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Johnathan Bernstein: The 5 questions Democrats must answer before the first debate

May 11, 2019

It’s still a long way to Iowa (where the caucuses are currently scheduled for Feb. 3), but we’re now within 50 days of the first Democratic nomination debates of the presidential cycle, to be held on June 26 and 27. Here are the five big areas where we’ll get some answers by then:

Where will Joe Biden’s support rest in the polls after his post-announcement surge has time to settle — and will party actors begin to move strongly toward him? He’s up to about 40% in nomination polls, which isn’t bad at all. But that number likely includes, along with some committed supporters, a large number of people who are responding to one of only two names (along with Bernie Sanders) they know, and those who are responding to his domination of the nomination news in the past few weeks. Once that ends – and it’s likely to end – he’ll probably deflate some. Meanwhile, Biden continues to lead in endorsements by a fairly narrow margin, with very little movement after his kickoff despite the polling surge. If he doesn’t get a lot of new endorsements now, will he ever?

Do any candidates who don’t make the debate drop out? The Democrats, if they stick to their plans, have 20 debate slots; they’re going to split them into two 10-candidate events by lot. As of now, it appears that between 21 and 24 candidates will qualify. Will those excluded drop out? Will they continue on, but be entirely ignored by the media? Or will they find some way to exploit their exclusion and wind up getting a fair amount of attention after all?

Will a post-Biden bubble inflate in the next few weeks? Before Biden, Pete Buttigieg was drawing quite a bit of attention; before that, Bernie Sanders had a post-announcement surge, and Beto O’Rourke and Kamala Harris each had polling surges as well. Which candidate appears to be doing well going into the debates can affect how those events are perceived – and how they actually play out, because it’s common for the “hot” candidate to receive more time. Look for candidates to deploy whatever gimmicks they might have in late May or early June to try to spark a flurry of attention in the hopes they can ride it into the debates.

Who will go negative this early — and against which target(s)? We’ve seen Sanders already criticize Biden, and there have been a few other minor skirmishes, but nothing too serious yet. In a normal-size multicandidate field, the danger of going negative is that the attacker can alienate some voters. But in this oversize collection of candidates, one or more may decide that increased visibility overrides every other consideration. (I’ve suggested only half tongue-in-cheek that two of the stalled contenders stage a mock feud over, say, who first committed to some popular policy option.)

What’s happening in the policy primary? Candidates continue to roll out proposals.

They choose what to talk about based on their own interests, the reactions of voters, and most importantly the influence of key party groups.

Questions asked during debates will be based, to a large extent, on the topics the candidates have been talking about, especially if there are striking differences in their approaches. Over the next several weeks, watch as candidates and groups attempt to raise the profile of some policy areas (and, sometimes, to lower the profile of others). After all, in the era for partisan presidencies, the party’s collective policy positions and priorities can be more important than which candidate winds up in the Oval Office. And getting the candidates to make high-profile commitments is one of the ways the parties guarantee a partisan presidency.

Remember: At this stage, most voters aren’t paying attention, and the preferences they express to pollsters are very unlikely to be set in stone. That doesn’t mean that an early polling leader can’t win. It does mean that just about anything in the polls can change.

However, at the same time that voters are barely engaged, party actors — politicians, campaign and governing professionals, formal party officials and staff, donors and activists, and party-aligned groups and the partisan press – are intensely engaged in selecting the nominee and seeking to push the party in the direction they want.

That’s been going on for months already, but now that almost all the remaining candidates have reached the formal declaration stage, and the first big campaign event is on its way, it only gets more intense.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.