As the 2020 Democratic presidential primary heads into a few busy weeks of voting, tomorrow night’s debate stage is about to get much more intense.
On Tuesday morning, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg qualified for the Nevada primary debate — marking the first time the 77-year-old billionaire will join the debate stage. Bloomberg has pledged to self-fund his campaign and thus has never hit the debate’s required donor numbers, despite making the polling threshold. But the DNC announced in January that starting with the Feb. 19 debate, candidates will no longer need to meet a certain number of donors, opening the path for Bloomberg to qualify.
Besides Bloomberg, five candidates have qualified for the Nevada Democratic debate so far, though the remaining candidates have until 11:59 p.m. on Feb. 18 to make it. The stage will include: Biden, Bloomberg, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Sanders, and Warren.
The Nevada primary debate — which will take place just days before the caucuses on Feb. 22 — will air live at 9 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 19 from the Paris Theater in Las Vegas. NBC, MSNBC and The Nevada Independent will co-host. The final early voting state debate will be on Feb. 25 in Charleston. It’s the second of three February debates (the first was held in New Hampshire on Feb. 7).
The Nevada debate comes after the New Hampshire primary did what the Iowa caucuses could not: delivered a clear victor. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders won the first primary of the election cycle with 26% of the vote. Former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg came in a close second with 24% and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar followed with 20%. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former Vice President Joe Biden — who were both once thought of as front runners — came in fourth and fifth, respectively.
New Hampshire was even more high stakes given the chaos of Iowa caucuses. The new app meant for reporting results malfunctioned, leaving Iowa precinct chairs on hold for hours as they tried to relay their candidate preferences over the phone. The results trickled in over the following week, and Buttigieg and Sanders appeared neck-and-neck, but as of Monday the Associated Press has said it cannot declare a winner. Buttigieg received 13 delegates; Sanders received 12.
But candidates don’t have time to linger on results; they’ve moved their attention to Nevada and South Carolina, who’ll hold their own nominating contests on Feb. 22 and Feb. 29, respectively.
Buttigieg and Sanders’s dominance in New Hampshire and Iowa might seem to tee up the front runners for the moderate and the progressive wings of the party. But as Jennifer Victor, a professor of political science at George Mason University’s Schar School Policy and Government, points out, Iowa and New Hampshire don’t reflect the diversity of the Democratic base and less than 2% of convention delegates have been allocated so far. “There is still a ways to go to see how this thing will play out,” she writes in an email.
Here’s your complete guide to the upcoming February Democratic debates.
When are the next debates?
The second February Democratic debate will take place on Wednesday, Feb. 19 in Las Vegas at the Paris Theater. It will broadcast live from 9 to 11 p.m. EST on NBC and MSNBC and stream on NBC News NOW, NBCNews.com MSNBC.com, NBC News Mobile App, NBC News, MSNBC’s Facebook pages, and online at The Nevada Independent. A Spanish translation will also air on Universo as well as the Noticias Telemundo mobile app, website, and Facebook page.
Five journalists will co-moderate: NBC anchor Lester Holt, NBC political director Chuck Todd, White House correspondent Hallie Jackson, Noticias Telemundo senior correspondent Vanessa Hauc and The Nevada Independent editor Jon Ralston.
The final February Democratic debate will take place on Feb. 25 in Charleston. CBS News and the Congressional Black Caucus Institute will co-host. Twitter will also be a debate partner.
Why are there so many debates in February?
The onslaught of three debates this month may seem unusual, but experts tell TIME it’s actually par for the course this time of the primary. As John Hudak, a senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, points out, in 2008 Democrats held four primary debates in January and three in February alone. According to UVA’s Center for Politics, former Vice President Al Gore and New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley faced off in nine one-on-one debates during the 2000 primary.
“In general, the parties have been increasing the number of debates they host, especially early in the cycle,” Hans Noel, an associate professor at Georgetown University’s Department of Government, writes in an email. ” In 2016, Bernie Sanders complained that there were only six debates scheduled, but historically, six was a lot. The response was to hold even more debates to mollify the complaints from those who felt they didn’t have enough chances to be heard.”
But the end is in sight; well, at least of the primary debates. After February, the DNC has only two more debates scheduled — the last of which will be in April.
How will the primaries affect the debates?
“The most obvious way… is by winnowing the field,” Mia Costa, a professor of government at Dartmouth University writes TIME in an email. That certainly happened Tuesday night. As the votes trickled in and it became clear that Sanders, Buttigieg and Klobuchar were in the lead, entrepreneur Andrew Yang dropped out of the race. He had made it further than many more politically experienced candidates and had even appeared in the New Hampshire debate. Colorado Senator Michael Bennet and former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick dropped out shortly afterwards.
Jacob Thompson, a professor of communications at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas who teaches a class on political debates, says he thinks the winnowing might slow for now. “The major contenders in the race have enough skin in the game that they will stay in the race until South Carolina,” he tells TIME.
“The results [of New Hampshire] were a little bit of a shakeup, but not shockingly so,” Noel of Georgetown writes. “Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren had been central to past debates. Now they are being pushed to the sidelines in the results. But they will want to stay in, so in the next few debates, I would expect them to try to stick with it.”
Buttigieg, Sanders and Klobuchar will undoubtedly face some attacks given Tuesday’s results. “[P]rimaries can put a bullseye on a candidate. When someone emerges from a primary as a winner, particularly with one gathering momentum, subsequent debates can see other candidates really begin to focus their attacks and contrasts on that person,” Hudak of Brookings explains in an email.
Have debates historically impacted primary results? They certainly have the potential to kick up media narratives and viral moments. In 2016, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio notoriously bombed in the New Hampshire debate when former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie highlighted that Rubio kept repeating a line. However, Costa writes that the “excessive and repetitive negative media coverage [of that moment] probably had a bigger impact than just the debate itself.”
Margaret O’Mara, a professor of American political history at the University of Washington, also points to the 1984 cycle when Walter Mondale responded to opponent Gary Hart by saying “where’s the beef?” — a reference to a popular Wendy’s commercial at the time — adding that it “helped reinforce a narrative that Hart was more style than substance.”
Which candidates have qualified?
Candidates have until the last minute to qualify for the Nevada debate; they have until 11:59 p.m. on Feb. 18 to meet a polling threshold. (The debate is Feb. 19). They need at least 10% in four DNC-approved polls or 12% in at least two early state polls (South Carolina and/or Nevada). This is the first debate where they don’t need a certain number of donors, clearing the way for Bloomberg to possibly qualify.
Candidates can also qualify by meeting a delegate threshold, meaning whoever has at least one delegate for the Democratic National Convention based on the results of the Iowa caucuses or the New Hampshire Primary can also make the stage.
Here’s who’s made it so far:
Former Vice President Joe Biden, 77
Biden represented Delaware in the Senate from 1973 to 2009 and served as President Barack Obama’s Vice President from 2009 to 2017. He also ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008 and 1988.
Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, 77
Bloomberg was mayor of New York City from 2002 to 2013 and is the CEO and majority owner of Bloomber L.P. The 77-year-old billionaire has committed to entirely self-funding his campaign and, according to The New York Times, has already spent more than $200 million on advertising.
Former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, 38
Buttigieg was an intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve between 2009 and 2017 and was 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.
Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, 59
Klobuchar was the county attorney for Minnesota’s most populous county, Hennepin County, from 1999 to 2007. In 2006 she became the first woman to be elected senator from Minnesota.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, 78
Sanders has represented Vermont in the Senate since 2007 and was Vermont’s sole congressional representative from 1991 to 2007. The self-described democratic socialist ran for the 2016 Democratic nomination and lost to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, 70
Before running for office, Warren 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. In 2012, Warren became the first woman elected to the Senate from Massachusetts.
After poor performances in the New Hampshire primary, three candidates ended their campaigns within around 12 hours: Yang, Bennet and Patrick. Their departure signals how the primaries are swiftly narrowing the field.
Eighteen candidates other have also 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, California Rep. Eric Swalwell, self-help author Marianne Williamson, former Maryland Rep. John Delaney, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and and former United States Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro.
What issues are likely to come up?
The usual Democratic issues of health care, climate change and economic inequality will undoubtedly come up again. Race may also be a main topic just as it was in the New Hampshire debate. Candidates will be acutely aware that there isn’t a single person of color on stage (unless Gabbard qualifies). “Nevada will be the first contest with a large share of Hispanic voters, and South Carolina the first with a large share of black voters. So candidates will want to appeal to them,” Noel writes.
Thompson of the University of Nevada Las Vegas also says a few issues might get more attention because of the diversity of the state, namely immigration policy, policing, cash bail and housing discrimination. He adds that water rights are a huge issue for Nevada, especially in Las Vegas, and could get attention. Moderators might also raise questions about public land, given the fact that 63% of the state is controlled by the Bureau of Land Management.
On Monday, President Trump revealed his budget for the next fiscal year did not include funding to create a nuclear waste repository within Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, reversing his position on the issue. The proposed storage facility is deeply unpopular with Nevada voters, and given Trump’s announcement — and the disagreement amongst Democratic candidates on nuclear energy — it might be mentioned. Eric Herzik, a professor of political science at University of Nevada, Reno predicts that “all will be opposed” to plans.
He also writes that taxes will get “batted around,” especially given the fact that Nevada is one of just seven states without an income tax.
Which candidates are likely to clash onstage?
Bloomberg is likely to face attacks from multiple candidates, given that it’s his first time on the debate stage and he’s been rising in the national polls by spending hundreds of millions of dollars on ad buys. This past weekend offered a preview of the attacks he might face, as Sanders accused the billionaire of using his vast wealth to try and buy the presidency while Biden criticized Bloomberg for his support of enforcing stop and frisk when he was mayor of New York.
As for the candidates who aren’t new to the stage, “I think at this point, the Biden campaign is not quite on life support but they’re in the ambulance,” Johnson tells TIME. He predicts that the former Vice President will go on the offensive. He adds that while it doesn’t seem like Warren’s style, she might also feel pressure to attack other candidates to help energize her campaign.
Sanders and Buttigieg will undoubtedly face more attacks, as will Klobuchar given her strong performance in New Hampshire. The three will probably go after each other; Herzik writes in an email that he “can see a scenario where Klobuchar and Buttigieg (with Biden also in the mix) go after Sanders on the electability issue, healthcare, [and even] on taxes.”
Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, points out that Klobuchar seemed to do well in New Hampshire because of her strong debate performance on Feb. 7, and other candidates may strive for a similar bump.
Warren could especially use a good performance. She came in fourth in New Hampshire despite being near her home state of Massachusetts, and Klobuchar presents herself as an alternative female candidate. Herzik writes that “[w]omen voters are incredibly important in Nevada, a state with two female U.S. Senators, two of four female Congress members, and a majority female state legislature.” Keep an eye on how gender factors into the debate, especially given how the high polling candidates are men.
How are candidates doing in the polls?
Since his poor performance in New Hampshire, Biden has dropped in the national polls. Sanders, meanwhile, has surpassed the former Vice President. Here’s how the candidates who have made the Nevada debate stand in national polls, according to RealClearPolitics’ polling averages as of Feb. 16:
- 24.8% Sanders
- 17.8% Biden
- 14.6% Bloomberg
- 12.6% Warren
- 10% Buttigieg
- 5.8% Klobuchar
Thompson of University of Nevada, Las Vegas says there has been “a lack of polling in Nevada,” so take these numbers with a grain of salt. Here’s how the candidates who have made the Nevada debate stand in Nevada polls, according to RealClearPolitics’ polling averages as of Feb. 15:
- 30% Sanders
- 16% Biden
- 14.5% Warren
- 12.5% Buttigieg
- 9.5% Klobuchar