What to expect at the second Democratic presidential debate

This week’s second Democratic presidential debate will be another two-night extravaganza like the first, on Tuesday and Wednesday in Detroit.

CNN’s coverage of the debate will begin at 8 pm Eastern on both nights, though it’s not entirely clear if the debate itself will begin exactly then, or a bit afterward. A live stream of the debate will air on CNN.com.

On Tuesday, the first night of the debate, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke will be the leading candidates participating.

Also onstage will be Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, author Marianne Williamson, former Maryland Rep. John Delaney, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock.

The pairing of Sanders and Warren will showcase the two major Democratic candidates who have eschewed big-dollar fundraising and who want to push the party much further to the left on economic issues — though it is unclear whether they’ll focus on their areas of agreement or choose to spotlight their differences.

On the second debate night, Wednesday, former Vice President Joe Biden, California Sen. Kamala Harris, and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker will be the most notable contenders in the roster. This sets up a sequel to the tense confrontation between Biden and Harris on busing and civil rights from the first debate. Biden has also signaled that he will critique Harris’s Medicare-for-all plan, while Booker plans to press Biden’s criminal justice record.

Also onstage on night two will be former HUD Secretary Julián Castro, business leader Andrew Yang, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, and Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet.

The overall roster of 20 candidates who will participate is almost the same as the roster for the first Democratic debate in June (with the sole new addition being Bullock). But polls suggest there’s a clear top tier to the race at this point — that Biden, Sanders, Warren, and Harris are the leading candidates and the rest of the field is still struggling to gain traction.

Where the Democratic race stands before the second debate

Joe Biden is still in the lead: After six months in which the former vice president had consistently led polls of the Democratic contest, the first serious test of his frontrunner status came on the debate stage in late June.

And by all accounts, Biden stumbled. Kamala Harris criticized his recent reminiscences about working with segregationist senators and pressed him on his opposition to busing for school integration. Biden stumbled in response, concluding by trailing off and saying, “Anyway, my time is up.”

The media declared Biden the loser of the exchange, and it elevated several long-running questions about his candidacy, leaving pundits to wonder if he could defend his long record to a changing Democratic electorate, if his age was showing, and if his poll standing was based far more on Obama nostalgia and name recognition than his actual performance in this current campaign.

And in the immediate aftermath of the debate, Biden did take a hit in the polls — his national support dropped from 32 percent to 26 percent in RealClearPolitics’ average. But he remained in first place. Then in the month since that first debate — a month in which Biden has for the most part avoided new controversies — he’s actually regained most of that ground (he was back up to 30 percent as of Monday afternoon).

So Biden remains the frontrunner, and the man to beat. Yet his leads in Iowa and New Hampshire aren’t spectacular, and his fundraising numbers weren’t particularly impressive considering his advantages (he raised less than Pete Buttigieg). So much may hinge on whether he can give an improved performance in this second debate — when he’ll be on night two, in a rematch with Harris.

Sanders, Warren, and Harris are the next tier: For the first several months of this year, the pecking order in the Democratic field in polls was clear: Biden was in first, Bernie Sanders was in second, and the rest of the enormous field was below them. That state of affairs has since changed, and the change unfolded in three distinct stages.

First, Sanders’s support has declined. Where he used to poll at 23 percent on average, he’s now down at 15 percent. Interestingly, most of this drop occurred in the weeks after Biden entered the race in late April — it is not a recent development.

Second, Warren began to rise steadily in polls in the weeks leading up to the first debate. She had a weak start to her campaign but built a reputation as a policy-focused candidate with a multitude of plans. Just before the first debate, she was neck and neck with Sanders, and they remain about tied today.

Third, Harris surged immediately after the June debate, in the wake of her exchange with Biden on busing. She rose from 7 percent to 15 percent support, putting her in a three-way tie for second place with Sanders and Warren. However, since then, Harris has declined somewhat, falling to about 11 percent — still above the bottom-tier candidates, but not quite tied with Sanders and Warren anymore.

Lots of other candidates are running out of time: In addition to these top four candidates, there are 21 others in the Democratic field who have not had as much success. This week’s debate will feature most of them (though, since it was capped at 20 candidates, five will miss the cut).

But for the next debate in September, the DNC is significantly toughening qualification standards. So for many if not most of the candidates onstage, this week’s debate will likely be their last chance to make their case to a national audience.

Sanders and Warren will be the matchup to watch on night one

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) pats Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) on the back after Sanders spoke at a news conference on the Social Security system February 16, 2017, in Washington, DC.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

For the first debate, by luck of the draw, Elizabeth Warren ended up on the first night with no other major candidates. This let her stand out as the preeminent candidate onstage, but it also prevented her from taking on any of her most important rivals face to face.

This time around, though, CNN’s random drawing resulted in Warren being paired with Sanders on the first night. The two agree on quite a lot — they’ve condemned the influence of wealthy donors and the 1 percent, and generally want to push the Democratic Party further to the left on economic issues.

They also, however, have their differences. Sanders seems more focused on making Medicare-for-all a top priority and argues he can overcome entrenched interests by fomenting a people-powered “political revolution.” Warren is more inclined toward policy wonkery and an inside game of making change through the executive branch and regulatory policy.

Their campaigns have also had different trajectories up to this point, with Sanders’s support declining somewhat and Warren’s on the rise.

But while you might think that would spur Sanders to go on the attack and try to take Warren down a peg, CNN’s Gregory Krieg, MJ Lee, and Ryan Nobles report that the two candidates are expected to remain on friendly terms. When Sanders was asked what he’d expect from Warren on the debate stage last week, he answered, “Intelligence.”

One potentially intriguing way this could play out is if Warren and Sanders unite to make a case that the Democratic Party needs to dramatically change its approach on economic issues — and that the offstage Joe Biden wouldn’t bring such change.

It’s also notable that many of the candidates who will share the stage with Warren and Sanders have been running as moderates and could well try to argue that the pair are too far to the left to be elected. These include Steve Bullock (making his debate debut), Amy Klobuchar, John Hickenlooper, and John Delaney.

Pete Buttigieg, who has been generally polling in fifth place, could also pose an interesting contrast to Sanders and Warren, since he has been running as more of a mainstream Democrat on policy.

On night two, the main event will be Biden vs. Harris

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) with former Vice President Joe Biden during the second night of the first Democratic presidential debate on June 27, 2019, in Miami.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The breakout moment of the first debate was Harris’s challenge to Biden over his record on busing, in which she argued that she had personally benefited from busing during her childhood. The common consensus was that Biden came off poorly during the exchange, and he took a hit in the polls, at least temporarily.

Now Biden and Harris have been paired together again. So Biden will get a do-over — and that’s an important opportunity for him. He will have had ample time to prepare this time around and could make a more spirited defense of his record, or challenge Harris’s caginess on whether or how she would really bring back busing. Still, Harris is a formidable opponent who has damaged Biden already and will have the opportunity to do more.

Cory Booker has also rather blatantly telegraphed that he plans to go after Biden’s record on another issue: criminal justice. Last week, Booker called Biden the “architect” of the “failed” criminal justice system, saying the Biden-authored 1994 crime law “inflicted immeasurable harm on Black, Brown, and low-income communities.” (This is also an issue on which Booker can contrast himself with Harris, whose record on criminal justice reform has been criticized.)

Though Biden’s support among white Democrats has at times looked shaky this year, he’s consistently maintained a formidable lead among black Democrats — something Harris and Booker both hope to change.

Meanwhile, Biden is likely to bring up another key area of difference he has with top contenders: Medicare-for-all, which he opposes. Biden’s campaign has stressed the issue this month, apparently believing it separates him from other top contenders, and can be used to make a case for Biden as the most electable candidate (the one who won’t be taking away the private insurance some Americans like).

While Biden won’t share the stage with the cause’s main champion, Sanders, his campaign has already harshly criticized Harris’s Medicare-for-all plan, which Harris just released Monday.

Biden deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield said Harris was refusing “to be straight with the American middle class” about tax increases her plan would eventually require, and that her plan also “backtracks” on her previous commitment to Sanders’s own Medicare-for-all proposal.

On the surface, this was a critique about one policy proposal, but it also seems to set the stage for a broader attack from Biden on Harris’s character — that she is insincere, inconsistent, and politically calculating. (This is the critique Barack Obama successfully used against Hillary Clinton in the 2008 campaign.) But it’s not yet clear whether Biden can successfully make such a case from the debate stage.

This is the last mega-debate

The DNC set relatively lenient standards for qualifying for the first and second presidential debates. The basics were that candidates needed to hit 1 percent or more in at least three polls or needed to have at least 65,000 donors. Even there, however, so many candidates joined the race that a few ended up being left out.

For the third debate in September, however, qualification is going to get significantly tougher. First, candidates have to hit 2 percent or more in at least four polls between June 28 and August 28. Then they also need to have 130,000 unique donors.

So far, just eight candidates — Biden, Sanders, Harris, Warren, Buttigieg, O’Rourke, Booker, and Yang — say they have qualified for September’s debate. A few more will probably make it in as well, but the final roster will likely be nowhere near the 20 of the first two debates.

It seems likely, then, that the great winnowing of the Democratic field is about to begin. If candidates fail to make the debate stage, they will likely suffer further in polls and in fundraising. Many will likely exit the race — one candidate who’d gained no traction, California Rep. Eric Swalwell, already has.

The Iowa caucuses are still six months away, but this week may really be the last chance many Democratic candidates have to make their case to a national audience on the debate stage. The next time the party does this, the guest list will be smaller.