What to know about Democratic primary debates


The 11th debate of the Democratic presidential primary was held March 15; no other debate of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary has yet been scheduled.

The latest debate was due to take place in Phoenix, but because of concerns about the novel coronavirus and travel, it was moved to CNN’s studio in Washington, D.C., where there was no live audience.

To qualify, the Democratic National Committee said candidates had to have at least 20 percent of the pledged delegates that had been allocated.

That brought it down to two candidates:

Just tuning in to the campaign or want to catch up? We’ve got you covered.

The stances

Many Democrats in the race are embracing more left-wing positions, with a debate over the future of health care — Medicare-for-all vs. a public option — being one key division in the field. Many candidates have provided responses to detailed questionnaires about their stances on health care, the economy, foreign policy, education and more. The Washington Post has compiled those details on these key issues:

Or see which candidates agree with you most on key issues by answering some of the same questions.

What we’ve seen in previous debates

The 10th debate, held in South Carolina before that state’s primary, was the first one at which Sanders was the center of many attacks, a reflection of his status as the front-runner after the first three contests. Candidates talked over one another frequently, as they covered guns, Medicare-for-all, foreign policy and more. Warren kept up her attacks on Bloomberg, onstage for the second time. The stage was back up to seven candidates, and they jockeyed for time and attention on all questions.

The ninth debate, held in Las Vegas days before Nevada’s caucuses, featured candidates who had mostly avoided combat taking swings at rivals. Warren criticized Bloomberg over treatment of women in the workplace, and Sanders accused the former mayor of supporting stop-and-frisk. Sanders was challenged on his electability and his health. Contenders didn’t respect time limits and questioned one another.

The eighth debate was held Feb. 7 at St. Anselm College in New Hampshire, days before that state’s primary, with candidates sharpening their criticisms of one another in a race with no clear front-runner. They took rivals on over age, political record, electability and their policy prescriptions. Sanders and Buttigieg, who were at the top of the Iowa caucuses earlier in the week, drew the most attention and scrutiny.

The seventh debate was held Jan. 14 in Des Moines, less than three weeks before the Iowa caucuses. The biggest moment turned on whether a woman could be president, as Sanders and Warren clashed over whether he told her in 2018 that a woman could not beat President Trump. The candidates also clashed on a number of major issues, including commitment of troops in the Middle East, the future of the health-care industry and trade deals.

The sixth debate was held Dec. 19 in Los Angeles, with seven candidates onstage, the smallest number to that point. Warren and Buttigieg sparred over the role of wealthy donors, a fight that came after weeks of disagreements. Candidates also argued over health-care policy, their experience levels and who can beat President Trump. It came less than six weeks before the Iowa caucuses, with candidates drawing sharper contrasts with their rivals.

From Opinions

The fifth debate was held Nov. 20 and was hosted by The Washington Post and MSNBC. Ten candidates were on the stage at Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta, where they largely tried to pitch themselves to the American people as opposed to going after one another.

The debate was centered on President Trump and who was best positioned to defeat him, with candidates taking questions on issues including racial justice, marijuana policy and child care. Candidates passed on opportunities to attack one another and instead talked about beating the incumbent.

From opinions

The fourth debate was held Oct. 15 in Westerville, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus. Twelve candidates crowded onstage on a night when Warren took her first sustained attacks.

Rival candidates challenged Warren on policies and her campaign, accusing her of being divisive on health care or not having plans she could accomplish. She argued the party should “dream big and fight hard.” It was the first debate since the House of Representatives started an impeachment inquiry, and the rest of the field appeared reluctant to echo Republican criticisms of Biden’s son Hunter and his work in Ukraine while Biden was vice president. There is no evidence of wrongdoing by either Biden. It was also the first debate since Sanders’s heart attack two weeks earlier, but he showed no signs of lingering trouble.

From opinions

The third debate, Sept. 12 in Houston, showed the party’s divisions on key issues including health care and immigration, as Biden went on early offense against the two liberal candidates flanking him, Sanders and Warren.

Ten candidates qualified for this debate, which focused on whether the party should nominate someone pushing for major changes or a return to pre-Trump normalcy. Biden, Sanders and Warren were atop the polling, and candidates further down in the standings were more than willing to criticize them, as moderate candidates such as Klobuchar took on Sanders’s health-care plan and Castro questioned Biden’s memory.

From opinions

The second debate was held over two nights, July 30 and 31 in Detroit, with 10 candidates onstage each night.

On the first night, lower-polling candidates — many of whom did not make subsequent debates — went after the liberal policies of higher-polling candidates, calling them impossible or not pragmatic. Warren and Sanders were at the center of that stage, and the other candidates took them on as they tried to make a case for their relevancy. The subtext of many of the attacks was electability and who would fare best against Trump.

From opinions

The second night, Biden was center stage and adopted a more aggressive stance, defending his record on race, criminal justice and health care. The legacy of President Barack Obama also came into question, as candidates questioned his trade and immigration policies, particularly on deportation. The divide this night was not as much over how far to the left candidates were but over a thirst to have a nominee who represents the party’s growing diversity.

From opinions

The first debate showcased the biggest presidential field at that point. Held on June 26 and 27 in Miami, it featured 10 candidates each night talking about how they would take on Trump and working to differentiate themselves.

On Night One, Warren drove much of the debate, defending her plans and saying she was willing to fight and take on the “corruption in this system” that had created the problems. Her rivals generally explained their plans as different routes to the same goal. The night was serious, with candidates focused on grim challenges facing the country, including climate change and the humanitarian crises at the southern border.

From opinions

On Night Two, Biden was the focus, as the leader in the polls was questioned on his record on racial issues and whether it was time for him to pass the torch. In the most dramatic moment of any debate in this primary, Harris accused him of opposing policies that allowed black girls like her to attend integrated schools. Biden led the candidates onstage in attacking Trump, calling him a liar, a phony and a failure. Candidates also repeatedly interrupted one another and ignored moderators’ instructions.

From opinions

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