Pete Buttigieg Has 'Highest Stakes' In Sixth Democratic Primary Debate, Important He Doesn't Slip Up: Strategists

Seven candidates will take to the stage in Los Angeles on Thursday night for the sixth Democratic Primary debate as President Donald Trump's impeachment dominates the national conversation.

The field of candidates on stage for the PBS NewsHour/Politico debate beginning at 8 p.m. ET will be the smallest since Democrats launched their bids for the White House. When debates began in June this year, some 20 candidates vied for top positions in the race across two nights.

In order to qualify for the Thursday night debate, candidates were required to have polled twice at 6 percent in eligible polls or four times at 4 percent in either early voting state or national surveys. They also needed to have received donations from 200,000 unique contributors.

Participants in the showdown tonight are:

  • Former Vice President Joe Biden
  • Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren
  • Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders
  • South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg
  • Sen. Amy Klobuchar
  • Entrepreneur Andrew Yang
  • Billionaire Tom Steyer.

Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, ex-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the New Jersey senator Cory Booker are among the biggest names in previous TV debates that have failed to make the cut this time around.

Democratic Primary Debate in Atlanta
Democratic presidential candidates participate in the Democratic Presidential Debate at Tyler Perry Studios November 20, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Newsweek spoke to three strategists ahead of tonight's debate about their expectations. Here are five things to watch out for:

1. Buttigieg under fire

The mayor of South Bend, Indiana will go into tonight's debate on the back of a slight dip in his national polling performance since the end of November, according to Real Clear Politics' average.

But he is still pegged as the frontrunner among Democrat voters in Iowa and a close second place in New Hampshire, two of the first four states to pick their favored nominees.

"Buttigieg will get some arrows pointed at him because he is now perceived as the most likely alternative to Biden," Group Gordon CEO Michael Gordon told Newsweek.

The former Clinton administration staffer turned strategist later added: "In many ways the stakes are highest for him, because Biden is in the pole position and he seems to be maintaining that steadily, so what Buttigieg needs to do is break into that pole position if he can."

Kelly Dietrich, founder of the National Democratic Training Committee, echoed Gordon's view, saying it was important for the mayor not to make mistakes while he has "momentum."

"I'm not sure this is a critical for him as some of the others," Dietrich added. "But it's still important."

Pete Buttigieg at Democratic debate
Democratic presidential candidate South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks during the Democratic Presidential Debate at Tyler Perry Studios November 20, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. Alex Wong/Getty Images

2. Impeachment sidelined

Following the full House vote to approve charges of obstruction of Congress and abuse of power against President Trump, the final Democratic debate of 2019 will take place in the shadow of the third presidential impeachment in U.S. history.

But with polling on Trump's impeachment showing the American public split along partisan lines on the issue, and frontrunners Warren and Sanders both likely to suffer should a Senate trial take them away from the campaign stump, strategists think the subject dominating political media should be sidelined tonight.

"I think it will be sidelined a bit and I think it should be sidelined a bit," Dietrich said. "Everyone knows where everyone stands as Democrats on impeachment."

He later added that the challenge facing party candidates was telling voters how they would make their lives better.

Gordon also said candidates would do better not to dwell on President Trump's impeachment for too long. "I think I would recommend that the candidates focus squarely on the issues that voters care about," he said.

3. Debate diversity

As the debate stage is whittled down to only seven prospective nominees in the crowded Democratic primary field tonight, Andrew Yang will be the only candidate of color stood in front of cameras, with Sen. Cory Booker and former Housing Secretary Julian Castro absent and Sen. Kamala Harris dropping out of the race earlier this month.

The lack of diversity on tonight's stage sparked frustration with the Democratic National Committee and led to all seven qualified candidates signing a letter by Cory Booker urging the body's chairman Tom Perez to reconsider requirements for entering debates. The infographic below, provided by Statista, shows how the candidates qualified for the sixth DNC debate.

DNC Sixth Debate Candidates Qualified Statista
Candidates that qualified for the sixth Democratic debate. Statista

Both Dietrich and Andrew Feldman, the founder of Feldman Strategies, predicted it was unlikely that lack of diversity would be raised in Los Angeles today.

But Feldman did say it would be a "cloud over Thursday's debate," adding that it presented a "challenge for our party because we started this campaign with the most diverse field in history, and now you're not feeling that accurately reflected on the debate stage."

4. Joe Biden and electability

A candidate's perceived "electability" is of key importance to Democratic-leaning voters heading into the 2020 election. Polling throughout the year has even shown many care more about a would-be nominee's supposed electability than whether they like them or agree on policy.

"My sense of the party is that the Democratic electorate wants to focus on someone who can beat Trump, and that is someone who can speak equally to the base of the party as well as the moderate voters who will make the decision next fall," Gordon told Newsweek.

Defining what it means to be "electable" has proven fraught and become the subject of many disputes. Whatever "electability" might be, Gordon believes Biden has a lot of it and can expect to be attacked on his perceived ability to beat Trump tonight.

"If someone attacks him on that point, which I could see happening, he needs to go back to the data to back him up," he said. "He can't back down from the point and lose that argument. I think in many ways it's his best argument."

5. Klobuchar and Steyer seek their moment

As the Democratic primary poll of polls stands, the billionaire Steyer and Minnesota Sen. Klobuchar will be the lowest ranking candidates among Democrat voters on stage Thursday night.

If Steyer does not do "something to show that he can be an engaging candidate" he will "remain an afterthought," Feldman told Newsweek.

Speaking about Klobuchar, he added: "She raised a million dollars after the last debate and has an opportunity to continue what her campaign is calling momentum.

"Her crowds have significantly increased in Iowa and New Hampshire and she's going to look to continue that and try to give people who are undecided another option in this race."

Pete Buttigieg Has 'Highest Stakes' In Sixth Democratic Primary Debate, Important He Doesn't Slip Up: Strategists | U.S.