If you've been watching CNN's promos for the first 2016 Democratic presidential debate on Tuesday, you might be picturing an epic throwdown between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. They'll be there. But so will three other candidates: Martin O'Malley, Jim Webb, and Lincoln Chafee. Surprising as it might be, there are five Democratic candidates who've managed to poll at 1 percent (or more) in at least three national polls from August 1 to last Sunday, getting them in the door for the first CNN debate.
Here's who the debaters are — and what they have to do.
Identity: the Frontrunner
Biography: Former secretary of state. Former US senator. Former first lady. Former inevitable-seeming frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination, before a relatively unknown senator challenged her from the left on key issues, generated tremendous enthusiasm among progressives and young people, and slowly but surely cleared a path to the nomination.
Mission: By any reasonable definition, Clinton is still leading the race for 2016 — but the fact that anyone is paying attention to this debate at all is something of a defeat for her. Clinton's campaign fought hard to limit the number of Democratic debates. If she stinks up the joint, Democratic National Committee members — future delegates and superdelegates — might start to wonder whether they made the right decision about the debate schedule after all. Since Clinton's biggest edge versus Sanders is with endorsements, she probably doesn't want Democratic power players feeling that it should be a real race. It's hard to imagine that Clinton's performance at the first debate will singlehandedly drive anyone into the arms of Bernie Sanders. But Sanders just won his first endorsement from a sitting member of Congress, which could make it easier for others to come out of the woodwork.
Identity: the Populist
Biography: Proud "democratic socialist" from Vermont. Served as mayor of Burlington, US congressman, and US senator as an independent. Joined the Democratic Party to challenge Clinton for 2016. Has done better than anyone expected.
Mission: Sanders's rise has already induced Clinton to move to the left on the Keystone XL pipeline (which she came out against last month, after attempting to defer to the Obama administration) and on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, which she rejected last week. If that's his lasting impact on the primary, that's a victory for progressives who care about those issues — but not for Bernie Sanders. He's polling extremely well in Iowa as well as New Hampshire right now, but it's always possible that as the primaries get closer, voters who "dated" Sanders will "marry" the mainstream candidate. Sanders has to make the case that he is a worthwhile candidate in his own right, not just a benchmark to pull Clinton to the left.
Identity: the Alternative Alternative
Biography: Former city councilman and mayor of Baltimore (this is the rare case where your knowledge of The Wire actually does explain Baltimore: he's the model for Tommy Carcetti). Two-term governor of Maryland.
Mission: O'Malley definitely suffered most from the rise of Bernie Sanders, and if he's going to have a shot at the nomination he has to show progressives that he, not Sanders, is the real alternative to Clinton. He has something of a head start here: He's been attacking Sanders on guns (rural Sen. Sanders doesn't find them as repulsive as the Democratic base does), and he's reaching out aggressively to Latinos and immigration activists. O'Malley won't be able to capture all the constituencies that Sanders isn't winning — it's hard to imagine black voters lining up behind the mayor who cracked down on crime in the city that later killed Freddie Gray — but he has to consolidate the ones he can.
(If O'Malley spends his time defending Clinton from Sanders, or going after Sanders but leaving Clinton alone, it's safe to say he's gunning for the VP slot.)
Identity: the Reagan Democrat
Biography: Former Virginia senator. Onetime assistant secretary of defense and secretary of the Navy under Ronald Reagan (he resigned from the latter in protest after the Pentagon cut the Navy's budget). Served with the Marines in Vietnam.
Mission: Jim Webb represents a very different sort of Democratic voter than the rest of the field. He's a populist on economic issues, fairly hawkish on foreign policy, and much more in tune with the values of the rural and working-class white voters that the Democrats are losing than the nonwhite and urban ones they're keeping. (Webb is the only Democratic candidate for president who opposed South Carolina's decision to take the Confederate battle flag off its state house after the Charleston church massacre, for example.) He's not going to win the nomination. But in order to stay relevant at all, he has to make a case within the Democratic Party that they can win working-class whites back — and that they have more to gain by trying than they have to lose by alienating nonwhites.
Identity: the Third Way
Biography: Former Republican member of the US Senate. Former independent governor of Rhode Island. Current Democratic candidate for president. Star of "What's Up With Lincoln Chafee."
Mission: In order to tell you what Lincoln Chafee needs to do in this debate, I'd have to know why Lincoln Chafee is running for president. I don't think I do. Is he trying to ingratiate himself as a Democratic talking head? In that case, he has to demonstrate that he should be taken seriously as a Democrat. Is he trying to raise his stature as a centrist, Third-Way-esque talking head? In that case, he needs to get enough airtime to distinguish himself from Hillary Clinton's other critics. Either way, he should probably have a good explanation for why he joined the Democratic Party.
Left out of the CNN debate: Larry Lessig
Identity: Sir Not-Appearing-in-This-Debate
Biography: Harvard professor turned campaign finance activist. In 2014, he tried to encourage politicians to take up campaign finance reform by running a PAC — the PAC failed, miserably. This time around, he's trying to run for president on a single issue: He would get Congress to pass campaign finance reform, and then resign.
Mission: Lessig is the only current candidate who didn't qualify for the CNN debate — which is especially impressive since current non-candidate Joe Biden would have qualified if he'd gotten into the race. Lessig is unlikely to raise his stature without a debate platform, so he probably has to hope for Webb, Chafee, and possibly O'Malley to look so bad that the networks hosting future Democratic debates will follow the two-tiered structure they've been following for the Republican field — and let Lessig into the JV debate.