This is how the debates will play out
The debates are speed dating with a national viewing audience. There will be 10 candidates tonight and 10 candidates tomorrow night. The strategic imperatives for each of them diverge widely. Here are five things to watch.
First, the “unknowns” must become known. For candidates polling in the neighborhood of 1 percent, such as Kirsten Gillibrand, Andrew Yang, Eric Swalwell, Tim Ryan, or Bill De Blasio, the debate stage will be a launchpad. They need to make the case to donors, activists, and primary voters that they are viable investments. If they leave the debate the way they came in, as mostly unknown, then they will have lost the debate and likely the race.
Second, the “knowns” must remain unscathed. For candidates at the head of the pack, they run with targets on their backs. Joe Biden has the largest target and could find himself playing defense (full disclosure, I recently attended a fundraiser in New York City with the former vice president). But Elizabeth Warren has enjoyed a recent surge as a progressive, and there should be no surprise if you see some attempts to blunt her momentum.
Third, the “known unknowns” must sink or swim. Candidates like Cory Booker and Beto O’Rourke who have polled somewhere between the top and bottom tiers of the pack will use their moment in the spotlight to offer the public some more compelling rationales for why they should be the Democratic Party nominee. These middle tier candidates will either gas up or sputter out under the pressure of standing out on the debate stage.
Fourth, flats versus flubs. Candidates at the front of the pack have to mitigate risk and not make unforced errors, which sometimes translates into looking flat. Candidates at the back of the pack have to break out, which requires risk of an embarrassing flub. For the top tier candidates, a headline about appearing flat beats a headline about a costly mistake.
Fifth, pragmatism versus purity. At the moment, Democrats seem divided between electability and ideology. A new Gallup Poll this week found that 39 percent of Democrats prefer a nominee they agree with on almost all issues, while 58 percent prefer a nominee who can beat Donald Trump. Candidates who can project viability on both factors will win the debate.
Most importantly, the Democratic Party debates will be much like the early weeks of spring training in baseball. Some players may get cut, but there remains a long way to go and lots of work to do before the World Series.
Steve Israel represented New York in Congress for 16 years and served as the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now the director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. You can find him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael.
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