It’s a new year, a new decade and a new phase of the 2020 Democratic presidential contest. That’s right — we’re entering primary voting season, and that can only mean one thing: tonight brings another Democratic debate.
The Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) seventh Democratic debate of this cycle — and the first of the election year — will take place Tuesday night at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. CNN will co-host the debate with The Des Moines Register and broadcast the event live from 9 to 11 p.m. EST. Follow along with TIME’s live coverage here.
Why Iowa? The first nominating contest of the primary, the Iowa caucuses, will take place across the state just a few weeks later on Feb. 3.
The debate stage has shrunk remarkably in the past few months. Only six candidates qualified this time: former Vice President Joe Biden, former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, billionaire executive Tom Steyer and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
The stage has also grown remarkably less diverse. The January Democratic debate will be the first of the cycle without a single person of color on stage. New Jersey Senator Cory Booker and entrepreneur Andrew Yang hit the debate’s donor requirement but didn’t quite make the polling threshold. The only Latino candidate in the field, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro, dropped out of the race on Jan. 2 and endorsed Warren on Jan. 6. Booker, one of the few remaining prominent African Americans in the field, dropped out on Monday.
A lot has happened around the world in the few weeks since the last debate. Bushfires in Australia have grown to catastrophic levels and at least 66 people have died from devastating flooding in Indonesia; both disasters are exacerbated by climate change. Tensions between the United States and Iran spiked on Jan. 3 when the U.S. assassinated Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani. Last but not least, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said just hours before the debate that the House plans to vote on Wednesday to send the articles of impeachment to the Senate, opening the door for a Senate trial on President Donald Trump’s removal from office. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell later said he expects the Senate trial to begin next Tuesday.
The smaller debate size will likely give each candidate more time to speak to these current events. Other crucial Democratic topics like healthcare, economic inequality and education will almost definitely come up.
Also likely to come up: the recent dispute between Warren and Sanders, two progressive candidates (and friends) who have so far avoided a major feud. Warren said in a statement Monday evening that Sanders told her in 2018 that a woman couldn’t win the White House, publicly confirming reports about the private meeting that emerged earlier in the day. Sanders has denied he made the comments.
“We’re down to the end here. That means there’s pressure on everybody to try to show off, to be smart, to point out their opponents’ weaknesses,” Stuart Rothenberg, a political analyst and senior editor of Inside Elections with Nathan Gonzales, tells TIME. “But you don’t want to go too nasty right at the end here. You don’t want to look mean spirited. That’s not Midwestern nice.”
Here’s what to expect from the January Democratic Debate.
When is the debate?
The debate will take place tonight on the Drake University campus in Des Moines, Iowa, and run from 9 to 11 p.m. EST. It will air live on CNN and stream on CNN’s homepage without requiring a cable login. Viewers can also watch the debate on CNN’s apps for iOS and Android as well as Apple TV, Roku, Amazon Fire, Chromecast and Android TV. It will also stream on DesMoinesRegister.com.
Tuesday’s debate will be the first of four planned for the next two months, each taking place in a different early voting state. The eighth debate will be on Feb. 7 in New Hampshire, the ninth will be on Feb. 19 in Nevada, and the 10th will be on Feb. 25 in South Carolina.
The DNC narrowly avoided a possible conflict with the President’s impeachment trial. Pelosi said Tuesday the House would vote Wednesday on House managers and sending the articles of impeachment to the Senate. And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he believes he has the votes to start an impeachment trial, which he expects will begin next Tuesday. Were a trial to begin, every senator would have to return to Congress to act as jurors, including the three set to appear on stage.
DNC chairman Tom Perez addressed this possibility on Jan. 7. “Democrats and our senators can walk and chew gum,” Perez told MSNBC. “Obviously, if there’s a trial on the 14th, then we’ll move the debate. If there’s not, then we’re going to have the debate. At the moment, all systems are go, and so we’re going to move forward.”
Which candidates have qualified for the January Democratic debate?
The DNC raised the debate qualifications once again, shrinking the stage down to just six candidates (December’s debate had seven). To qualify, they had until 11:59 p.m. on Jan. 10 to get at least 5% in four DNC-approved polls or at least 7% in two early-state polls (Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and/or Nevada). They also needed at least 225,000 unique donors with a minimum of 1,000 unique donors in at least 20 states, U.S. territories or Washington D.C.
January’s Democratic debate will be the smallest of the election cycle thus far. Here’s who made the cut:
Former Vice President Joe Biden, 77
Biden served as President Barack Obama’s Vice President from 2009 to 2017 and represented Delaware in the Senate from 1973 to 2009. He also ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008 and 1988.
Former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, 37
Buttigieg served eight years as the mayor of South Bend, Ind., from 2012 to Jan. 1, 2020. Were he to win the Democratic nomination, he would be the first openly gay presidential nominee for a major political party. Buttigieg was an intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve between 2009 and 2017.
Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, 59
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, 78
Sanders served as Vermont’s sole congressional representative from 1991 to 2007 and has represented Vermont in the Senate since 2007. The self-described democratic socialist ran for the 2016 Democratic nomination and lost to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Billionaire executive Tom Steyer, 62
Steyer founded the hedge fund Farallon Capital in the 1980s, and also launched the political groups NextGen America and Need to Impeach, and has poured millions of his own money into campaigns calling for President Trump’s impeachment.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, 70
In 2012, Warren became the first woman elected to the Senate from Massachusetts. She previously taught law, specializing in bankruptcy, and proposed the original idea for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in 2007 while still teaching at Harvard Law School.
The candidates will stand on stage based on an average of qualifying polls released in January, with the highest polling candidates standing in the middle. They’ll stand in the following order from left to right: Steyer, Warren, Biden, Sanders, Buttigieg and Klobuchar. Biden and Sanders will be center stage.
Klobuchar’s campaign has made it farther than some other candidates’ who had buzz at the start of the race but have since dropped out, such as California Sen. Kamala Harris or former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke. She’s also gaining steam in Iowa, polling at 7% according to ReadClearPolitics’ polling average on Jan. 9 compared to 2.8% nationally.
“She’s always had one advantage over the rest of the field, and that was the Midwestern moderate progressive, a midwestern progressive who can appeal to swing voters, women voters, maybe blue collar working class voters even,” Rothenberg tells TIME.
She’s also spent a lot of time campaigning in Iowa. “Klobuchar has been touring the state for a long time. She also touts herself as a neighbor. She says she’s ‘the senator from next door,’ and that’s sort of like literally true,” Mack Shelley, the chair of the political science department at Iowa State University, tells TIME, laughing. “She speaks fluent [Midwestern] and you know, basically if you’re in northern Iowa, southern Minnesota, you really can’t tell the difference.”
Who didn’t qualify?
Cory Booker and Andrew Yang each met the donor requirements but didn’t quite hit the polling threshold. Yang — who qualified for every previous debate — came within striking distance of the poll requirement but fell short in two polls. Booker announced that he would drop out of the race on Monday.
Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, meanwhile, hit the polling requirements but not the fundraising threshold. The 77-year-old billionaire announced he’ll self-fund his campaign, meaning he won’t qualify for any of the official DNC debates. But that doesn’t mean he’s off the airways; according to The New York Times, Bloomberg has already spent more than $170 million on television and digital advertising.
Four other Democratic candidates met none of the requirements: Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, Former Maryland Rep. John Delaney, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick.
Former United States Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro — the only Latino candidate in the field — dropped out of the race on Jan. 2. But he might not be off the trail for long; pundits have floated Castro’s name as a possible vice presidential pick. On Jan. 6, Castro announced his endorsement of Warren, heightening rumors about a possible ticket. On Friday, self-help author Marianne Williamson also dropped out of the race.
Fourteen other candidates have dropped out: Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel, California Sen. Kamala Harris, Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, Miramar, Fla., Mayor Wayne Messam, Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton, former West Virginia state senator Richard Ojeda, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, former Pennsylvania Rep. Joe Sestak and California Rep. Eric Swalwell.
CNN and The Des Moines Register have announced three moderators: CNN political anchor Wolf Blitzer, CNN political correspondent Abby Phillip, and The Register‘s chief political correspondent Brianne Pfannenstiel.
All three moderators covered the previous presidential cycle. Pfannenstiel covered then-candidate Donald Trump and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in the 2016 Iowa caucuses and Phillip covered the Clinton campaign. Blitzer, who has worked in political journalism for decades, moderated two Republican debates and one Democratic debate.
Will the debate influence voters in the primaries?
Tuesday’s debate is the last one before nominating contests begin on Feb. 3 with the Iowa caucuses. Because it’s first, the result of the caucuses is usually seen as a crucial indicator of the frontrunners in the race. Since 2000, every Democratic presidential nominee has come in first in the Iowa caucuses, including former President Barack Obama in 2008. Some critics have argued that Iowa — a state that is over 85% white — is not the best forecaster of which candidates can mobilize the Democratic Party’s racially diverse base. Regardless, the caucuses drive attention from the media and powerful donors.
While the candidates have been campaigning in the state for quite a while, not all Iowa caucus-goers have made up their minds. Recent polling suggests a majority of people planning to caucus have indicated they could switch candidates, Iowa State’s Shelley explains, adding the polls show “there’s still a lot of volatility.”
“In Iowa [there’s] a long tradition of candidates surging or declining very quickly in the final weeks before the caucus,” Rachel Paine Caufield, a professor of political science at Drake University, tells TIME. Caufield leads the political visitor team on campus and is helping organize the debate.
She pointed to the 2004 caucuses as an example, when then-Senator John Kerry rapidly skyrocketed in the polls in the last few weeks and ultimately won, reviving his campaign.
“[In Iowa] we expect to wait a while before we make our decision,” she says. “This debate is the last time they’ll see the candidates on a national stage before they walk into the caucuses, so I expect there’s some room for candidates to make a big final impression that could be positive or negative.”
But as Inside Election’s Rothenberg points out, the candidates will continue to campaign throughout the state in the following weeks, so it’s not the last time Iowa voters will hear from them.
What are the big issues that will likely come up?
Given recent tensions with Iran, foreign policy will almost definitely be discussed. “I can guarantee you that right now each of the candidates is really honing their message on the Middle East, [and] on Iran and Iraq in particular,” Caufield says.
Jaime Dominguez, a professor of political science at Northwestern, predicts that Sanders will “come out swinging” at Biden for voting for the Iraq War and Biden in turn will play up his foreign policy experience as Vice President.
Because Iowa has a large agricultural industry, the topic of trade might get more attention than it has in previous debates. But Caufield says she thinks the debate’s location won’t have a major impact on what’s discussed. “I think the candidates are going to be aiming their comments at a national audience as well as an Iowa audience,” she explains, adding that national questions are the same as the questions raised in Iowa town halls: concerns about health care, economic inequality, energy, student loans, etc.
The bushfires in Australia and flooding in Indonesia could also spark a larger discussion around climate change, and Steyer may take the chance to highlight his environmental advocacy nonprofit NextGen Climate (now NextGen America).
And what about impeachment? It could come up again, given that three of the candidates may have to stop campaigning to participate in the trial, but they probably won’t linger on the topic. “I have not heard a lot of talk about impeachment. It’s not top of mind for a lot of Iowa voters,” Caufield shares.
Given that Steyer is in the debate — and Bloomberg and his million-dollar ad buys are something of an elephant in the room — Rothenberg says he “wouldn’t be surprised” if there’s a question about money in politics and Warren or Sanders takes the chance to call out Bloomberg by name.
The bread and butter issue of healthcare will almost definitely come up. “Warren seems to have dialed back her support for Medicare for All after taking some hits on that issue,” Kyle Kondik, the managing editor of political forecaster Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, writes in an email. Warren might try to clarify her stance.
Sanders will likely face more heat than he has in previous debates, given his recent surge with polls and donations. “I think there’s a lot of nervousness, much like in 2016, about the Sanders campaign. I think a lot of party regulars are just scared… to death of Sanders maybe getting the nomination,” Shelley says, adding that more moderate candidates like Klobuchar, Buttigieg, and Biden “might have decided they have to go after Sanders at this point to try and stem his momentum.”
Buttigieg could also face attacks like he did in the December debate, given he’s doing especially well in Iowa polls.
And don’t write off Klobuchar. “I think we should expect [her] to really, really be aiming to make a big splash,” Caufield says. “She’s somebody who’s invested heavily in Iowa over the past month… a lot of people have identified her as a potential surge candidate.”
Where do the candidates stand in the polls?
Don’t underestimate Bernie Sanders. On Jan. 2 his campaign released massive fundraising numbers, raising more than $34.5 million in the last three months of 2019 — millions more than any other candidate without taking any high dollar donations. He’s steadily risen in Iowa polls to be neck-in-neck with Buttigieg and Biden, and demonstrated staying power both in early states and nationally.
“You can’t translate money dollar-to-dollar for votes. The important thing is who can expand their appeal,” Rothenberg explains. But that expansion doesn’t always happen along ideological lines.
“In the national narrative this is a battle between the progressive wing and the moderate wing, [and] I think on a macro level that is absolutely true,” Caufield says. “Having said that, on an individual level, I don’t think voters are thinking in those terms. For example, we see a lot of cross over with people who are considering Warren and Buttigieg, or Biden and Sanders.”
And a lot of could change in the few weeks leading up to the caucuses. Here’s how the candidates in the debate stand in both Iowa and national polls, according to RealClearPolitics’ polling averages on Jan. 10:
- Sanders 22%
- Buttigieg 21.7%
- Biden 20.3%
- Warren 15.3%
- Klobuchar 7.0%
- Steyer 2.3%
- 29.3% Biden
- 20.3% Sanders
- 14.8% Warren
- 7.5% Buttigieg
- 2.8% Klobuchar
- 2.2% Steyer