2020 Election

The September Democratic Debate Is a Key Test for an Unsettled Field

3 minute read

Set aside the hype and speculation and tweet-driven tizzy. When the leading Democratic candidates for president debate on Thursday night in Houston, it’s worth remembering that much of the party still doesn’t know how they feel about the majority of the people on stage.

Aside from the trio clustered at the top of the field—former Vice President Joe Biden and Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren—the other major contenders facing off are giant question marks for at least a quarter of Democratic voters, according to polling released Wednesday from NPR. The NPR poll found 1-in-5 Democrats won’t watch the debate or read anything about it. Just as many, 2-in-5, said they’ll read about it later as said they’d watch Thursday night.

In fact, 20 weeks before the Iowa caucuses, only a few things are certain. The top tier has solidified, with Biden proving more durable than his critics had hoped and Warren rising to join Sanders. The race remains wide open. And Democrats overwhelmingly want to defeat Trump in 2020; NPR’s polling found 58% of Democratic voters prioritize winning, while 39% care most about having a nominee in line with their views.

Most of the voters tuning in will be watching for Biden’s first tangle with Warren. The two never shared the stage in the opening debates. But the pressure will be on the remainder of the field, for whom the Houston debate marks the turn into a critical campaign period.

There is still potential for someone like Senators Cory Booker or Kamala Harris to break through. Both have proved capable debaters. So has South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, whose fundraising prowess is quietly seeding a crop of aides in Iowa and New Hampshire working out of far-flung offices and living in new small towns. All three are making major investments in the lead-off states, hoping they’ll pay dividends once people start to track the campaign.

For the rest of the candidates, nationally televised debates provide a huge chance to carve a foothold in the race. Take Amy Klobuchar. Despite her 13 years in Washington, two presidential debates under her belt and more than $2 million spent on digital ads, she faces numbers that suggest about half of Democrats or Democratic-leaning voters don’t know her or have an opinion of her.

Former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro, an alumnus of the Obama Administration, is nearly as big an unknown as Klobuchar, according to NPR’s survey. He made a mark with his immigration proposals at the first debate all the way back in June, leaving some rivals surprised—and relieved—that those moments didn’t earn him more attention. Then there’s businessman Andrew Yang, a tech exec who refuses to wear ties to the debates and is pledging to give everyone free cash every month to goose the economy. Nearly half the field still has no opinion or has never heard of him, the NPR poll found.

Despite their relative anonymity, Yang and Klobuchar are in a better spot Thursday night than the many candidates excluded, who include a senator (Michael Bennet), a governor (Steve Bullock), four current or former House members (John Delaney, Tulsi Gabbard, Tim Ryan and Joe Sestak), author and Twitter sensation Marianne Wiliamson, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and billionaire Tom Steyer.

For those who made the stage in Houston, Thursday night’s debate may be one of the last chances to make a good first impression.

More Must-Reads From TIME

Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com