A look ahead to the fourth Democratic Debate


So much has changed since last month’s Democratic Debate, that the ups and downs of that event have receded into distant memory. Leading into the September debate, the news was dominated by two mass shootings in Texas just prior to that (the third) debate in Houston.

Since then, the news has been dominated by international affairs and the House’s impeachment inquiry. Joe Biden has rallied to the call, and along the campaign trail, Bernie Sanders faced a health scare.

The field has changed immensely in the last month, and just as predictions began to develop a consensus on the future of the race, reality has dealt an unexpected hand. Which candidates profit from these events? Which suffer? Who has the spotlight of tonight’s debate? Who is a target? Ahead of the debate, which I suspect will be more critical toward determining long-term payoffs than any of the previous debates, I’ll make a few predictions.

Tonight’s debate will be broadcast on CNN at 7 p.m. CDT, jointly hosted with The New York Times at Otterbein University, in Columbus, Ohio. Notably, there will be a new face, as well as some recurring characters not featured in September’s Houston debate. All candidates present at Houston also made the cut. Here are my predictions.

Tom Steyer: A billionaire activist who built a movement and campaign off of the demands for a Trump impeachment, he is the first and likely last new face to enter the debates. Despite facing polling troubles, his fundraising numbers are predictably stable. For years Steyer was the “face” of the impeachment movement, and with the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent impeachment inquiry announced, Steyer may have barged in at the perfect time. This isn’t to say Steyer enters without nearly insurmountable challenges — he has to stand out in such a way that overshadows Biden, who has become the face of Democratic opposition to the Republican incumbent. He has to garner unpredictable levels of attention tonight, and he cannot face attack. And those aside — the question remains whether any lower-tier candidate has a chance at pulling their way into frontrunner status this late in the race, notwithstanding Steyer’s obscure candidacy until today. In all likelihood, Tom will steady where he is, which will not be enough with tightening standards for future debates and a narrowing primary.

Bernie Sanders: The anti corporate populist Senator has faced unplanned pushback to his candidacy this year. Despite his rural and urban popularity, he’s fluctuated in the wake of seemingly vulnerable opponents and seemingly failed to capitalize on the ever-changing, decreasing field. Overtaken by Warren, Sanders is still widely considered a frontrunner with his long-awaited resurgence still in the cards for his campaign. After the recent health scare, however — a minor heart attack likely a result of overwork, and receiving two stent inserts, all eyes are on Bernie to gauge the extent of his recovery and the visible truth of his health. This is a game-changing vulnerability, should he lose his voice as in September, or appear less energized and vigorous than he has become renowned for. Conversely, it could turn out to be an opportunity to dispel health allegations and highlight the tenacity of his campaign, as well as persist on policy. I predict that tonight, pending on the Vermont Senator’s performance, may determine whether his candidacy continues to slowly decline in the wake of ideological ally Elizabeth Warren, or whether that resurgence is truly still in the cards.

Joe Biden: Without a doubt, the candidate who most has the spotlight is Biden, who — depending on the phrasing of the hosts’ questions — may either face extremely tough questions and criticisms of which he has yet to directly address, or may be able to perpetuate the rally effect present in the Democratic party. As a consequence of pressure from President Trump, Biden has profited immensely from the Ukraine scandal and subsequent House inquiry, even regaining much of the general polling losses felt since the first debate early this year. I’m betting Biden will use this opportunity to frame himself as the resistance to Trump in the Democratic field, and again highlight the more radical elements of his opponents. It is likely that he will continue to face pressure from lower tier candidates, so Biden will need to be just as hard on defense as he is offense, and as per usual avoid the common gaffe or misstep.

The Impeachment Inquiry: With candidates Steyer and Biden both likely to converge in their attempts to seize the mantle of the impeachment movement, Tulsi Gabbard returns to the stage after failing to qualify for ABC’s debate in September. Gabbard has fluctuated on impeachment, but has recently replaced her initial vehement opposition to it with tepid support. This subject could, however, serve as an “elephant in the room” — with hardly any real resistance in the field to Trump’s impeachment, most if not all candidates are likely to pitch their own support for the move, and the question remains as to who will surface as the main “resistance” leader.