So many candidates, so little time: Debates give Democrats a brief chance to make a big impression

Think of the next two nights as speed dating for the American electorate.

The back-to-back prime-time televised Democratic debates are the best opportunity yet for 20 presidential candidates to court voters and make a memorable first impression on a large audience. Many tuning in will be taking their first serious look at the contenders, one of whom will eventually earn the opportunity to challenge U.S. President Donald Trump in the 2020 general election.

But with 10 candidates facing off Wednesday night, and another 10 contenders the following night, strict time restrictions apply. Each candidate will have just one minute to answer a question from the NBC News, MSNBC and Telemundo moderators in Miami.

Brevity will be important. For anyone not named Joe Biden, it will be an opportunity for differentiation. Analysts expect it's too early in the primary season to attack Biden, the former vice-president currently polling as the front-runner (32.1 per cent, according to the RealClearPolitics average). He will take the stage on Thursday against a slate of top contenders including Senators Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris, and the rising star mayor of South Bend, Ind., Pete Buttigieg, who will almost assuredly remind voters how to pronounce his surname.


On Wednesday night, Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts senator whose vast policy knowledge has spawned memes about how she "has a plan for" this, that or any other issue, may have to resist the urge to go too wonkish and rely instead on plugging her campaign website for the details.

Warren will be the lone top-tier candidate in Wednesday night's debate, which could bode well for her. If she decides to lay into competitors like Sanders and Biden, for example, she can do so without affording them the 30 seconds rebuttal time they would normally get, given that they'll both be debating the following night.

Mitchell McKinney, a former consultant for the Commission for Presidential Debates, the non-profit that runs the presidential debates, isn't counting on much intra-party bickering so early in the primary debates cycle.

"The way the fields are split, with the front-runners not on the stage together, that may embolden them a bit," he said. "But this is more the time to set a tone for voters."

While Warren may have an advantage not having to share the stage with other top-ranked contenders on Wednesday night, debating first carries its own risks, warned Todd Graham, director of debate at Southern Illinois University.

"If you're debating the second night, you get to watch the first-night debaters and see what you really don't like," he said. "You might watch something in action and see if it was a disaster. You get to pore over social media, see the reaction, and say, 'I won't do that.' And that's a huge advantage."

Brian Snyder/Reuters
Brian Snyder/Reuters

Former Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke, who is in Wednesday's debate lineup and is currently struggling in the polls, will be looking to recapture the momentum he has lost since announcing his bid in March.

For lesser-known candidates like Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (polling at 0.5 per cent, according to the RealClearPolitics average) and Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan (0.6 per cent), Wednesday will be about informing voters that they're even in the race. They'll be hoping to get enough of a bump to advance to the next round of debates.

"It's more of an introduction of these candidates than it is any sort of serious policy discussion," said debate historian Alan Schroeder. "It's the first time some of the bigger names will be introducing themselves to the general public. So that, combined with the format, combined with the number of people on stage, means this is going to fly by really quickly."

Not the time for detailed policy plans

The most debaters could ask for at this point, Schroeder said, is to make the next cut and spark enough curiosity in voters' minds to entice them to learn more.

It's an opportunity for the candidates to demonstrate they can hold their own in a crowd and potentially stand up to Trump. In political circles, it's the concept known as "surfacing," or emerging into the public consciousness.

With just two hours available for the candidates to jockey for precious speaking seconds, expect to hear more pickup lines than elaborate proposals.

Cynical as that sounds, Rita Kirk, who researches political "sound bite culture" at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, expects the candidates are already sharpening their most memorable lines to be replayed on cable news.

"You know when you start they're going to pick out a 20-second sound bite, and you feed it to them," she said. "These are pretty seasoned people. It will be interesting to see how they construct their sound bites and it will tell us a lot about the forward direction of the campaign."

Here's what else to know about the next two nights of televised debates, June 26 and 27, from 9-11 p.m. ET:

Who's debating on Wednesday?

Erin Scott/Reuters
Erin Scott/Reuters
  • Cory Booker

  • Bill de Blasio

  • Julián Castro

  • John Delaney

  • Tulsi Gabbard

  • Jay Inslee

  • Amy Klobuchar

  • Beto O'Rourke

  • Tim Ryan

  • Elizabeth Warren

Who's debating on Thursday?

  • Joe Biden

  • Michael Bennet

  • Pete Buttigieg

  • Kirsten Gillibrand

  • Kamala Harris

  • John Hickenlooper

  • Bernie Sanders

  • Eric Swalwell

  • Marianne Williamson

  • Andrew Yang

Where can I watch?

The debates will air live on NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo, which will broadcast in Spanish. Live streams will also be available online for free on NBC News and Telemundo digital platforms, as well as on NBC News's Facebook, Twitter and YouTube channels.

How were the debaters chosen?

The 20 candidates were required to clear the Democratic National Committee's threshold for participation. The DNC set the parameters, requiring candidates to have either garnered at least one per cent of support in three polls it considers valid, or to have met certain donor requirements.

The candidates who qualified were randomly assigned to either Wednesday or Thursday night's lineup.

What are the debate rules?

There will be no opening statements, but candidates will be given the opportunity to deliver a closing statement. During the debate, each candidate will get 60 seconds to answer a question, and 30 seconds to speak for a followup.

NBC says each evening will be segmented into five blocks, separated by four ad breaks.

Will Trump be a big topic?

You can bet on that. He's the elephant not in the room. One of the objectives for each candidate will be to persuade voters they can take on Trump and not be intimidated.

Trump will likely be watching, as it's a good time for his campaign to begin assessing all the potential issues that might be thrown at him in the campaign.

"Trump's possible live-tweeting of these debates might draw attention, too," said McKinney. "So he himself might become a star of these Democratic primary debates."

What else are analysts watching for?

Kirk, the sound bite specialist, will be keeping an ear out for any signalling or messages that could be a play for fundraising dollars. The fact is candidates need to sustain a strong funding base if they're going to win.

Some candidates will be looking for money from political action committees. If, for example, someone running a teachers union hears a candidate speaking passionately about school reform, or if someone running an organization promoting gun control hears about bold reforms, their ears will likely perk up.

"They'll be asking, 'Can you carry the flag for me? Or, if I give you money, am I making a sucker's bet?'" Kirk said. "If you don't take that money, you're out of the game."