As Dems gear up for Detroit, Miami debates a chance to 'shine or slip further behind'

Michigan Democratic Party Chair Lavora Barnes is attending the Miami debates of the Democratic presidential hopefuls to learn lessons that could be applied to the July 30-31 debates in Detroit.

Lansing — Michigan Democratic Party Chairwoman Lavora Barnes is heading to Miami, where she'll be taking notes Wednesday and Thursday on the first set of presidential debates to help prepare for the second next month in Detroit.

Barnes will be a spectator in Miami, where 20 Democratic candidates — 10 each night — will battle for the attention and imagination of primary voters who eventually will decide the party’s nominee to challenge Republican President Donald Trump.

“I want to see how it operates so that when they come to Detroit, I’ve at least got a visual so we can do as good of a job — maybe even better,” Barnes said in a phone interview with The Detroit News.

The Miami debates, the first of four scheduled by the Democratic National Committee, are set to air both nights from 9 to 11 p.m. on NBC News, MSNBC and Telemundo — more than a month before the second debates, set for July 30 and 31 at Detroit's Fox Theatre.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, former Rep. Beto O'Rourke of Texas and  Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey are among the 10 candidates who will debate Wednesday night.

Former Vice President Joe Biden of Delaware, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and others will share Thursday's stage. 

"Everybody understands that this is the best opportunity before heading into the summer doldrums to differentiate yourself and try to put a little oomph under a campaign," said David Birdsell, dean of Baruch College's School of Public Affairs and co-author of "Presidential Debates: The Challenge of Creating an Informed Electorate." 

"This is of particular importance for campaigns that are still mired in the low single digits — if not even quite one single digit — which is true for several of the candidates at this time."

Fighting for air time

The massive field that qualified under national party rules may have little time for rebuttals or in-depth sparring. 

But the two-hour debates will give both obscure and high-profile hopefuls the chance to introduce themselves to voters on national television while emphasizing the qualities each would represent as an opponent to Trump.

"This is an opportunity to shine or slip further behind," said Jonathan Kinloch, chairman of the 13th Congressional District Democratic Party. "It may be early, but it can be consequential for some of these candidates who are lagging."

With limited time to make their mark, candidates will seek to stand out — and potentially get caught up in a video clip that goes viral on cable news and social media.

"If you look back to the 2015 GOP cycle, those early debates, it shows you what a crowded stage is like, and it's awkward," said Aaron Kall, director of debate at the University of Michigan. 

"They organize you by how well people do in the polls, so it's very difficult to be noticed on that stage. There will be people on the sides who you miss for an hour because they don’t get any questions."

Politicos are eager to see whether some candidates go after one another or get tripped up by an unforgettable gaffe.

"Up to this point in the campaign, everyone has been mostly playing nice. By and large everybody has been focused on their own race," said Nathan L. Gonzales, editor and publisher of the newsletter Inside Elections.  

"But at some point, whether it’s this debate or Detroit or down the line, candidates are going to have to start making more stark contrasts."

Kall, who plans to be in Miami for the match-ups, doesn't expect many ad hominem attacks because of the risks of going negative and the hesitancy among the front runners to ruffle feathers too early. 

With so many candidates in front of the cameras at once, some of the front runners can expect to talk for a total 20 to 30 minutes, Kall said. But for the lesser-known candidates, five to eight minutes is possible, he said. 

"We'll see those larger candidates fighting for every minute, just hoping that they happen to be talking during a major exchange of the night at the right time," Kall said.

"Those are the clips that get played in the aftermath and gets them additional free media. But there's a lot of luck involved in that."

Swing state viewers

As state party chair, Barnes can’t root for candidates in a contested primary but said she is rooting for a “high-minded” debate about issues rather than personal attacks.

“The focus on issues that matter to voters and the country, particularly in Michigan and in the Midwest, is important to me,” she said. “And as long as we continue that conversation through these debates, we’re winning.”

Former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm is reportedly part of a team helping Biden prepare for the debate, according to NBC News. She played the role of Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin during his rehearsal for a 2008 vice presidential debate.

At least 13 Democratic contenders have already campaigned in Michigan, and Barnes predicted voters will see some of them “over and over again because the road to the White House runs right through here.”

Volunteers Kelly Lett, left, and Chris Riley, center, talk to Lavora Barnes, right, at her table before the afternoon session. Barnes is a front-running candidate for chairperson of the Michigan Democratic Party.

“But in other parts of the country, this may be the only opportunity for a primary voter to actually hear anything from a candidate. And you do this early with so many, and this is their moment to distinguish themselves and to introduce themselves to people who haven't heard from them yet.”

Republican voters may also tune in to see the “circus,” said Michigan GOP Chairwoman Laura Cox, predicting Democrats will use the debate stage to try to “out-socialize one another with their very expensive plans.”

"I'm sure they're going to talk about government-run health care. I'm sure they're going to talk about the Green New Deal. I'm sure they're going to talk about abolishing ICE" and other "radical" proposals, Cox said. 

Viewers may see candidates trying to replicate in the Detroit debates whatever works best for candidates on the stage in Miami, Gonzales said. 

"We could see some copy cats in Detroit," he said. "If someone does something specific that ends up boosting them in the polls, then you might see other candidates saying, 'Oh well that's what I need to do,' and that could be a blueprint that succeeds."

Voters back in Detroit will be watching the Miami debate for an early glimpse of where candidates stand on issues important to black voters, Kinloch said.

“It’s going to be very important to hear these candidates talk about how they’re going to deal with poverty, how they’re going to deal with under-employment, how they’re going to deal with wage disparity, with education,” he said.

Research has shown that even when people are very impressed by a candidate in a debate, over time they tend to default to the consensus depiction of that candidate in the media, Birdsell said.

"For candidates who know this, they’re going to be looking to win the press as much as they are looking to win voters per se," he said.

"Because if you can get journalists writing about your campaign differently, then you have a narrative line that can sustain steady engagement with the voters at events subsequent to the debate that might not be the case otherwise if you're just trying to go for the win in the grandstands." 

For the first two debates, the DNC is allowing up to 20 candidates who topped at least 1% in three separate polls or raised money from at least 65,000 unique donors. 

But since the DNC revealed who made the Miami debates, another candidate, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, has met the polling requirement. That means the committee might be forced to employ its tie-breaking rules to determine who gets a spot on the stage in Detroit. 

The DNC has said it will see which candidates are first to satisfy both the polling and donor requirements. If over 20 candidates meet both of those thresholds, then the 20 candidates with the highest polling average would make the Detroit stage. 

Trump factor

Some debate questions are likely to reflect what's going on in the news, including the increasing tensions with Iran, whether Congress would have to authorize military action there and if Trump should have called off last week's military strike, Kall said. 

Biden and others could also be asked about recent controversies, such as the former vice president's working with segregationists while serving in the Senate or Buttigieg's response to a police-involved shooting in South Bend. 

"A big question will be how much Trump looms in the debate because there's different philosophies on whether just to stress yourself and your biography and your issues or kind of go against the president," Kall said. 

The moderators are likely to include issues important to the local audience, such as immigration and Cuba in Miami or tariffs and the auto industry in Detroit, he said. 

Trump, who emerged from a crowded Republican primary field in 2016, may use his favorite social media channel to steal some of the spotlight.

The president last week threatened to live-tweet the Democratic debate, which could spur real-time questions from moderators in response, Kall said.

Barnes said she is not surprised that Trump — who loves media attention despite his continual attacks on the “fake news" — would attempt to inject himself into the conversation. 

“I think that the people of this nation will be focused on what’s actually being said on the stage,” she said, “and hopefully the distraction of the president’s Twitter platform are just that — distractions.”

The large field poses a challenge for debate moderators, but it’s been good for voters in Michigan, who have already seen many candidates tour the state, Barnes said.

State party phones are already ringing “off the hook” with voters asking how to connect with candidates, volunteer or raise money, she said. “The more they come in, the more of that we’ll see, and the more excitement that will be generated up and down the ticket.”