What to Watch for in Next Round of Democratic Presidential Debates

Former Vice President Joe Biden may have seemed unprepared for Sen. Kamala Harris’ attack last month during the first round of presidential debates.

Will Biden be more prepared this week? Will Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s myriad plans overwhelm or inspire voters? And what will the 20 Democrats who are vying for votes and campaign cash bring to the table?

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The lineups for the CNN debates from Detroit this Tuesday and Wednesday are a little different from round one and should lead to some clashes, including a battle of the progressives (Tuesday) with Warren facing off against Sen. Bernie Sanders; and the rematch between Biden and Harris (Wednesday).

Jason DeSanto, senior lecturer at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law who also has many years of experience working as a political speechwriter, says he’s expecting to see “a group of candidates trying to move up or keep up.”

“We’re going to see candidates drawing contrasts with each other,” he said. “Some candidates trying to stabilize off of poor performances and others really keeping an eye on the fact that they not only want to do well on Tuesday or Wednesday night, but they want another shot at it in September. And so they’ve got some actual hard metrics they need to meet in order to get on the debate stage a third time. And that’s going to be important for all of them to do. So, I think you’re going to see in the first night quite a bit of aligning progressive versus moderate. And on the second night, a debate focused largely around Biden and Harris, not necessarily as against one another, but as against positions they’ve taken and people coming at both of them.”

Below, more from our Q&A with DeSanto.

Can Biden afford another poor performance?

It certainly wouldn’t be helpful. You know the problem with the performance of his is that it was neither organized nor emotionally aware. And when we talk about the ability of candidates to very quickly portray those core leadership skills, we are talking about the ability to portray your authority in a situation and also your humanity. And people associate Joe Biden with humanity. But the problem I think with his performance the first time around is it raised questions about both because the answers themselves seemed a little vague. It seemed like he was trying to cram a lot of material because he hadn’t been out there for a while. So a lot of substantive answers a lot of particular talking points, he just didn’t have all those moves. And that tends to make candidates look vague and unprepared.

But the other piece of it was it wasn’t emotionally attuned. When somebody relates a personal story of theirs in their telling which is hurtful to them, which is what Harris was telling him about her experience not only with busing but with his position on busing, as a candidate you have to meet that emotion. And the way to meet that emotion is to say simply, “I hear your story and I respect it.” And he fast forwarded past that. His first answer was, “That’s a complete mischaracterization of my record.” It’s OK to say that but I think you have to find the emotional tenor that allows you the access to be able to come back much more sharply and he didn’t do that.

And so to me, he can have a performance that isn’t perfect, but he has to have a performance that at its core demonstrates either that he’s demonstrating his strengths in a situation and his competence or more to the point he’s demonstrating his brand of being a decent person who understands other people and cares about them. Now if he does neither of those that he cannot survive.

What’s your advice to folks who aren’t as well known? Should they fight for speaking time or do you risk damaging yourself by looking desperate?

Do you have a choice? Maybe, in fact, you are desperate? It’s possible. When you’re trying – when it looks like you’re trying to hail a cab, you’re not succeeding. The one cab on Michigan Avenue. You’re not succeeding. To me this is all about tone. I think you do have to draw a contrast if you’re on the outside. Or you need to be funny. Something to be able to stand out. But it really is about the tone. If you do it in a way it looks desperate, you’re going to be perceived as desperate. If you do it in a way that’s measured, that is crisp and quick and to the point without being nasty, then you have a chance to do well for yourself.

So, yeah, you’re going to have to inject yourself a little bit into the proceedings. But how you do that is much more important than that you do that. 

Do you think after this week will we’ll see a whittling of the candidates?

A little bit. Although, they probably give a little more time because they’re not up against a fundraising deadline quite yet. Whereas they were after the June debate, I mean that’s always a great separator. You know, how do you do before the end of the quarter in terms of raising money? The qualifications to get on the debate stage for September is different. So I would expect these candidates to take a little more time to try to meet the threshold until they realize they can’t. And the thresholds are basically double last time. Double the supporters. So the first time around its 1% in the polls or 65,000 independent donors. Second time around its 130,000 and 2% in the polls. So it’s basically double for each of the requirements and you’re required to meet both. So for some of these it’s hard. Only five of them have met those requirements so far. So we will see people drop out. I don’t know that we’ll see it immediately after the debate.

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