Democratic Debate: How to Watch, Start Time—and 5 Key Things to Watch for During It

Get ready for another round of raised voices, pointed fingers, Medicare-for-all squabbling, and foreign policy fact-checking, as the fifth Democratic presidential debate kicks off Wednesday night in Atlanta.

Tonight’s Democratic debate begins at 9 p.m. E.T. and will be co-hosted by MSNBC and the Washington Post at the Tyler Perry Studios, the massive 300-acre film and production space founded by actor/filmmaker Tyler Perry.

The debate moderators, an all-female lineup, are MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell and Kristen Welker, as well as Washington Post White House reporter Ashley Parker.

Ten candidates—two less than last month’s debate—have qualified for tonight’s debate, including frontrunners Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), former vice president Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and the rising South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, have all qualified to take the debate stage.

The fifth Democratic primary debate comes less than three months before the first primary votes are cast during the Iowa Caucus, and less than a year until the 2020 presidential election. It’s also taking place amid the House Intelligence Committee’s second week of public hearings into the impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump.

Which candidates qualified for the November debate?

In order to qualify for the fifth Democratic debate, candidates had to receive at least 3% in four DNC-approved polls, slightly up from the 2% needed to participate in the third and fourth debates, as well as donations from at least 165,000 unique supporters—a spike from the 130,000 needed to participate in the past two debates. The donation requirement also included getting a minimum of 600 donors per state in at least 20 states, territories, or the District of Columbia.

Candidates also qualified by getting 5% in two approved polls conducted in early-state primaries, including Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, or South Carolina. The polls must have been released between September 13 and a week before the November debate. The 10 candidates include:

  • Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar
  • New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker
  • South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg
  • Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders
  • Former Vice President Joe Biden
  • Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren
  • California Sen. Kamala Harris
  • Tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang
  • Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard
  • California billionaire activist Tom Steyer

Former HUD Secretary Julian Castro failed to get the required polling numbers to qualify for the fifth Democratic debate, and Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke, who at the beginning of the year looked like a strong presidential contender, dropped out of the race earlier this month.

How to watch the debate—even without cable a cable subscription

There are several ways to catch the Democratic debate tonight. It will air on live TV at 9 p.m. E.T., 8 p.m. C.T., 6 p.m. P.T. on MSNBC. The debate will also be live-streamed at,, and the Washington Post website. The debate will also be available on MSNBC’s simulcast on SiriusXM channel 118 and TuneIn.

There are a number of online options to watch the debate, some of which require a subscription (or you’ll need to sign up for a free trial).

The debate can also be streamed for free via the MSNBC and Washington Post apps for iOS and Android, and on the MSNBC apps for Apple TV, Roku, Amazon Fire, Chromecast, and Android TV.

Other streaming options include:

  • Sling TV—First-time users get a seven-day free preview before the monthly fees, which range $25 to $40, kick in.
  • PlayStation Vue—A free trial lasts five days. Subscription packages start at $50 per month.
  • Hulu with Live TV—You can try the service free for a week. Once that ends, you’ll pay $45 per month.
  • YouTube TV—After a seven-day trial, you can expect monthly charges of $40.

Here’s what we’ll be watching:

1. Who’s the real 2020 frontrunner?

2020 presidential candidates Senator Bernie Sanders, from left, former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Elizabeth Warren, and Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, during October’s Democratic presidential debate. Allison Farrand/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Allison Farrand—Bloomberg via Getty Images

While Warren was the frontrunner heading into the October debate, a series of polls show either Warren, Biden, or Buttigieg out in front.

As Biden holds leads in early primary states, New Hampshire and South Carolina, according to the latest polls conducted by Quinnipiac University, Warren and Sanders both maintain a steady presence in those same polls.

However, in Iowa, Buttigieg’s 16% rise since September has him now on top of the latest Iowa Poll with 25% of likely Iowa Caucus participants now saying he is their first choice for president.

And there are several reasons why Buttigieg is trending upwards in the Heartland, said Brian Sobel, a political analyst in San Francisco Bay Area.

“[Buttigieg’s] composure is very evident, he’s knowledgeable with the issues, and he’s is on par with the other top three candidates,” Sobel said. “He’s got a clear sense of what he’s doing and saying for the most part, and not sliding to the extreme. Buttigieg is a centrist candidate that voters could be starting to get behind beyond he’s a veteran, he’s gay and he’s a small-town mayor.”

Buttigieg is currently riding a trend that Iowa voters tend to favor – younger candidates like then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois in 2008, said Dan Sena, former executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

And similar to Biden and Warren when they were seen as frontrunners, Buttigieg is going to be a target Wednesday night, Sena said.

“It’s absolutely Mayor Pete’s turn,” Sena said. “He definitely has a target on his back and he needs to be ready.”

2. How much will the “Impeach Trump” battle cry be heard?

A protester holds a sign that reads “Face facts remove Trump” outside Longworth House Office Building during a recess between back-to-back House Intelligence Committee impeachment hearings of President Donald Trump on November 19, 2019, in Washington, DC. Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images
Sarah Silbiger—Getty Images

With the ongoing inquiry and hearings, impeachment will be too hard for candidates to ignore, and it will be interesting to see who will say “Impeach Trump” the loudest, Sobel said.

“They’ve all touched on impeaching the president, but this might get a little dicey if they try getting too specific about the hearings because that would have required them to watch a lot of them, instead of being out there campaigning,” Sobel said. “There will be a continued chorus and endorsement to see the need to impeach Trump, but with so many candidates, they should also focus on how their messages can separate themselves from the rest of the pack.”

Sena agrees. He adds that with five senators comprising half of Wednesday’s debate stage, they are still not going to pass up the opportunity to use the impeachment hearings to further establish their positions ahead of when impeachment formally goes before the Senate next year.

“The hearings have rationalized for those candidates currently serving in the Senate to talk about their plan for impeachment because they definitely want to be a part of the story, and possibly history,” Sena said.

3. Will Medicare-for-All dominate the debate?

In this file photo taken on September 13, 2017, a member of the audience holds up a placard as US Senator Bernie Sanders, Independent from Vermont, discusses Medicare for All legislation on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images
JIM WATSON—AFP via Getty Images

Warren will likely be front and center of the health care discussion since releasing her updated single-payer health plan she said would cost the country “just under” $52 trillion over a decade, which includes $20.5 trillion in new federal spending, earlier this month.  Her initiative would mean billionaires and businesses will pay even higher taxes, but not the American middle class.

Also, Warren significantly overhauled her plan, making it far different than Sanders’ health care strategy, and will likely lead to some intense discussion.

Warren will still get “hammered on how she’s going to pay for it, even though she’s made herself more clear,” Sobel said. He also expects Buttigieg, who heavily criticized Warren’s initial plan, to catch some heat for his own health care strategy now that he’s climbing in the polls.

4. Will Harris, Booker, Klobuchar, Gabbard, Yang, and Steyer get more time in the spotlight?

Democratic presidential candidate, billionaire Tom Steyer speaks during the Nevada Democrats’ “First in the West” event at Bellagio Resort & Casino on November 17, 2019, in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Nevada Democratic presidential caucuses are scheduled for February 22, 2020. David Becker/Getty Images
David Becker—Getty Images

Meanwhile, as the four top candidates will be standing next to each other on stage directly battling each other over health care, education, the economy, the “other six” candidates will be fighting to be heard while onstage, Sobel said.

“The frontrunners will be getting the lion’s share of the time,” Sobel said. “I don’t know where Booker is going, his numbers aren’t climbing, but he’s still making money and hanging on the fringes.”

Sobel said Booker, Harris, Klobuchar, and Gabbard “all need to have solid performances” to remain relevant to their bases and have any hope of at least making it to Iowa.

“It’s all about them making money and getting verifiable support in the polls,” Sobel said. “All of them will hang on as long as they have money coming in and if they can get on that debate stage, they will remain in the race, for now.” 

5. Will this be the end for Democratic candidates who didn’t make the debate stage?

Miramar, Florida Mayor Wayne Messam speaks at a rally at Florida Memorial University in Miami Gardens, Florida. Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Joe Raedle—Getty Images

Besides Castro, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, former Maryland Rep. John Delaney, former Pennsylvania Rep. Joe Sestak, and self-help guru and author Marianne Williamson, didn’t make the cut for the fifth debate.

“I wouldn’t count them out just yet,” Sena said, just shortly after Miramar, Fla., Mayor Wayne Messam suspended his presidential campaign on Wednesday.

However, Sobel thinks those candidates’ chances to participate in the sixth debate next month in Los Angeles looks bleak as voters likely suffering from debate fatigue probably want more candidates to drop their campaigns.

“It might be a done deal for them,” Sobel said.

More must-read stories from Fortune:

—Bernie Sanders dominates in donations from suburban women
—Are white Democrats turning on presidential candidates due to Latino outreach?
2020 candidate Tom Steyer is a billionaire, but not that kind of billionaire
—The 2020 tax brackets are out. Here’s what you need to know
—More companies are openly supporting abortion rights

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