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What to expect at Friday’s Democratic debate in New Hampshire

Democrats are back on the debate stage days before the New Hampshire primary.

Senator Elizabeth Warren talks with Senator Bernie Sanders after a debate while candidate Tom Steyer looks on.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren confronts Sen. Bernie Sanders after the January 14, 2020, debate, saying, “I think you called me a liar on national TV.’’
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Dylan Scott covers health care for Vox. He has reported on health policy for more than 10 years, writing for Governing magazine, Talking Points Memo and STAT before joining Vox in 2017.

After the chaotic Iowa caucuses, the Democratic candidates are heading to New Hampshire and stepping onstage Friday night for their next presidential primary debate.

The leading contenders for the Democratic Party’s 2020 presidential nomination will take the stage at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire, on Friday, February 7. The debate will start at 8 pm Eastern and is expected to last about three hours.

ABC News, WMUR, and Apple News are hosting the debate, which will be moderated by ABC chief anchor George Stephanopoulos; World News Tonight anchor and managing editor David Muir; ABC News correspondent Linsey Davis; and WMUR-TV political director Adam Sexton. You can watch on ABC, and the network will also livestream the debate.

Seven candidates made the cut in both the Democratic National Committee’s polling and donation qualifications and will appear at Tuesday’s event:

  • Former Vice President Joe Biden
  • Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT)
  • Former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg
  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)
  • Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN)
  • Billionaire activist Tom Steyer
  • Entrepreneur Andrew Yang

Biden and Buttigieg are vying for moderate and older voters; Sanders and Warren have been the leading candidates on the left and they got into quite a dust-up over “electability” at the last debate. Expect plenty of scrapping among the frontrunners as they seek to set themselves apart in the muddled top of the field.

A few others failed to meet the criteria:

  • Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet
  • Former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg
  • Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard
  • Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick

The DNC has increased the debate qualifications throughout the campaign season. For this debate, candidates had to get at least 5 percent support in four DNC-approved national polls or 7 percent support in two early primary voting state polls, and they must have at least 225,000 individual donors.

After Friday, there will be at least two more debates this month: the next in Las Vegas on Wednesday, February 19; and another in Charleston, South Carolina, on Tuesday, February 25. Early here in the election calendar, the Democratic Party is holding its debates just days ahead of the caucuses and primaries in the next state on the schedule.

The race is in flux after the caucus chaos in Iowa

The Iowa caucuses this week were a mess. As the New York Times reported, the results in Iowa appeared to be “riddled with inconsistencies and other flaws.” It doesn’t sound good:

According to a New York Times analysis, more than 100 precincts reported results that were internally inconsistent, that were missing data or that were not possible under the complex rules of the Iowa caucuses.

The Times did point out that the effects did not appear to be biased to benefit any candidate, making it more likely they were unintentional mistakes. The overall effect on the results might have been small.

It nevertheless was a very messy end to a process that always seemed likely to yield messy results.

Iowa released its results based on “state delegate equivalents” — that is, after the initial vote on caucus night and then a second vote limited to only candidates who got 15 percent of the first vote, each precinct tallied how many delegates would go to each candidate. Those county-level delegates are then translated into “state delegate equivalents” — how many delegates each candidate will have at the Iowa state convention later that year.

By that admittedly rather convoluted metric, at last count, Buttigieg was narrowly edging out Sanders at the caucuses.

Sanders did, however, earn the most votes at the caucuses across the state, in both the first and second round. His campaign is leaning on that win in the “popular vote” to build momentum heading into New Hampshire, where Sanders has been consistently leading in the polls.

After Iowa’s caucuses proved so anticlimactic, the primary in New Hampshire — and the debate that proceeds it — could have more importance than usual in setting a new narrative for the campaign.

Sanders and Buttigieg are sitting at the top of the field for now. Sanders is leading the New Hampshire polling averages and won there in 2016. Buttigieg has built a solid organization in New Hampshire; University of New Hampshire political expert Dante Scola thought if Buttigieg could beat out Biden in Iowa, he could use that as a springboard into the Granite State. Buttigieg has checked off that first box.

Biden, on the other hand, could use a strong performance in New Hampshire after a weak one in Iowa, though the fourth state on the schedule, South Carolina, is the first must-win state for him.

Elizabeth Warren did well enough in Iowa, a reasonably strong third. But New Hampshire will be pivotal for her campaign. If she can’t do well there, next door to her home state of Massachusetts, she may be in trouble.

Klobuchar’s campaign probably isn’t going to last much longer, barring a surprise. Steyer barely registered in Iowa, and neither did Yang; they can keep spending their own money to stay in the race if they want to. Bloomberg won’t be on the debate stage, but he has been rising up the national polls and some big state polls, like in Texas.

The candidates have started sharpening their attacks on each other

With delegate counts finally registering and the field so muddled, the campaigns are starting to sharpen their attacks against each other. Those differences are sure to surface on the debate stage Friday night.

Biden, who acknowledged taking a gut punch in Iowa, got more aggressive in New Hampshire in the following days. He directed his attacks most at Buttigieg, with whom he’s been competing for older voters. But he also took aim at Sanders, warning the senator’s democratic socialism will be anathema to down-ballot Democrats.

And Buttigieg is now trying to undermine Biden’s claims to the Obama administration’s accomplishments, which has always been a key part of the former vice president’s message in trying to unite the party and especially appeal to the black voters who are a core part of his base.

Sanders and Biden, as the leading two candidates nationally, have already been at each other for a few weeks now; the former’s camp has been hitting the latter for endorsing Social Security cuts over the years. Biden has been playing the electability card against Sanders, arguing that he could hurt Democrats’ chances if Americans get spooked by socialism. (President Trump notably took time out of his State of the Union speech to slam socialism.)

Warren has been playing nice with Sanders after the January debate back-and-forth, but she also needs to parlay a third-place finish in Iowa into a strong showing in New Hampshire; the debate is her best chance to do something in front of a national television audience to build on that momentum.

It’s a dogged sprint over the next few weeks for the Democratic primary. The debate is the next stop in the race.