First, with the exception of Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) we have not seen the debates used effectively to lift a 1-to-3-percent player into contention. This might be their final shot, so look for one or more of the participants to try a Hail Mary or two to try to generate some attention. That might generate some tense moments for a front-runner, but do not be surprised if the leaders flick away a minor candidate, focusing on his or her main competition.
Second, the debates have been helpful to one ideological side in the Democratic Party: The moderates. In September’s debate, Warren was challenged on how to pay for her health-care plan without taxing the middle class. That forced her to unveil her gargantuan Medicare-for-all plan, which in turn may have contributed to her slide. Warren may get attacked from both sides, from moderates chiding her for trying to drum them out of the party for advancing a plan that now looks like hers (a public option as a first step) and from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who has been on a bit of a comeback since his heart attack and could well accuse Warren of losing her nerve.
Third, we will see if the moderates — enjoying a resurgence of late in part due to the adverse reaction to Warren’s health-care plan and in part because of polling suggesting far-left proposals may put the Midwest at risk for Democrats — continue to pummel Warren or if they pivot to attack Buttigieg, whose climb in early state polls poses a threat to Biden and those seeking to be the Biden-alternative if the former vice president fades. The moderates do not want to fall into the trap of alienating the progressive side of the party so it is very likely they’ll react to Warren but let Sanders and the moderators grill her on her health-care position.
Alternatively, Warren and Sanders have the chance to push back, defend their “big structural change” and once more criticize their fellow Democrats as insufficiently bold. If they back down, trying to appeal to some of those moderate voters, it will be a sure sign that they’ve realized their success depends on broadening their base.
They may want to consider a new Gallup poll showing: “Six in 10 Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents would prefer to see the party nominate the candidate with the best chance of beating President Donald Trump, even if that person does not share their views on key issues. By contrast, 36% say they would rather have the reverse: a candidate aligned with them on almost all the issues they care about, even if that person is not the most electable.” The argument that Warren has made herself less electable by tying herself to Medicare-for-all may be the central problem with her campaign at this point.
We also will look to see if foreign policy, in light of the impeachment hearings and the Syria debacle, plays a significant role in the debate. (Politico reports: “The withdrawal and incursion allowed [the Islamic State] to ‘reconstitute capabilities and resources within Syria and strengthen its ability to plan attacks abroad,’ the quarterly report from the lead inspector general on the U.S. military campaign against ISIS stated.”) Candidates who want to pull out of the Middle East may be forced to explain how their approach is any better than Trump’s.
Buttigieg has been speaking more about his service recently (partially because of the Veterans Day holiday). Don’t be surprised if he throws a punch against Republicans who have been challenging the loyalty and patriotism of witnesses such as Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who created a viral moment on Tuesday, even evoking applause from the audience:
Buttigieg feels more comfortable talking about foreign policy and the military than many of his opponents, so the more he can defend U.S. foreign policy goals (e.g., protecting Europe against Russia) the more he will be playing to his strength while showing how he would take it to President Trump in the general election.
Finally, this is the first debate in presidential history in which all the moderators are women (not to mention four of the 10 debaters). We will see if they collectively raise topics that have largely been ignored in earlier debates — K-12 education, child care, pay equity, the opioid epidemic and sexual assault in the military. There is no more important group to Democrats than women, especially suburban women, yet many issues of concern to them have not been fully addressed.