Former Vice President Joe Biden will take the debate stage Sunday against Sen. Bernie Sanders as the clear frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, riding a wave of primary victories that forced nearly every other candidate to leave the once-packed Democratic race.
The showdown between Biden and Sanders will be the first one-on-one debate of the 2020 primary season. Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, the only other candidate left in the race, did not qualify for the debate.
Sunday’s debate will also be the first one this cycle — and the only one in recent memory — to take place without a live audience. The Democratic National Committee moved the debate from Phoenix, Arizona, to Washington, D.C., and barred people from attending out of concern for the novel coronavirus pandemic. As of Friday, the U.S. had more than 1,700 cases and 40 deaths related to COVID-19.
The debate will be a critical moment for Sanders as he tries to regain momentum and stop Biden from running away with the nomination. Here are key things to watch in the March 15 debate.
Starkly different visions for the Democratic Party
It should come as no surprise that Biden and Sanders are the last major candidates in the primary race, given their hold on the two main voting blocs in the Democratic Party. Biden has always been a top pick among moderate voters. Sanders, for his part, has been the most popular progressive candidate from the start.
The differences between Biden and Sanders on health care and other key issues have also been clear all along. But the contrast was obscured for months by the presence of several other like-minded candidates, from moderates like Sen. Amy Klobuchar to progressives like Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
On a much less crowded stage Sunday, the debate will offer viewers a stark choice between two candidates with very different visions for the party’s future — and different arguments for how to beat President Donald Trump in the general election.
Biden claims he’s the only Democrat who can build the broad coalition necessary to defeat Trump in November. So far, the primary results support those claims. Starting in South Carolina, Biden has dominated with key voting groups, including older African Americans, working-class white voters, and suburban Democrats.
Sanders staked his candidacy on a bet that Democrats would be ready in 2020 to nominate a progressive candidate calling for major reforms to the nation’s economy and health care system. The message has resonated with a portion of the Demorcatic electorate — mostly younger, liberal voters who are more open to Sanders’ calls for a “political revolution.” But Sanders has failed to attract a larger following. The debate is his last, best chance to appeal to a broad cross section of Democratic voters before the next round of voting on March 17. This is particularly true because both campaigns have slowed their in-person appearances as the number of COVID-19 cases grows.
Will Sanders change his message?
Sanders needs to broaden his base in order to change the trajectory of the primary race. Sanders currently has 725 delegates of the 1,991 needed to win the party’s nomination. Biden has 881. The Vermont senator could try to change his approach at the debate by moderating his message in the hopes of peeling some voters away from Biden. A shift by Sanders would be unexpected, and could throw Biden off.
Don’t count on it, though. Sanders is nothing if not consistent. He didn’t deviate from his core message during his primary run in 2016, and he hasn’t shifted this time around. The strategy has won praise from progressive voters who support policies like Sanders’ “Medicare for All” plan, and who aren’t interested in the kind of incremental change — on health care or anything else — that Biden has promised.
But Sanders’ ideological purity is one of the biggest obstacles to him winning the nomination. If he pivoted to the center at this late point in the race, he would likely lose some supporters who are drawn to his consistency. And it’s unlikely that moderate voters would believe Sanders now if he suddenly said he was willing to change course.
Sanders has not left himself much wiggle room for adjustments. At the debate Sunday, chances are good Sanders will do what he’s always done: make a clear case for his progressive agenda, regardless of the political consequences.
Will Biden make overtures to Sanders’ base?
Biden may be the clear frontrunner, but the former vice president is still distrusted by many diehard Sanders supporters. Biden’s approach to these voters will help determine how united the Democratic Party will be going into the general election.
The debate Sunday will be Biden’s first chance to speak to Sanders’ supporters directly since the other candidates dropped out of the race. Biden offered a preview Tuesday night, when he thanked Sanders and his supporters in a speech after winning several primary contests by a decisive margin. Simply acknowledging them may not be enough, however. To earn their vote, Biden would likely have to adopt specific parts of the Sanders agenda, or at the very least, show a willingness to meet him part of the way.
But it’s unclear how willing Biden is to move to the left. With so many primary victories under his belt, there’s less incentive to change in the closing months of the primary race. And Biden has already responded to Sanders by running on a more liberal platform than the one that he and Barack Obama ran on in 2008 and 2012. Biden’s embrace of a public option is just one example of Sanders’ policy influence in recent years.
At this point, Biden could reasonably argue that he’s made some concessions, and doesn’t need to go further. And if he continues winning primary races, it would bolster his case that Sanders should be the one to compromise, not the other way around. It’s a tricky moment for Biden. He claims he can unite the party. That will be put to the test, starting with the debate Sunday.
A contrast with Trump on responding to the coronavirus
The coronavirus pandemic has upended all aspects of American life, and that has extended to the 2020 presidential election. Biden, Sanders and Trump have all canceled campaign events. The location and format of the debate itself was changed to accommodate mounting public health concerns. With so much still up in the air, it’s unclear when regular campaigning and other election-year activity will return to normal. It could be weeks, or even months.
In the meantime, Sanders and Biden have used the moment to contrast their leadership abilities with Trump’s. Both Democrats have joined a chorus of critics arguing that Trump is mishandling the crisis. The president’s Oval Office speech Wednesday night did not ease concerns over the federal government’s response to the outbreak. The morning after Trump’s address, the S&P 500 dropped about 7% and the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed in a bear market for the first time in over 10 years.
At the same time, the global pandemic has underscored problems with the U.S. health care system that Democratic presidential candidates have been talking about for months. The issues include a lack of access to affordable health care and workers’ benefits like paid sick leave. Sanders and Biden can point to these and other problems — including a shortage of testing kits and hospital beds to deal with the influx of coronavirus patients — to argue that Americans under Trump don’t have the health care they need.