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Democratic Debate: How to Watch, Start Time—And 4 Key Issues to Watch for During It

December 19, 2019, 10:00 AM UTC

A smaller and less racially diversified field will loom over the Democratic presidential candidates during the sixth and final Democratic debate of 2019.

Thursday’s debate will begin at 8 p.m. E.T. and will be co-hosted by PBS Newshour and Politico at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. The debate in California comes about three months before the nation’s most populous state holds its primary in March.

The nearly boycotted contest also comes as the House on Wednesday voted to formally impeach President Donald Trump, a Senate trial likely starting early next year, and voters still deciding if a moderate or progressive candidate has the best chance of defeating Trump in 2020.

In a NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist Poll released Monday, 54% of Democratic voters polled think it’s more important to have a nominee who has the best chance of beating Trump, other than someone who shares their position on most issues.

Which candidates qualified for the December debate?

Seven candidates—three less than last month’s debate—have qualified for tonight’s debate, including frontrunners former vice president Joe Biden, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Also appearing onstage will be entrepreneur Andrew Yang, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), and billionaire activist Tom Steyer. (Senator Kamala Harris of California, who qualified for the sixth debate, dropped out of the presidential race on December 3).

The Democratic National Committee’s qualifications to participate for the debate were again the most stringent as less than half of the candidate field made the cut. Candidates needed to meet the DNC’s following criteria:

  • Have at least 200,000 individual donors
  • Must either receive 4% support in four national or early-state approved polls conducted by qualifying pollsters between October 16 and December 12, or at least 6% support in two polls in the four states where early primaries will be held: Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina.

Meanwhile these candidates failed to meet the threshold:

  • Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey
  • Former Housing and Urban Development secretary Julián Castro
  • Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard
  • Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet
  • Former Maryland Rep. John Delaney
  • Author Marianne Williamson
  • Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick
  • Billionaire and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg

With Harris dropping out of the presidential race, Yang is the only candidate of color participating in tonight’s debate. In response, Booker, Castro, and the seven candidates debating tonight reportedly signed a letter to the DNC to either use a polling or a fundraising requirement, but not both, for the January and February debates. The proposed changes would allow Booker and Castro and possibly several other candidates—including the new candidates, Patrick and Bloomberg—to appear onstage.

However, the DNC is currently not in favor of the proposal.

In possible anticipation that she wouldn’t qualify in tonight’s debate, Gabbard tweeted earlier this month she was going to instead focus her campaign on wooing voters in New Hampshire and South Carolina. 

How to watch the debate—even without cable

Tonight’s debate will be co-hosted by PBS NewsHour and the digital news site Politico. The war of words and ideology will also air live on PBS stations and CNN. The debate will also be live streamed on PBS NewsHour’s digital, social and mobile platforms, as well as on and its social and mobile platforms. The debate can also be seen on YouTube, and heard on SiriusXM channels 116 and 124, and on 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’s moderators will be PBS NewsHour’s anchor and managing editor Judy Woodruff, PBS NewsHour senior national correspondent Amna Nawaz, PBS NewsHour’s White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor, and Politico’s chief political correspondent Tim Alberta.

And, instead of the candidates giving opening statements, the moderators will jump right in with questions. Candidates will each be given 1 minute and 15 seconds to respond to moderator questions and 45 seconds for rebuttals and any follow-ups. Each candidate will be allowed to give a minute-long closing statement in reverse polling order, from lowest to highest.

Why tonight’s debate almost didn’t happen

Thursday’s debate is back on after a labor dispute threatened to cancel it before a tentative agreement was reached on Tuesday. The dispute involved Sodexo, a food service contractor for Loyola Marymount University, and its workers. The dispute intensified to the point that all of the Democratic candidates said they would boycott a debate instead of crossing a picket line.

The debate was originally to be held at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), but was relocated to Loyola Marymount’s Gersten Pavilion because of ongoing labor disputes between a local branch of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) union workers and the university, the DNC said.

Looking ahead to 2020, the seventh Democratic debate will be held on Jan. 14. It will be hosted by CNN and The Des Moines Register at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. Three more debates will quickly follow. They will be on Feb. 7 in New Hampshire, on Feb. 19 in Las Vegas, and on Feb. 25 in Charleston, S.C.

Here’s what we’ll be watching during tonight’s Democratic debate:

1. Can Buttigieg withstand an onstage onslaught?

Buttigieg held his own during last month’s debate as he continues to either climb or remain ahead in many polls in key early states. He is surging in New Hampshire and continues to be a favorite among Iowa caucus participants strongly considering him as their first choice for president.

But will the youngest candidate running for the presidency at age 37 be able to withstand a crush of questions and criticism about whether the small-town mayor has experience necessary to lead the nation? Will Biden, who is leading in many national polls including Quinnipiac and Monmouth University, step out and take aim at Buttigieg?

2. Can Biden (finally) have a good debate?

Despite being the leader in some national polls, Biden still hasn’t had a strong debate from start to finish. Will Thursday’s performance change that?

Although he is leading in polls in early voting states South Carolina and Nevada, Biden trails slightly in polling in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Can Biden dominate Thursday’s debate? Will he be sharper than the five previous contests and consistently stay on the offensive with his debate rivals, while not appearing to take offense or be out of touch when being criticized by them?

3. Will Warren rebound?

The Massachusetts senator, who was considered the top frontrunner just a couple of months ago, and has seen her support dip to as low as third in national polling, needs to have a strong showing on Thursday.

Warren seemed to stumble and lost her top status after unveiling her multi-step “Medicare for All” proposal that progressives quickly argued wasn’t aggressive enough, and moderates believe is too pricey and unrealistic.

Perhaps Warren will use the debate to show how she will go about seeking to impeach Trump during the Senate trial next month. Or maybe she will use tonight to also restate her case to voters in Iowa and New Hampshire that she is a liberal enough candidate to defeat Trump.

4. A Sanders surge?

Perhaps if there’s a frontrunner who may benefit from a smaller debate stage, it might be Sanders.

The surging senator, who took a short break after suffering a heart attack two months ago, is in first place in many polls in New Hampshire. Sanders also has leapfrogged ahead of Biden and Warren in Iowa, and may now be considered a threat.

A spirited debate performance by Sanders could help him chip away at the longstanding criticism that he’s too liberal for Democratic voters. While Sanders may again be asked about his health, it will be interesting to see if he will talk more on Thursday about beating Trump in 2020 than beating his Democratic presidential rivals in the upcoming primaries.

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