Gonzales

Upcoming debates an important next stage in presidential campaign

2016 GOP race showed launching attacks in crowded field doesn’t always end as planned

Then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, shown at a 2016 campaign event in Ames, Iowa, went on the attack in a televised debate before the New Hampshire primary, but it may not have had the desired effect. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call file photo)

In a little more than two weeks, 20 candidates will take the debate stage in their quest for the Democratic presidential nomination. And with increasing pressure to distinguish themselves from the rest of the pack, some contenders could choose to take the gloves off and attack an opponent, which would have a ripple effect on the race.

Up to this point, the Democratic race has largely been cordial, except for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders going after former Vice President Joe Biden. But one or more of the 2020 hopefuls could decide that a nationally televised debate would be an excellent place and time to knock an opponent down a few slots.

Achieving that effect is complicated, however.

The large field means the debates will take place in Miami over two nights — June 26 and 27. The candidates will be divided into two groups of 10 but randomly assigned in order to mix first-, second- and third-tier hopefuls. So it’s possible that the attacker won’t be on the same stage as the target. That could allow a candidate to deliver a solid blow without an immediate response, but it could also feel dissonant.

In general, it’s risky for a candidate to wage an attack in a crowded race because there is no guarantee the attacker will benefit. One of the best examples was the 2016 Republican presidential primary.

On Feb. 6 of that year, Chris Christie took the debate stage in Manchester, New Hampshire, with Marco Rubio in his sights. The New Jersey governor refused to let the Florida senator off the hook when Rubio repeated a talking point four separate times.

The performance vaulted Christie from 5 percent in the polls to 7.4 percent and a sixth-place finish in the Feb. 9 New Hampshire primary. He dropped out the next day. Rubio, meanwhile, dropped to fifth place (10.6 percent) after polling in second place before the debate.

More importantly, John Kasich finished second with 15.8 percent. The Ohio governor had been trailing Rubio by 4 points in pre-debate polling, and he could not afford to finish behind the Florida senator. But his finish inspired Kasich to stay in the race for months and prevented the field from ever consolidating behind a single anti-Trump candidate.

Had Christie made a different decision when facing Rubio, the Florida senator would have finished stronger, Kasich would have likely had to drop out of the race, and there would have been a better opportunity for anti-Trump voters to consolidate behind a single candidate later in the race — and Republicans may have never nominated Donald Trump.

Of course, the Democratic debate later this month will take place more than seven months before voters caucus in Iowa, and there will be at least two more sets of debates before the fall. But the Miami stage could clarify the strategies of more than a few candidates, as they target specific competitors in an effort to climb to the top of the pack.

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