“Joe Biden’s campaign dismissed the idea that this will be in some way the showdown between Warren and Biden”
Ten of the top polling 2020 candidates are set to duke it out in Houston on Thursday night during the third Democratic presidential debate. The one-night event, held at Texas Southern University and airing on ABC, marks the first time this particular group of candidates will appear on stage together. So what can we expect? NPR political correspondent Asma Khalid has been covering the 2020 campaign trail, most recently the New Hampshire Democratic convention. Just before jetting off to Texas, Asma gave us a call from the airport with her predictions for the big night.
Katie Couric: As the 10 candidates join each other onstage for the first time, what do you think viewers should be especially watching for?
Asma Khalid: This is the first time that all of the leading candidates will be on the same debate stage, and so, to me what’s really interesting is that we’ll have a chance to see dynamics we haven’t seen before between some of the leading candidates. For example, former Vice President Joe Biden and Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren. They’ve had a long, somewhat contentious history over the years. They’ve clashed over bankruptcy proceedings. They’ve sort of debated financial issues over the years, economic issues. We have not gotten a chance to see them together.
They take a very different approach to what the right solutions will be in 2020, so what will be interesting is to hear them interact with one another. It also will be really interesting to see California Senator Kamala Harris and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren on the same stage. One of the things you realize when you look at the public opinion polling is that Warren and Harris seem to pull from some of the same supporters. So I’m very curious to better understand the dynamic of the two of them onstage — and I’m sure they’re both very aware that they pull from the same supporters.
I know you were just at the Democratic Convention in New Hampshire, and you said that a lot of people were excited about the range of possible candidates. What do you think candidates might do onstage to attract these voters that are very excited, but do not necessarily have a favorite yet?
One of the things we’ll probably hear a lot about from some of the candidates is to either counter or make the push for their own electability. When I talk to Democrats about what they’re looking for in this election cycle… they say that they want somebody who will be able to beat Donald Trump. When you pry a little bit further, and try to better understand what that means, voters have a different set of rationales for what exactly that means and what that quotient of electability translates into.
We’ll hear some of the candidates try to make their own pitch for electability. There is an assumption that Joe Biden is doing very well thus far and is beating every single poll, because he seems to be the most electable sort of candidate in opposition to President Trump. At the New Hampshire Democratic State Convention, we heard some of the candidates push back on that notion. Senator Warren, as well as Senator Cory Booker, questioned this idea of whether you should choose someone who’s just the safest option — somebody who you might not necessarily “believe in as much, just because you believe that it could be the option to beat President Trump.”
What topics are likely to dominate this debate?
I believe we’ll hear a lot more about healthcare. We’ve heard a lot about healthcare thus far in both of the debates, but it is something hugely important to voters when you talk to them. I don’t know that they all are so concerned about Medicare For All, versus expanding coverage to create a public option. Most of the polling I’ve seen suggests that voters care far more about the cost of coverage, how much healthcare costs are, the increasing cost of healthcare. That was a huge issue during the 2018 midterms and it continues to be a huge issue.
The other topic that I am really curious to hear about — I don’t know if we will hear so much more about it — is around foreign policy. We haven’t heard thus far that much about foreign policy in any of the debates. We’ll probably also hear a lot about immigration. This debate is happening in Texas. We’ve had a lot of conversations recently around about not only how the Trump administration has been detaining children and separating families, but also broader visions around what a legal immigration system should look like. We’ve heard a lot from Democrats this election cycle about what they want to do for the undocumented in our country, but we have not heard as much specifics around border security. I think that’s something Democrats really need to clarify, especially in a general election context.
What about gun control and other current events-related topics?
We’ve had a slate of recent mass shootings — actually two specifically high-profile shootings in Texas. Given that the debate is in Texas, we will certainly probably hear more about gun control. When you hear from a lot of Democrats about this, what’s really interesting is that a number of their policies are not limited to just gun control, but they’re broader sort of visions that desire to combat nationalism, combat hate speech. And this is a fundamentally different way than Democrats were thinking about gun control just four to eight years ago.
You touched on this earlier, but Biden and Elizabeth Warren will be right next to each other on the stage. What can we expect from them?
When you talk to Joe Biden’s campaign, which I did recently, they sort of dismissed the idea that this will be in some way the showdown between Warren and Biden. They think there’s a much more complicated debate on stage that we’ll see at play. And Elizabeth Warren has shown in the past few months that she is an extremely tactile politician. So it doesn’t necessarily behoove her to start personal complications with Joe Biden onstage. She and Bernie Sanders are ideologically very similar, and if I were to venture to say anything, it could be the case that we might see someone like Bernie Sanders perhaps more directly debate Joe Biden on a personal level. To some degree, if Sanders and Warren have very similar visions of the country, Warren does not need to necessarily directly combat, directly engage with Biden on a personal level, because Bernie Sanders may do that for her.
Similarly, what do you think we might see as we see the two top polling female candidates, Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris, together for the first time?
For me, the most interesting dynamic will be to see whether or not they directly engage with each other and if so, how they do. Because I would venture to say they are probably both aware that they pull from the same voters. When you look at the public opinion polls, voters that like Warren often like Harris at their second choice — or vice versa. To some degree, you would assume one or the other needs to have a moment to shine to convince those voters to choose them over the other option. We do know that they’ve had a friendly relationship, dealing with some banking issues after the Great Recession in 2008. But we’ll see.
What else could we expect?
I am very intrigued to see the degree which Biden suffers from direct attacks on multiple fronts and whether he does actually receive multiple attacks on fronts — because we’ve seen this happen in some of the earlier debates. I would say that the takeaway has been that it has not necessarily proved to be immensely successful for candidates in the long-run. I’m curious if we will see candidates engage with him and attack him on a personal level. And if you don’t directly attack Biden, well then how do you prove yourself to be more relevant? Because these viral moments are often the ones where you have candidates directly battle out with each other. And if they don’t battle it out with the “frontrunner” Joe Biden at this point, who do they directly battle it out with then?
This interview has been edited and condensed.
This originally appeared on Medium.com