WASHINGTON — Bright lights. Big stage. National audience. Six minutes.
That’s roughly the amount of time most of the Democratic presidential candidates have to make a strong first impression during the first televised debates of the 2020 election cycle, on Wednesday and Thursday.
It’s not much time for candidates to introduce themselves, let alone land any blows — but it's plenty of opportunity to bomb on national TV.
“You have six to seven minutes of the American people’s time,” said Christina Reynolds, an EMILY’s List official who prepped John Edwards for his presidential debates, told VICE News. “What is the thing you want them walking away with [knowing] about you? What is that message?”
The debates are a huge test. They’ve historically provided rocket fuel for lesser-known candidates who have good moments — Carly Fiorina, Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain took off because of strong debate performances, and they helped fuel Donald Trump’s rise. But looking too thirsty can let a national audience know not to take you too seriously.
And a major debate gaffe or freeze-up can destroy a campaign, as Rick Perry, Marco Rubio and Tim Pawlenty found out the hard way.
That means even the top-tier candidates will be looking to define themselves, as the one-percenters desperate to make the next round of debates may swing for the fences.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) was one of the few candidates who managed to turn the ignominy of being stuck in the “kids stage” debate of poor-polling candidates into a plus in 2016, using policy chops and pithy one-liners to generate favorable headlines. His advice to the lower-tier Democrats looking to make their name?
“Be funny and stand out,” Graham told VICE News.
How hard is it to do that without face-planting?
In these first debates, it will be particularly tricky to make an impression.
Candidates won’t get opening statements. Answers are limited to one minute, with just 30 seconds for follow-ups. With four commercial breaks, ten candidates and five (!) rotating moderators, not to mention an audience that may not watch both two-hour debates, that doesn’t leave much time for candidates — especially as they’re looking to not just to come off as competent but also say something that’ll draw enough attention to gain coverage in the next round of debates. In the time it takes to listen to "Bohemian Rhapsody," the candidates will need to show they merit a serious look from the electorate.
The first two nights might feel as much like the opening episode of a reality show before all the losers get cut as a test for the next leader of the free world. And most lesser-known candidates will be aiming to make the promo commercial.
"What can I say in the first 10 minutes of the debate that’s going to piss Trump off so much that he’s going to tweet about me?"
“To do well at a debate you need to make the highlight reel. And unless you’re the frontrunner the only way to make that happen is through conflict — either with another candidate, the moderator, or in this case with Trump. But conflict is inherently unpredictable and hard to prepare for,” said Alex Conant, a GOP strategist who helped coach Rubio and Tim Pawlenty for their debate appearances.
Conant predicted that the candidates would be looking to get under the president’s skin and trigger a response from the tweeter-in-chief.
“If I was a two-percenter, my strategy would be what can I say in the first 10 minutes of the debate that’s going to piss Trump off so much that he’s going to tweet about me, and then when the moderator lets me respond to his tweet, what can I say that’ll prove I’m the best candidate to take him on?” he said. ‘That would be my whole strategy going into this.”
While the Democratic candidates have been barnstorming the country for months, most voters still have little to no idea who many of them are. A recent Associated Press/NORC poll found that only one-third of Democrats have been paying close attention to the primary so far, with two-thirds saying they’ve been paying some or no attention. Less than a quarter said they knew a lot about the candidates’ positions.
“The one thing you don’t want to do is try so hard for a viral moment that it’s a viral moment of you trying too hard. It can quickly come across that you’re trying so hard to go viral that you went desperate,” said Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson.
Being a front-runner puts a target on a candidate’s back. But in the first debates at least, especially as other candidates are more focused on defining themselves than takin down their opponents, it might not be so bad being at the center of the debate stage.
Former Vice President Joe Biden’s allies expect him to come prepared. Biden has had nothing on his public schedule since Saturday besides meetings with advisers as he preps for the debate — even if he’s publicly joked about its format.
“It’s a little bit of an exaggeration to call it a debate, I mean, because there's not really much time,” Biden said in Iowa earlier this month. “It's like a lightning round. … it's an exaggeration to suggest that there's going to be any real depth about what we're going to be able to get into in a minute. “
Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a longtime ally, said Biden is still taking them seriously. He said Biden called him shortly after Coons was first elected to the Senate to warn him never do a Sunday morning show interview without spending at least two hours in preparation. That’s a drop in the bucket for the amount of prep he expects Biden is doing this week.
“Joe has always prepared hard for important moments,” he told VICE News.
And he said it’d be easier for the well-known Biden than the other, lesser-known candidates in the first debate.
“He doesn't need to introduce himself to the American people,” he said. “He doesn't need some viral moment to command the stage.”
One person who spent a lot of time centerstage with a target on his back concurred that he’d rather be the well-known Biden than someone trying to make a good first impression with a national audience.
“It’s terrific be the front-runner because you get all the time. People are attacking you, you get a chance to respond,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) told VICE News. “If you have the clock. It's your debate.”
Biden and Bernie Sanders are the only ones with presidential debate experience — Biden from his failed 1988 and 2008 campaigns as well as two vice presidential debates, and Sanders from last cycle. They’re also the only ones that most voters know well, so they have less introducing to accomplish.
Sanders has been slipping some in the polls as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has risen. Sanders and Biden will appear next to one another on the second night. Sanders has been critical of Biden on the trail. Perhaps the biggest question is whether he goes after the former vice president, a skirmish that could benefit both men and sap time away from the other candidates onstage.
“I’m very curious to see how much Sanders goes after Biden. I’m pretty sure he does,” said GOP strategist John Brabender, who coached Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) for his presidential debates.
Warren’s biggest-name opponents on the first night are former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), both of whom need a breakout moment if they hope to move into the first tier of candidates.
The lesser-known candidates are fighting for dear life for a spot in the next debates. One will likely get bounced the next debate because Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D) qualified, leaving one too many candidates for the 20 spots allotted. The rest face higher hurdles for qualifying for the third and fourth debates in the fall, and need to do something to gain traction before then.
That means they’ll be looking for a big break. But that might also lead to some cringe-worthy moments — and as Biden predicted, a lack of serious policy discussion.
“Are they really going to debate, or is it just going to be each candidate using every bite of the apple to cut a viral spot for themselves?” one unaligned Democratic strategist who’s helped prepare a number of Senate candidates for debates said with a laugh. “Oh god, it’s going to be gross.”
Cover: Beto O'Rourke, former Representative from Texas and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, listens during Jim Clyburn's World Famous Fish Fry event in Columbia, South Carolina, U.S., on Friday, June 21, 2019. (Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images)