On Thursday, Sept. 12, in Houston, Texas, presidential hopefuls will once again face off for the third Democratic presidential debate. The event will reflect a slimmer (but still large) field of 10 candidates, and notably, it’s the first time all three of the top candidates — former Vice President Joe Biden, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders — will appear on the same stage.
As such, Thursday’s showdown could be a turning point for a Democratic primary race that’s been overstuffed so far, and each of the three leaders have very different things to prove. On the campaign trail, Biden has revealed himself at times to be out of touch with the left’s focus on race and gender justice. Warren has been called “unelectable” due to her gender, leftist policy proposals, and academic background. Sanders is dogged by questions about his appeal with minority voters, and he faces pressure to distinguish himself from Warren, who shares many of his progressive stances — especially because she has released more comprehensive policy proposals to back them up.
So how can each of these presidential hopefuls distinguish themselves under the Texas lights? Let’s break it down.
While Biden remains polling ahead of the pack, it’s a stagnant lead; he has not seen any polling gains in over a month. Biden has marketed himself as the most “electable” candidate — a veiled reference to the fact that he is a moderate white man and party insider, and a possibly problematic stance in the most diverse presidential field in U.S. history. If he hopes to gain credibility with younger and more progressive voters, Biden needs to prove that he is doing more than coasting on President Obama’s popularity.
Per The New York Times, Biden “appears weaker now than on the day he entered the race.” Why? It could be his recent string of gaffes and factual errors. During a speech in Iowa, for example, he said that “poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids,” and he told a 10-year-old girl at a June town hall event, “I bet you’re as bright as you are good-looking.” These rhetorical missteps hint at Biden’s failure thus far to take race and gender seriously as central themes of the 2020 election — not to mention areas where he needs to step up his game.
The gaffes are more than mere slips of the tongue. At a June fundraiser in New York City, Biden spoke fondly of his days working with segregationist politicians, reminiscing that “at least there was some stability.” Biden does not have a stellar track record on women’s issues or minority rights — historically backing the Hyde Amendment, which bans federal funds from contributing to abortion care; failing to support Anita Hill’s sexual assault allegations against then-nominee for the Supreme Court Clarence Thomas, as head of the Senate Judiciary Committee; and opposing busing in response to court-ordered school desegregation in 1970s Delaware.
In order to achieve victory at the Houston debate, Biden needs to show that he actively supports the marginalized populations under attack by the Trump administration, and that he has concrete plans to help those communities. Black voters in particular are a longtime pillar of the Democratic base, and while Biden currently enjoys good will among this critical voting bloc, he’d do well to show he's not taking that support for granted while on stage with his biggest rivals.
Warren has already defied expectations by becoming the second-leading candidate for the Democratic nomination. Yet party insiders and voters alike have raised persistent questions as to whether she will be able to beat President Trump in the general election. A recent Quinnipiac poll found that 49 percent of respondents believe Biden has the best chance of beating Trump for the White House — a whopping 40 points ahead of the mere 9 percent who believe Warren is most likely to win. Meanwhile, the average of polls measuring support shows just an 11-point spread between Biden and Warren.
While these doubts are likely at least partly rooted in sexism, they are still ones Warren will need to overcome in order to become the 2020 Democratic nominee, let alone the first woman president. Hilary Clinton’s experience during the 2016 election revealed the persistence of sexism in American politics, as a majority of white women voters voted for Trump despite his appalling comments about women and alleged history of sexual assault. Add this prejudice to the fact that Warren is an unabashedly progressive candidate and the Massachusetts senator may have trouble winning over the moderates usually needed to win a general election.
Another misstep haunting Warren is her previous claim of indigenous roots. After using a DNA test last year to “prove” her Native American ancestry, Warren stood by that fact for months, even as Native American groups made clear that claims to their heritage were not merely biological. Warren has now apologized and worked with Native leaders to create what is arguably the most comprehensive plan to support Native American communities of any of the candidates. Still, at the debate, Warren needs to show Native Americans and other marginalized groups that she can be a vocal — and self-reflective — advocate for their wellbeing.
In response to skeptics, Warren has stated that “nothing will overcome people’s worries more than success.” Her task at the debate will be to convince voters that she can be a successful nominee and appeal to the broad voting base of Democrats, independents, and anti-Trump Republicans.
Whereas in 2016 Sanders was the clear choice for many progressives, this time he faces the challenge of beating Warren, his close friend who also shares many of his leftist stances. So far, Warren has out-performed Sanders in the polls, proven she is a strong public speaker, and released the most comprehensive policy proposals of any candidate. In Texas, Sanders must take the opportunity to prove he’s the more viable candidate for the Democratic Party’s most progressive voters.
That means addressing his biggest vulnerabilities — one of which is race. In the 2016 election, Sanders drew widespread criticism for his failure to take race as seriously as class, and he won significantly less of the Black vote than Clinton did in the primary. Even just last year, when asked why two progressive Black politicians lost their gubernatorial campaigns, Sanders responded that “a lot of white folks out there who are not necessarily racist … felt uncomfortable for the first time in their lives about whether or not they wanted to vote for an African American.” The senator has worked with Black advocates to improve his policy and rhetoric around minority issues, but it remains to be seen whether he can speak as passionately to their concerns as he does to class-based wealth inequality.
Sanders has also faced widespread allegations of gender-based discrimination within his 2016 campaign. Women who worked on the campaign reported that they were routinely paid less, sexually harassed and mistreated by coworkers, and found little accountability from Sanders’ largely white, male staff. The candidate has released a set of guidelines to combat workplace sexual harassment, but it’s only a recent topic of concern in his decades-long career, and recent analysis by The Washington Post showed that voters who prioritize abortion rights would prefer Warren over Sanders.
Perhaps more troublingly, the Post’s analysis also found that voters who appeared to exhibit sexist tendencies gravitated to Sanders (along with Biden). If he hopes to rally Democrats to his candidacy, Sanders needs to distinguish himself as a true race and gender justice advocate.