MEMO: DFA’s four expectations in this week’s 2020 Democratic Debates in Detroit

This week’s Democratic Presidential Debates in Detroit will be another important pivot point in the 2020 Democratic nominating process.

Heading into this second round, Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris are the two candidates to watch in their respective head-to-heads against Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden. Both Warren and Harris not only won the first debates, the momentum rising behind them was clearly reflected in our recently released July 2019 DFA Presidential Pulse Poll results.

DFA’s  CEO Yvette Simpson and Chair Charles Chamberlain spell out what progressives expect to see in this week’s debates:

  • Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren teaming up against the corporate Democrats on night one.

    Especially this early in the contest, neither Sanders or Warren stands to gain from explicitly drawing the real (if narrow) contrasts that exist between them. Progressives expect to see them team up to dismantle the corporate democrats on stage, previewing how they'll handle Republican attacks on progressive policies like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal in the general election.

    Expect John Delany and John Hickenlooper to use right-wing talking points to take cheap shots at progressives with soundbites crafted for FOX news in a desperate search for media coverage of their sinking campaigns.

    Progressives will be counting on all the candidates including Sanders and Warren to center the interests of people of color, especially with no Black or brown candidates on night one of the debate despite the historically diverse 2020 field.

  • A stronger, more prepared Joe Biden on night two -- or a further weakening of his front runner status.

    Joe Biden’s poor performance in the first debate made his weakness as frontrunner painfully obvious to even his strongest cheerleaders, which means he’ll need to win outright on Wednesday -- not just hold his own -- to start regaining the ground he lost in progressive support since the high point of his campaign launch.

    Kamala Harris deftly revealed the glass-jaw underlying Biden’s bravado during the first debate, so showing he knows how to take a punch and fight back will be essential -- especially since he got in this race on the promise that he was the best equipped to take the fight to Donald Trump. Thanks to diminished expectations and the simple fact that he can’t be surprised by a second attack the way he was by Senator Harris the first time, progressives expect Biden to do significantly better in this debate. The real question is if he can handle questions on his record without further alienating himself from key parts of the Democratic coalition.

  • Kamala Harris will continue bringing the fire.

    Taking on Joe Biden worked for Kamala Harris in the first debate, so we expect to see even more swagger as she continues to wield her powerful personal story and prosecutorial incisiveness to her advantage on Wednesday. She came into the first debate with a plan and executed it flawlessly, and, while she won’t have the same opportunity to surprise the field the way she did the last time, she’s got the skills to make another big moment happen for progressives again.
  • A fight for a toe-hold in the top tier.
    While Democrats formally have 24+ candidates, over the first six months of the race, there’s clearly been a five-position, top tier of candidates that dominates the minds of most Democratic voters at any one time. Especially among our members, Sanders, Warren, Harris, and Biden have consistently held a position in that top tier, while a fifth position has shifted between a number of different candidates.

    The big winner in Detroit will be the candidate in the large, single-digit, second-tier who leverages a strong debate showing to a trip to Houston in September.

    Cory Booker has long been poised to make this jump and he certainly has been telegraphing his willingness to take on Biden to do it. Pete Buttigeig and, to a lesser extent, Beto O’Rourke could also have a shot at returning to the top tier with a good night in the Motor City. But the second-tier candidate progressives will be watching is Julian Castro. A second powerful performance after his surprisingly strong showing at the first debate could give his candidacy the velocity he needs to take a top tier spot.

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