwriting Even with likely Trump impeachment, Democrats face uphill climb to win presidency Harris campaign releases web video highlighting opposition to death penalty MORE, Bernie SandersBernie SandersOcasio-Cortez: Sanders' heart attack was a 'gut check' moment Ocasio-Cortez tweets endorsement of Sanders Ocasio-Cortez throws support to Sanders at Queens rally MORE and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenTrump says his Doral resort will no longer host G-7 after backlash Ocasio-Cortez: Sanders' heart attack was a 'gut check' moment Ocasio-Cortez tweets endorsement of Sanders MORE

Most of these men and women are running serious presidential campaigns but a few of them are just running public relations campaigns, so viewers can simplify things but editing them out of the picture. They will be easy to spot. They’ll be the candidates standing at the edges of the stage, waving their hands and maybe even setting themselves on fire in order to get any attention they can.


The Democratic National Committee will make it tougher for candidates to make the cut for the next round of debates, so some debaters will be desperate to make an impression in their only national TV close-up.       

One of the serious Democratic presidential candidates, Montana Gov. Steve Bulock didn’t make the cut, so viewers shouldn’t waste time looking for him. Instead, he’ll be doing town hall meetings in Iowa and New Hampshire.

The lineup each night will make for fascinating viewing.            

The only top tier candidate who will appear on Wednesday is Warren. Keep an eye on her because the moderators will gravitate to her. In order to get some attention, the other nine candidates will focus on Warren in order to take advantage of her visibility that night. One of the other Wednesday night debaters will likely pick a fight with her in order to steal some of her thunder.


The lineup on Thursday evening will be harder to follow since four of the big players will be on the same platform. The moderators will be all over the big four that night, so the six lesser-known candidates are the big losers in the format. One of these six candidates will probably say something completely outrageous to score a cheap media point or get a quick viral social media fix. 

NBC News, which will broadcast the first round of debates, will make it a little easier to follow the Thursday night festivities by grouping the polling leaders at the center of the stage. Biden and Sanders, the two front runners will go toe-to-toe at center stage. The candidates at the edges of the stage will need to work hard to get their place in the sun.           

Front runners or not, Biden and Sanders both have something to prove Thursday.

The former vice president was red hot after his announcement, but he has struggled recently. He needs to get back on his game and show Americans he is ready to be a 21st-century leader. His flip-flop on the Hyde Amendment prohibition against federal funding of abortions made him look and sound like a typical politician. His willingness to work with segregationist members of the U.S. Senate back in the day makes him come off as a Washington insider, which is the last thing Democrats are looking for in a president. 

Sanders has been slipping in the polls, while Warren has emerged as the Bernie-without-the-baggage candidate. Sanders just added fuel to the fire by suggesting to CNN’s Chris CuomoChristopher (Chris) Charles CuomoNY Gov. Andrew Cuomo uses N-word during radio interview 10 top Republicans who continue to deny the undeniable Tulsi Gabbard rips Trump's Syria decision: 'Kurds are now paying the price' MORE that Warren has overtaken him because she was a woman. Warren shares many of her Sanders’s issue positions but she comes across as warmer and fuzzier. Sanders would serve himself well by coming across as less of a scold.

Unfortunately, we won’t get to see Sanders and Warren together on stage. Warren and Sanders are fighting a cage match and only one of them will emerge as the populist progressive candidate of the Democratic primary battle.

The debates are a do-or-die time for the candidates in the back of the pack.

The focus will be on the candidates in the first-tier but the real drama is whether any of the lesser-known candidates can break away from the pack and move onto the leader board. One of the frontrunners may drop back. Tier one today and gone tomorrow is the nature of primaries. Which candidate, if any will break through or drop back? What does a candidate need to do to get his or her Kodak moment?

The candidates back in the pack have limited options. With 10 candidates on each night and only two hours of debate each evening, there won’t be much time to make an impression. Should a candidate get his or her moment by making a quick pitch about him or herself or attack one of the front-running Democrats or by taking a verbal shot at President TrumpDonald John TrumpPelosi arrives in Jordan with bipartisan congressional delegation Trump says his Doral resort will no longer host G-7 after backlash CNN's Anderson Cooper mocks WH press secretary over Fox News interview MORE? Each candidate needs to make the right call or disappear into the crowd.           

It will be easier for the lower tier candidates to get attention on night one since Warren is the only big player on the stage. It will be tougher for the lower tier candidates to break through on the second night with four first-tier candidates — Biden, Sanders, Harris and Buttigieg — on the stage. The second tier candidates will need to come out swinging with something memorable that is short and sweet.

Pay attention to the lesser-known candidates, because it might be the last time you have the chance to see them in action. The back-of-the-packers won’t be able to raise money or secure endorsements unless they shine this week — so, watch them carefully while you still can.

Brad Bannon is a Democratic pollster and CEO of Bannon Communications Research. He is also the host of a radio podcast “Deadline D.C. With Brad Bannon” that airs on the Progressive Voices Network. Follow him on Twitter @BradBannon.