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What to look for in the PBS NewsHour/POLITICO Democratic debate

The PBS NewsHour/POLITICO Democratic debate airs Thursday night from Los Angeles. Lisa Desjardins reports from Loyola Marymount University with a roundtable of guests eagerly anticipating the event: NewsHour West anchor Stephanie Sy, Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report and Ryan Lizza and Laura Barron-Lopez from POLITICO. They join John Yang to share a debate preview.

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  • John Yang:

    We are just more than an hour away from the "PBS NewsHour"/Politico debate, which starts at 8:00 p.m. Eastern on PBS stations.

    For a preview, "NewsHour" political correspondent Lisa Desjardins is in Los Angeles with a roundtable of guests.

    And, Lisa, it seems like I was just talking to you from the Capitol about the impeachment vote, and now you're out there.

    Could you just not — you just couldn't wait to get out of town after last night?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Well, you can't accuse "PBS NewsHour" of being on just one coast. We hit both coasts within just 12 hours.

    And I think, John, as our viewers know, that's just how the news is these days. You're the same way. How many topics are you covering in a single show? We have to travel. And the stories are moving faster than we can, almost.

  • John Yang:

    Absolutely. But you keep up with them, Lisa. That's the difference between you and me.

    You keep up with them.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    We try.

  • John Yang:

    And, sometimes, you keep ahead of them.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    We try.

    But I'm also very fortunate. To help us through this debate tonight, we have an esteemed panel. They will be with me now, also through the entire debate.

    Let me introduce our wonderful anchor of "NewsHour West," Stephanie Sy, next to her, friend of "NewsHour" Amy Walter, of course, of Politics Monday and The Cook Political Report. Next to her, we have Ryan Lizza of Politico, and, of course, Laura Barron-Lopez also, national political correspondent for Politico.

    Ladies and gentlemen, I have a question for you.

    With all of this news, how do any of these candidates stand out, get any attention tonight?

    Stephanie, what could happen here that could get some voters' attention?

  • Stephanie Sy:

    You know, I think a lot of voters are actually paying attention to these debates, because a lot of them are undecided.

    So, I think, really, for these candidates to stand out, it has to be about policy, and it has to be about personality. I mean, let's not kid ourselves. The first of the voting is less than two months away. There are still so many people that don't know who they're voting for.

    So, I think the candidates that really resonate are the ones that can connect on a deeper level. You know, I think they want to get to know people.

    We did a poll, PBS/NPR/Marist, last week that showed most Democratic voters care about most about the candidate that can beat President Trump, vs. the candidate that they identify with policy-wise.

    So I know a lot of the Democratic voters I spoke to recently, they are picturing which are these candidates looks presidential and they can picture on a debate stage, if there is a debate, with President Trump.

  • Amy Walter:

    With President Trump, yes. That's a good point.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Amy, I saw you nodding about that.

    You know these elections in and out. We're 46 days, as Stephanie alluded to, from the Iowa caucuses.

  • Amy Walter:

    Right.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Believe it or not, people, we're there.

  • Amy Walter:

    And it's the…

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Where it where is the voter mind-set, the undecided voter mind-set now?

  • Amy Walter:

    Well, the undecided voter mind-set, of course, is thinking about holiday shopping.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Amy Walter:

    Which I have not done yet. Sorry, everyone on my list.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Come on.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Amy Walter:

    I know. It's still — so, this is both — it's a good time and a difficult time for these candidates, not just the deluge of news, but people are literally traveling everywhere and getting their focus on family and holidays.

    But, look, this is the last time that these presidential candidates are going to have a national audience before we hit the Iowa debate in the middle of — in the middle of January, which is only a couple weeks before the Iowa caucuses.

    And the other thing, Lisa, as you very well know, a lot of the folks who are sitting on the stage may be spending some of their January, a lot of their January, stuck in Washington at an impeachment trial.

    And so the fact that this may be the last time for a while that we will see all of them together — and I think Stephanie makes a good point. As they're all — these are the top — these are the top candidates all in one place.

    The fact that it's a smaller field means that we could probably get more of a robust discussion than you could get with 10 or 12 candidates on stage.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    And let's look at this small field tonight, the smallest field we have seen on stage, seven candidates tonight. That's down from 10 in the last one.

    Let's look at the lineup that we have got. These candidates will be on stage in order, roughly, by their polling, with the highest-polling candidates in the center. That is former Vice President Joe Biden, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren.

    They will be flanked by the other candidates who met the tougher qualifications for this debate, going left to right, Andrew Yang. Then we have got former Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, then, on the other side, another senator, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, and another businessman, Tom Steyer.

    Ryan Lizza…

  • Ryan Lizza:

    Yes.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    … what lineups are you interested in looking at? Who will engage with each other, do you think, tonight?

  • Ryan Lizza:

    Yes.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    What are the important points of differentiating that we could see?

  • Ryan Lizza:

    Yes, you have a real dogfight in the two early states, with those four candidates in the center basically being bunched up very close to each other. You could make a case for any of those four winning Iowa, winning New Hampshire.

    I remember covering the 2004 primary, and John Kerry, who went on — went on to win Iowa, was at about 3 percent in one poll at this point in 2003.

    So, I will be looking for how — the two candidates on the left ideologically, not on the stage left, Warren and Sanders, do they start to differentiate themselves a little bit? They have had this kind of funny nonaggression pact between the two of them. So I will be looking for that.

    Does Biden, the national front-runner, take some incoming? Do people feel like they need to start dragging him down? Bernie Sanders, who's back in second place nationally, he has not really been the subject of much criticism on these debate stages. Does he start to take some fire?

    And then, finally, Pete Buttigieg, who has been the aggressor in the last couple of debates, is a very gifted debater, a very gifted communicator. Where does he — he's going to — if the past is any — is predictable, he will go after someone tonight. Will it be Biden? Will it be Sanders?

    Will he continue on his sort of jihad against Warren? So, those are the main things looking at.

  • Amy Walter:

    Yes.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Laura, do you agree? Or does Pete Buttigieg have too much to lose now, now that he's obviously — he's right near the top in Iowa, he's trying to regain momentum?

  • Laura Barron-Lopez:

    I think he still needs to differentiate himself or still draw those contrasts, potentially maybe with Biden, right, because they pull from each other.

    Well, they have — they're trying to carry the same message forward. They're trying to both carry this moderate mantle all the way through.

    What I'm waiting for is to see if Buttigieg and Warren get into it, because, in the last month, they have started to attack each other more directly, warren specifically, who Lizza mentioned the nonaggression pact.

    Warren also had this rule that she wouldn't specifically attack Democrats by name. She would draw subtle contrasts. She changed that this last month by directly naming Buttigieg and Biden.

    And so whether or not, if she's attacked on the debate stage, she decides to very directly draw those contrasts — I don't necessarily think she and Sanders are going to go after each other. She has sworn consistently that she will not go after Sanders directly at all.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Yes, Amy.

  • Amy Walter:

    Well, I just want to bring up something that Stephanie talked about earlier, this idea about who can beat President Trump, right? Who's the strongest candidate there?

    If you look at the polling we have seen come in, in this last week, really, as impeachment is coming to a vote, what you find is that the president's job approval rating has actually ticked up a bit. Now, it's still not great. He's still averaging…

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Clinton's rose a lot during impeachment.

  • Amy Walter:

    This one — this — he went from averaging about 41 percent to averaging 43 percent. So this is very minor.

    But, again, if you're…

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    It's not going down.

  • Amy Walter:

    If you're making the case that the most important thing for those folks on the stage to prove is that they can beat a candidate who is a president in a good economy, another poll that came out this week showed that the president's handling of the economy, job approval on the economy, highest it's been it since going back to the beginning of the year.

    So I think this case to be made about — for these candidates tonight, the case to be made about, look, he's going to be tough to beat, this is a sitting president, sitting presidents are difficult to beat — it's difficult to beat sitting presidents when people feel like that president is doing a good job on the economy. Optimism about the economy is as strong as it's been in about 10 or 15 years, maybe a little bit longer.

    Who's going to be the one to be able to have the discipline and the strength to go one-on-one with him?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Another difference about tonight's debate, not only will it have the fewest number of candidates on stage, but this is the "PBS NewsHour"/Politico debate.

    And we know Judy Woodruff has said that she wants this to be about substance. Now, I think you hear that a lot, but, to me, that means issues.

    And we — and I'm wondering, Stephanie. You have been talking to a lot of voters. How do you think voters feel the economy, especially Democratic voters, climate change — where are these issues? What issues do voters care about right now?

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Well, I think the economy is always tops with all voters.

    If we're going to look at what is unique to Democratic voters, climate change, especially in California, factors very high on that list.

    But my question is, how do these candidates differentiate themselves on that issue? Several of the candidates on stage have adopted the basic Green New Deal policies. And so is that a place where they're going to be able to differentiate themselves?

    One of my questions is, as we all know, even if the Democrats are able to win the White House and both houses of Congress, we're looking at probably whoever is president getting through one major piece of legislation. Obama chose to do health care. He wasn't able to deliver cap and trade.

    So, I think, for a lot of California voters, climate change is their number one issue. But when I was going around talking to voters in the last few days, they all still talk about how expensive their health care is.

    And we — and that is going to be a major issue, I think, that we will see delineated between these candidates, is that question of the private option vs. Medicare for all. I still think that is a major fissure among these candidates.

  • Ryan Lizza:

    Yes. Yes.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Ryan Lizza, we were talking about this earlier.

    Talk a little bit more about Elizabeth Warren and sort of the needle she is trying to thread right now.

  • Ryan Lizza:

    Yes, I completely agree with that.

    I mean, health care is always at the top of issue polls of Democrats. It has been for the last couple of years, and so health care, health care, health care. I know a lot of people who watch these debates have — some reporters have been frustrated by huge chunks of time spent on health care, but that is the issue that Democrats say they care about.

    And I think, if you look at the arc of these debates from the summer until November, you started with this sort of consensus on Medicare for all. That looked like the — where it was the sweet spot in the Democratic primary.

    And, slowly, the arguments from the more moderate candidates has started to resonate. The polls of single-payer among Democrats, not just the broader public, has started to look a lot more favorable for the — Pete Buttigieg-Biden version of Medicare for all, Medicare for…

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Which — describe. Explain that to viewers.

  • Ryan Lizza:

    Right.

    So, the Bernie option would be, everyone would go into Medicare, which is right now just for adults over 65, right? Warren adopted that strategy — or that policy early in the campaign, famously said, I'm with Bernie.

    She struggled a little bit to put out a plan detailing how she would pay for it. She did that. But then she added a little bit of a wrinkle recently, where she said, in the first year, if she was president, she would just have a public option.

    In other words, anyone who wanted to buy into Medicare could do that. But in the third year as president, she would do a full single-payer plan, transition to everyone in America would be in the Medicare program.

    She's now, on the campaign trail, started to talk about that, started to talk about the public option, started to talk about choice. Sounds a little bit more where Pete Buttigieg has been. I would be surprised if that difference didn't come up tonight, where — if Warren — Warren is likely to be challenged tonight on whether that's a shift or not.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    This is the kind of substance I'm talking about, everyone. This is awesome.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    There is also an issue that is about what America looks like that I want to talk to you about, Laura Barron-Lopez.

    The candidates on this stage will not reflect really what America looks like. There will be only one person of color on this stage, Andrew Yang.

    Now, the moderators, however, that's where you will actually see more people of color, on the moderators, the four moderators.

    What does that mean for Democrats? Is that a potential problem for the party, for the candidate they select? And what do we know about why that may be?

  • Laura Barron-Lopez:

    Right.

    So, compared to July's presidential debate, it is a striking visual difference, which was that that was the most diverse presidential debate in history.

    Five months later, today's debate, the majority of the candidates on stage are white. And so, in my reporting this past week, one thing I heard a lot from Democrats, especially Democrats of color, whether it's House members back in Washington or ones that are local electeds across the country, is that there's the — they started to reflect a bit more on how Democrats got to this point.

    And there's a bit of a fear that some Democrats have, which is, what if Barack Obama wasn't just the first black candidate — or black man to be elected to the presidency, but what if he was the only person who is not white to make it through that door for years to come, and whether or not the nominating process leads to that.

    There's been a debate that's flared up about whether or not Iowa and New Hampshire should continue to go first anymore in the nominating process, and how that potentially favors white candidates because of the fact that those states are 90 percent white, both of them.

    And the first diverse state is Nevada, third — that goes third. So it also raises question about California's placement, right?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Right.

  • Laura Barron-Lopez:

    Which is that California moved their primary up to be Super Tuesday, and how much impact does that have?

    Latinos are the biggest ethnic group in California. And that is a place where I think a candidate like Bernie Sanders is very strong. And he could potentially win a state here because he's doing so well with voters like this.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Stephanie.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    You know, talking to voters in California, one thing we have to remember is the absence of Senator Kamala Harris on that stage.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Right.

  • Ryan Lizza:

    Yes.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Now, Senator Kamala Harris is somebody who ostensibly would have appealed to the diverse electorates we would see in a state like Nevada or California.

    She never had a boatload of support here in California. Sanders does have the edge among Latino voters in California and elsewhere.

    And we have to talk about the importance of these candidates that are on the stage tonight talking to African-American issues. African-Americans, as we know, are so important within the Democratic electorate.

    None of these candidates are going to be able to make it to the nomination without that support. Obviously, we're seeing that Vice President Biden has a lot of African-American support in the crucial state of South Carolina.

    But I would like to listen to whether they are going to speak to issues that are important to those voters.

  • Laura Barron-Lopez:

    And that's — that's something that…

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    In California.

  • Laura Barron-Lopez:

    Yes, quickly, something that Deval Patrick, who is, along with Cory Booker, they're the only two black candidates still left in this race.

    And I spoke to him this past week. And he said the big question that he has for this debate stage is whether or not issues that are important to black and brown voters will be raised by the white candidates.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    OK. Thank you all.

    The smallest debate field in the nation's most populous state — the debate starts in about an hour. Our preshow starts in a half-hour. We're looking forward to it.

    It will be a good night — back to you, John.

  • John Yang:

    Lisa, terrific analysis and the sort of stuff we're going to be looking forward to from you and your guests all night long.

    As you just said, remember, the pre-debate show at 7:30 Eastern, the debate itself at 8:00 p.m. Eastern on PBS stations.

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