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Here's who has the most to gain — and lose — from the first Democratic debates

Key Points
  • The first round of presidential primary debates this week will give most of the two dozen Democratic contenders their biggest platform yet to present themselves to the American people.
  • For most of the candidates stuck in the low single-digits in national polls, the first debates are a chance to make a strong national introduction as much as they are a forum to lay out a policy agenda.
  • Former Vice President Joe Biden "has the most to lose," Republican strategist Ford O'Connell says.
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Potential voters lay out issues they want to hear during Democratic debates

The first round of presidential primary debates this week will give most of the two dozen Democratic contenders their biggest platform yet to present themselves to the American people.

The rapid-fire debate format — candidates will get just one minute to answer questions and 30 seconds to respond to follow-ups — may be designed for maximum fairness. But the 20 Democrats set to participate in the debates Wednesday and Thursday night are hardly coming to the Miami stage on equal footing.

For most of the candidates stuck in the low single-digits in national polls, the first debates are a chance to make a strong national introduction as much as they are a forum to lay out a policy agenda. Candidates such as Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan or New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who cleared the threshold to take part in the debates but have yet to garner much national support, "really have nothing to lose," said Republican strategist Ford O'Connell.

It's a different story for the front-runners. Former Vice President Joe Biden, for instance, has enjoyed a consistent double-digit polling advantage since announcing his 2020 run, and he will arrive at the debate Thursday as the prime target for most of the field, political analysts told CNBC.

"He has the most to lose, and the rest of the field will have their knives out," O'Connell said. "They're coming for him, period. The only question is whether or not they're able to lay a glove on him."

Biden's campaign did not respond to CNBC's request for comment.

Biden has already weathered criticism from his competitors in the run-up to the debates. He was knocked for changing his stance on a law barring most federal funding for abortions after being slammed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Last week, he faced a pile-on from 2020 Democrats after he cited his working relationships in the 1970s with segregationist lawmakers as an example of his ability to get things done in Congress despite personal disagreements.

And even before Biden announced his campaign, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand said the former veep would have to address allegations of inappropriate touching.

Ten candidates will debate on each of the two nights; the debates will last for two hours each and include five segments and four commercial breaks, NBC reported. The debates are being hosted by NBC News, MSNBC and Telemundo, and will air live on those networks starting at 9 p.m. ET on both nights. CNBC will also stream them.

Biden is scheduled for Thursday's debate, which includes more candidates considered to be leading the primaries than Wednesday night's roster, analysts told CNBC. California Sen. Kamala Harris, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders — all of whom have jockeyed for the top half-dozen slots in recent national polls — will stand alongside Biden on Thursday.

Winners and losers in the debate lineup

That uneven split brings its own ups and downs for the candidates.

Lara Brown, director of George Washington University's graduate school of political management, said the second night will likely draw a larger audience because of interest in how Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, will fare against Biden, who has framed himself as a centrist.

Brown compared the lineup to the early Republican primary debates in the 2016 election, which were split into main and secondary events.

There was "the sense that one debate was kind of the kids' table at Thanksgiving dinner," Brown said.

That perception could hurt Warren, who debates Wednesday. She has seen her popularity rise in recent weeks as she laid out an extensive suite of proposals in more detail than most of the others.

"Obviously some candidates are not thrilled. I'm sure Elizabeth Warren is the one who's most unthrilled at the moment," O'Connell said.

The first debate, however, could present an opportunity for Democrats lagging in the polls to reshape the agenda for the primaries. That could benefit candidates like Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who has built his campaign around tackling climate change and has griped about the Democratic National Committee's refusal to schedule a separate debate specifically around that issue.

On the flip side, the lesser-knowns who were grouped in the second debate might have the most to gain out of anyone, Brown said.

She highlighted Andrew Yang, the entrepreneur and free-money advocate, and author and self-help guru Marianne Williamson, as two unique voices who might get outsize attention from sharing the debate stage with the more nationally recognized candidates.

While much of the focus will be on Biden, it's relative newcomer Buttigieg who might face the biggest uphill battle of anyone, Brown said.

"In terms of debates, generally speaking, the higher the expectations, the worse they do," she said.

Buttigieg, the mayor of a city of just over 100,000, has experienced a "boomlet" in popularity and fundraising over the last two months, and has enjoyed a slew of media coverage and favorable comparisons to President Barack Obama. Yet he's also had trouble courting African American voters, and has been dealing with the fallout of the police shooting death of a black man in South Bend earlier this month.

"Mayor Pete is looking forward to the debate, and as with any event, he will be prepared," a spokesman for Buttigieg told CNBC.

Of course, the Democrats' most-wanted target is expected to be President Donald Trump himself. The president told Fox News' Sean Hannity last week that he is considering live-tweeting his reactions to the debates.

"Even though every candidate's going to take a swipe at Trump, he has a lot to gain here," O'Connell said, because "this is the most important time" for the incumbent president "to define his opponent."

"This is exactly how [President Barack] Obama beat [former GOP nominee Mitt] Romney in 2012," O'Connell said. "I mean, by the time he was the official nominee, he was already a dog-killer in some people's eyes."