The First Presidential Debate Is Wednesday — Here's What You Need to Know
From where to tune in on both nights, to what sets the 20 (yes, twenty) candidates apart.
The first Democratic primary debates are next week, and there’s a lot to digest: 20 candidates, six women, two separate nights, a purple team and an orange team, all vying for the blue vote.
The debates take place in Miami on June 26 and 27, from 9 to 11 p.m. Eastern, and will air on NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo, as well as being livestreamed. The five moderators are news anchors Savannah Guthrie, Lester Holt, Chuck Todd, Rachel Maddow and José Diaz-Balart.
The 20 Democratic candidates who qualified for the debate — for which they needed at least 1 percent support in three qualified polls or 65,000 unique campaign donors — have been divided into two groups of 10, one for each evening. Wednesday, the first night, will feature in order from left to right: Bill de Blasio, Tim Ryan, Julián Castro, Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, Beto O’Rourke, Amy Klobuchar, Tulsi Gabbard, Jay Inslee, and John Delaney. That’s right, the seating chart is already set. This party’s definitely happening.
Debating Thursday night will be Marianne Williamson, John Hickenlooper, Andrew Yang, Pete Buttigieg, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Michael Bennet, and Eric Swalwell.
The two groups were selected via random drawings, after the candidates polling above 2 percent were separated from those polling below. As a result, Warren will be the only top-tier candidate debating on night one. This could be an advantage to her, as she’ll clearly stand out on stage, but it also denies her an opportunity to spar with and distinguish herself from the other frontrunners, Biden, Sanders, Buttigieg, and Harris.
The moderators will select the questions, but NBC is also accepting submissions from the public here. Expect questions about health care, abortion, climate change, immigration and taxes, all of which have divided the candidates in this crowded primary field. The debates are a chance for middling candidates to break out of the pack, and for top-tier candidates to go after frontrunner Joe Biden on his record as a conservative Democrat.
To get to know each candidate competing in the debates a little better, read on.
A former Harvard Law School professor, she has served as a U.S. senator from Massachusetts since 2013. She’s an expert in bankruptcy law and was instrumental in establishing the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in 2011, which cracks down on predatory lenders and companies that take advantage of people.
Warren, 69, is a policy wonk and one of the most progressive candidates in the primary, having spent years taking on banks, corruption, and corporate power. Her campaign tagline is “I have a plan for that” (as one twitter user looking for a relationship put to the test), and she rolls out a new policy idea almost daily. She has proposed raising taxes on billionaires to help pay for universal child care, student debt forgiveness and affordable housing and to revive America’s middle class.
Warren is often compared to Bernie Sanders, though he identifies as a socialist, while she calls herself a capitalist. She is a co-sponsor of Sanders’ “Medicare for All” bill in the Senate, but has stopped short of agreeing with him that private health insurance should be banned.
Warren may emerge as a compromise candidate for progressives who want significant change and reform, but aren’t quite looking to blow up the system.
A U.S. senator from Vermont since 2007, he served as the state’s only congressman for 16 years before that. He is the longest serving independent in the history of Congress, and he caucuses with the Democrats.
Sanders, 77, identifies as a socialist. He lost to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primary, but in doing so undoubtedly pulled the entire party a bit to the left. His calls for free college, “Medicare for All,” and a $15-an-hour minimum wage are now fairly mainstream positions within the party. He also wants to eliminate private health insurance.
Sanders appeals to voters who want to revolt against America’s political and financial systems and build something new. He’s known as a bit of a curmudgeon, but he’s been preaching the same politics for decades, and his base loves him for his authenticity. Sanders has long argued that he is in the best position to peel off Trump voters because he can offer them the economic relief that Trump promised and hasn’t delivered. He recently did a Fox News town hall to make his case.
Informally called “Mayor Pete,” he’s the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, since 2012 and the first openly gay presidential candidate in American history. The 37-year-old graduated from Harvard was a Rhodes Scholar, and he speaks French, Spanish, Italian, Norwegian, Maltese Arabic, and Dari. During his tenure as mayor, he was deployed to Afghanistan for seven months with the U.S. Navy Reserves.
Buttigieg falls somewhere in the middle of the pack in terms of politics. He backs the Green New Deal and Medicare “for all who want it” — a more moderate version of Bernie Sanders’ health care proposal — and has proposed a pathway to transition to a single-payer health care system. He wants college to be more affordable, but is concerned that tuition-free education would be unfair. He supports universal background checks on guns and abolishing the Electoral College. He’s a strong supporter of labor and union groups.
Buttigieg would be the youngest president in history, which he touts in his slogan: “It’s time for a new generation of American leadership.” That’s right — he’s a millennial.
The current frontrunner in the polls, Biden was Barack Obama’s Vice President for eight years. Prior to 2009, he’d represented Delaware in the U.S. Senate since 1973.
Biden, 76, is a centrist Democrat who touts his ability to work with Republicans across the aisle. He wants to return to an era of civility in politics, when the two parties were less combative and polarized and could pass bipartisan legislation.
Biden does not support a single-payer health care system nor Medicare for All — he wants to fix the Affordable Care Act, Obama’s signature health care law. He supports raising the minimum wage and taking strong action to combat climate change, though he has not backed the Green New Deal. He is one of the only Democratic candidates who’s wavered on the issue of reproductive healthcare; he described himself as the “odd man out” on the issue in the Democratic Party in 2006, for attempting to take a middle-ground approach where many don’t see one.
Biden’s opponents on the debate stage — especially Bernie Sanders — may go after him on abortion, his vote for the Iraq War, and his role in writing the 1994 crime bill, which sharply increased the country’s prison population.
The junior U.S. Senator from California since 2017 was Attorney General of the state and a district attorney before that.
Harris, 54, describes herself as a “progressive prosecutor” and has backed some very liberal policy proposals, including Medicare for All, debt-free college and legalizing recreational marijuana. She has rolled out detailed plans to close the pay gap between men and women and proposed an original idea to stop state abortion laws from going into effect. The daughter of a Jamaican father and Tamil Indian mother, she has connected these issues to disenfranchised communities most affected, especially people of color. Her opponents may go after her, though, for her conservative record in California, where she resisted criminal justice reform and championed legislation to prosecute parents whose children habitually missed school.
Harris drew national attention in the fall when she grilled Brett Kavanaugh in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, in full prosecutorial mode, before his confirmation to the Supreme Court. Her incisive questioning of him went viral and is seen by some as a promising preview of how she might perform in a debate against Donald Trump.
He became a rising star in the party when he challenged Ted Cruz for his Texas senate seat in 2018. He ultimately lost in the red state but raked in impressive amounts of money from all over the country with his charismatic campaign. (He famously rides a skateboard and played drums in a '90s punk band.)
O’Rourke, 46, served three terms as a U.S. congressman, representing the border town of El Paso. He backs many progressive policies, including the Green New Deal, universal pre-K, a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and legalizing marijuana, but the main thrust of his campaign is his ability to command a crown and listen to voters on the campaign trail.
The liberal Texan started strong, but has lost quite a bit of momentum and attention since Mayor Pete jumped into the race. The two are competing in the same lane as relatively young, energetic, progressive-but-not-socialist white men, and for now, Buttigieg has the clear edge in the polls.
Amy Klobuchar is the senior U.S. senator from Minnesota since 2007, and a former prosecutor. The 58-year-old Yale graduate has long been extremely popular in the purple state, and she hopes her Midwestern roots and old-school Democratic pragmatism will translate into nationwide electability.
Klobuchar’s major platform is upgrading our infrastructure. She has proposed a trillion dollar plan to improve America’s roads, bridges, airports, waterways, public transit and energy systems, which she said would be her top priority in her first year as president. She’s also proposed a $100 billion plan to treat mental health and drug addiction, for which she wants to charge opioid manufacturers.
She has declined to back some of the more progressive policy proposals in the race, like Medicare for all and free college tuition.
The junior senator from New York since 2009, she launched her campaign right outside of Trump Tower in Manhattan, calling the president a “coward” in her kick-off speech.
The 52-year-old attorney is passionate about women’s rights issues and led the fight in Congress to reform the way the military handles sexual assault cases. Her major policy platform in her 2020 campaign is making parenting affordable with a “Family Bill of Rights,” which includes $6,000 tax credits per child for childcare, universal pre-K and guaranteed access to paid family leave.
She’s also a leader in the fight for LGBTQ rights and has promised that as president she would codify anti-discrimination protections into federal statutes. She touts the fact that only 11.7 percent of her votes have been in line with President Trump — the lowest of any U.S. senator.
Elected the first black senator from New Jersey in 2013, he served as mayor of Newark before that. He graduated from Stanford University and Yale Law and received a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford.
Booker, 50, has the third-most liberal record in the senate. He is campaigning on an affordable housing reform plan, which includes a tax credit for low-income renters, a $1,000 housing investment for each child upon birth (known as “baby bonds”), protections against eviction and funding incentives for cities that prioritize affordable housing. He also promises $6 billion in aid for the homeless.
Booker has also called for men to speak out more forcefully in defense of women’s reproductive rights, and he proposed an ambitious gun control plan that includes requiring licenses for all gun owners.
Bill de Blasio
New York City mayor De Blasio is a newcomer to the Democratic primary field, having just jumped into the race earlier this month. The 52-year-old second-term mayor is running on a message of fighting for the working class.
While de Blasio has not rolled out any major policy proposals as a candidate, he fought for universal pre-K in New York, expanded paid family leave and to raise the minimum wage. He’s also been an ally of hotel union workers in their fight against Airbnb.
De Blasio, whose family is multiracial, lashed out this week at frontrunner Joe Biden after Biden fondly recalled his ability to work with segregationist senators.
A congressman from Ohio since 2003, he's a moderate Democrat who hopes to win over white, working class voters who left the party in 2016.
Ryan said he grew up watching plant closures in Ohio, which shaped his political views and has motivated him to revive America’s middle class. He aligns with Trump on trade and manufacturing and wants to invest in emerging technologies like wind and alternative energies. He is best known for unsuccessfully challenging House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in her bid to lead Democrats in 2016. He said she was disconnected from America’s blue-collar workers.
The grandson of a Mexican immigrant in Texas, he served three terms as mayor of San Antonio before President Barack Obama appointed him Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in 2014.
Castro, 44, has proposed an aggressive plan to reform policing and its effect on communities of color. He has condemned the deaths of unarmed black people like Eric Garner, Sandra Bland and Tamir Rice, calling them “victims of state violence.” He pledged to rebuild the relationships between police officers and communities of color by holding the former group more accountable, limiting when police officers can use deadly force and ending the “school-to-prison pipeline.”
Castro has also rolled out detailed plans to make housing more affordable and combat homelessness.
She has represented Hawaii in Congress since 2013, where she is the first Samoan and first Hindu member of the legislature.
Gabbard has served in the Hawaii Army National Guard, volunteered for a 12-month tour in Iraq and was later deployed to Kuwait. She is very critical of U.S. military intervention abroad, calling “war and peace” her central campaign issue.
Gabbard, 37, has called for a reduced role in the Middle East and wants to restore the Iran nuclear deal, but also promoted Republicans’ use of the term “radical Islam.” She’s a hawk on terrorism and voted with the GOP to place “extreme vetting” measures on Iraqi and Syrian refugees. Gabbard otherwise considers herself a strong progressive and backed Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Is the 68-year-old current governor of Washington, who previously represented the state in Congress for 15 years. He’s made climate change the center of his campaign, proposing an ambitious plan that aims to achieve 100 percent clean electricity, buildings and vehicles by 2030.
Progressive star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who co-authored the Green New Deal in Congress, called Inslee’s climate plan “the most serious + comprehensive” by any candidate. But he suffers from a lack of name recognition and has so far failed to stand out in the crowded primary field.
A New Age self-help author and spiritual advisor to Oprah Winfrey, she is running with the tagline “Join the Evolution.” She has never held political office before, though she ran for a California House seat as an independent in 2014.
Williamson, 66, has written 13 books, including four New York Times bestsellers. She has called for $100 billion to be paid to African Americans in reparations for slavery, which would be paid in installments over 10 years. She supports all the most progressive policy proposals, including free college, universal pre-K, Medicare-for-all and the Green New Deal.
Former Maryland congressman and multimillionaire, he was the first to announce a 2020 presidential bid in a July 2017 Washington Post op-ed titled “Why I’m Running for President.”
The 55-year-old moderate entrepreneur said he would only do bipartisan proposals in his first 100 days as president, harkening back to a time when the two parties got along. Delaney’s father was a union electrician, and neither of his parents attended college, but he co-founded two companies and is now worth over $90 million.
Delaney supports universal health care and pre-K, but not Medicare-for-all. As a congressman, he proposed the Open Our Democracy Act, which would make election day a federal holiday and combat partisan gerrymandering.
A geologist by trade, he is the former governor of Colorado and mayor of Denver. He previously owned a craft brewery.
Hickenlooper, 67, is a moderate, pro-business Democrat who has denounced the Green New Deal as “unrealistic.” As governor, he opted to expand Medicaid and signed legislation banning high-capacity magazines and requiring background checks on all gun purchases. He has advocated for expanding access to contraception and family planning, including long-acting contraceptive devices like the IUD.
He’s 44-year-old tech entrepreneur and philanthropist from upstate New York whose supporters call themselves the “Yang Gang.”
Yang’s central campaign proposal is a universal basic income for all citizens over the age of 18. His so-called “Freedom Dividend” would provide all American workers with $1,000 a month, which he said would grow the economy by 13 percent and increase the labor force. Yang, the unlikely star of many internet memes, has also proposed a federal department to oversee social media, which he says contributes to mass depression and anxiety.
A U.S. senator from Colorado since 2009, he captured the nation’s attention earlier this year with an emotional outburst against Senator Ted Cruz on the Senate floor over the government shutdown. He previously served as superintendent of Denver Public Schools.
His priorities are education and climate change. He does not support the Green New Deal, but his own “America’s Climate Change Plan” aims to invest in renewable energy achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. He also wants to ban members of Congress from becoming lobbyists, overturn the Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United decision and end partisan gerrymandering.
A California congressman since 2013, he’s running to take on the National Rifle Association. He wants to ban all assault-style weapons and implement regulations on gun manufacturers and a federal gun buyback program. The former Oakland prosecutor has partnered with a survivor of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting to advocate for gun control.
Swalwell is also a prominent voice on cable news. As a member of the House Intelligence and Judiciary Committees, he’s been an outspoken critic of President Trump’s foreign policy and has said he believes Trump colluded with Russia.