The groups for the first two Democratic primary debates were announced today. The debate organizers essentially decided to shuffle the deck in deciding which of the 20 candidates would appear on which night. While they could have had a first-tier and second-tier series of debates, as Republicans did in 2016, this format means frontrunners won’t all have a chance to confront each other.
Here I’ll look at each of the two groups and then look at which individual candidates have been helped or harmed by the groupings.
The Purple Group, as it has been dubbed, consists of Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Michael Bennet, Marianne Willamson, Eric Swalwell, Kirsten Gillibrand, Andrew Yang, and John Hickenlooper.
Overall, this looks like the more attractive of the two debates. It has four of the top five candidates, based on current polling, and some exciting potential match ups. It also has Biden, whose sizable and fairly steady lead should make him the target for the most attacks. It will also test his ability to stay on message without any gaffes, to which he is prone.
There is a lot of opportunity in the grouping for Biden to solidify his place as the frontrunner best able to take on Trump, but there is also considerable risk. Managing expectations and then executing without major mistakes will be crucial. It is also possible that in a group of 10 in which he leads, he will get so much of the attention that his right to rebut could make him the focus, which further solidifies his message.
There are two opposite, but both possibly accurate ways to look at how this played out for Sanders. On the one hand, Elizabeth Warren, the candidate most similar to him, has been catching up a bit, so Sanders might have wanted the opportunity to take her on directly. But the flip side is also true: Warren has been deprived of the opportunity to score points on him, which make this a bit of a wash.
This worked out extremely well for Mayor Pete. He is clearly at the big boys’ table, having carved out an actual and significant steady high single-digit to low double-digit polling performance. Being next to both Biden and Sanders, who are twice his age, will also show off his youth appeal. This is where he wants to be.
Like Buttigieg, Harris has the opportunity to play a little on the differences between her, Biden, and Sanders. She is a black woman with a very real chance to become the nominee, and although actual Democratic voters seem to have no issue voting for an old white dude, the media loves the narrative that voters want something else, and will play it up if she pushes that message.
Look for Gillibrand to try to rack up points on women’s issues and abortion, and to aim that fire at Biden. If anyone is going to bring up Anita Hill, for example, it might be her, comparing it to her actions in helping take down Al Franken.
I think Yang might be the biggest loser here. His fairly off-the-wall ideas would likely play better in the debate with smaller names where he could have more time to flesh them out and would be comparing them to less traditional messages.
Nobody else in the field seems to have much of an advantage or disadvantage being in this debate. Could Hickenlooper take on Bernie on capitalism? Sure. But in general there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of opportunity for any of them.
The Orange Group consists of Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Beto O’Rourke, Amy Klobuchar, John Delaney, Tulsi Gabbard, Julian Castro, Tim Ryan, Bill de Blasio, and Jay Inslee.
This certainly appears to be the second-tier debate based on current polling. It’s hard to imagine it getting as many eyeballs as the purple group. But it might also hold more promise in terms of potential fireworks, as a more desperate group of candidates fight to stand out.
This will probably be thought of as the Warren debate, and each candidate will have to figure out what that means for his or her approach. Without Biden present, they will also have to be careful about how they attack him, should they choose to.
There is something to be said for being the number one seed, and Warren is certainly that. As mentioned above, she is deprived of going directly after Bernie, but she does get a chance to be the frontrunner in a sense, at least against this competition. If she performs well, this could solidify her image as a serious candidate.
After a successful launch that got him into the top tier, Beto has come back down to earth. Over the past few months, his low numbers have been steady and he clearly needs some juice in his campaign. He may benefit from being in this debate, because aside from Warren he probably has the most star power. He’ll need that if he’s going to get a bump.
Booker has struggled mightily to create an image for himself and his campaign thus far. It’s not clear that it matters much which group he was put in. Either way, he needs to create a message and the space between himself and the other candidates that he has not been able to.
Gabbard may have the advantage here that was denied to Yang. In a more open debate with fewer top-notch candidates, she could have the time to express in some detail her unconventional ideas, many of which are quite popular. This is where she should want to be.
Inslee will try to hammer home climate change, which he has made the single issue of his candidacy. Good luck with that. Its not like he’s debating anyone important who loves big oil.
Bill de Blasio
He will look very tall. Maybe frighteningly so.
These are not the droids the voters are looking for, really this time. It’s just hard to see how they can stand out, especially without the frontrunner to try to cut. They just look like the kids at the kid’s table.