The Key to the First Democratic Debates

Twenty candidates will take to the debate stage in Miami on Wednesday and Thursday to try and cover a lot of policy in a limited time. If you consider that each candidate will have at least a dozen priority issues and we have 10 candidates on stage each night, that doesn’t leave much time for each person to really get in there and make their case.

That Stand-Out Moment

The candidates have been no doubt preparing for this like it’s the final battle, because for some it really is. Many are trailing with such low numbers, that if they don’t have a stand-out moment this week, the odds of being able to continue become really slim. Each candidate will be looking to capitalize on a moment to really shine and get some extra attention that elevates them to some name recognition among mainstream voters. Every person on that stage will have to rely on instinct and timing to capture extra attention and this is where experience in the political world will favor some over others. The candidates are all hoping for a viral moment, where authenticity meets confidence and people are instantly won over in a way that can be put into a clip that mainstream media will use as the sound-bite for the entire debates.

Likely Topics

We have 20 candidates who currently agree on a lot of issues and the best way to quickly filter out distinguishing policy stances will be for moderators to go after where the candidates disagree. We can expect questions on big issues like Healthcare, Climate, Trade, Foreign Policy and Sanctions, Race Issues and Abortion. Given the current situation with border camps and reports of the inhumane conditions there, expect a solid discussion on Immigration as well. It will also be critical for moderators to push each participant on detailing how they expect to pay for initiatives or practically achieve any solutions they set forth.

Topics That Won’t Get Enough Coverage

There are many pressing issues right now that will likely continue to remain on the periphery including Gun Control, Women’s Issues, LGBTQ issues, Black Lives Matter and Civil Rights in general. These concepts typically tend to be pushed to the background even though we have a record number of minorities running including the first openly gay candidate. It’s important that questions about LGBTQ rights not only be asked but that they are asked of everyone, not just on the night Buttigieg is on stage. The same applies to questions for and regarding women and minority candidates.

Getting to any real substance in this first debate is going to be a difficult proposition given the actual size of the candidate pool and the time allotted. I’m also concerned that the recent rape allegations made against Trump won’t be brought up as its own category, but rather some candidates will have to pull it into discussions on other topics in a pivot. Considering that women make up the majority of all voters, this should be included as a topic and one of the first questions, but it will likely not be.

All About Style

This round will also be less about substance and more about voters getting a glimpse for the first time into all of the candidate’s styles. Watching them together on a stage will create a setting where each person can emphasize their ability to connect with the public and it will also serve to emphasize those who have problems connecting on a larger stage. With the stage placement based on polling order, those trailing will need to punch in and pull the attention from the center podiums. This is such a well-rounded and talented group overall that where some candidates are lacking, others will quickly pick up the slack thus pointing out any deficits and this might be the best way for challengers at the bottom to go after current leaders.

Think of these two debate nights as an exciting two-night kick off to the beginning of a very competitive playoff season where we get to see what each team is really working with and what kind of heat they can bring.

Established candidates like Biden are going to need to hold steady on the lead by not making any mistakes or missteps that turn voters off. Candidates in the middle are looking to hold steady and appeal to a wider base to develop some more name recognition moving forward. Candidates who are trailing but have leadership chops will really need to find that stand out moment that I spoke about earlier-they need to go viral. Candidates at the bottom, with no real political experience will have the hardest job at the debates: they are going to have to show they can compete with the political pros, while maintaining an outsider appeal and have a serious breakthrough moment that elevates them into voter consciousness.

One thing is sure: with so many experienced politicians participating in a live event, it should be a very interesting two nights. This is going to be a great first introduction into who has the capability to move on to the next round or possibly go all the way. Think of these two debate nights as an exciting two-night kick off to the beginning of a very competitive playoff season where we get to see what each team is really working with and what kind of heat they can bring.


Amee Vanderpool writes the “Shero and a Scholar” Newsletter and is an attorney, contributor to Playboy Magazine, analyst for BBC radio and Director of The Inanna Project. She can be reached at avanderpool@gmail.com or follow her on Twitter @girlsreallyrule.