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On Politics: What to Watch for Tonight

Email sent: Jan 14, 2020 6:10 pm

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It’s the final debate before the Iowa caucuses. Also: Bernie Sanders’s new ad invokes JFK.

Hi. Welcome to On Politics, your guide to the day in national politics.

Read on for a preview of tonight’s Democratic debate (by Lisa) and our regularly scheduled Tuesday coverage of all things media and messaging (by Nick).

Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times

The Democratic debate stage shrinks tonight, with just six candidates appearing in Des Moines for the party’s final debate before the Iowa caucuses next month.

You can follow the action with us! We’ll send you a link when our live chat begins.

In the meantime, here’s some of what we’ll be looking out for:

  • The monthslong nonaggression pact between the two leading liberals in the race, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, ended this week. With tensions between their camps rising, do they clash directly tonight?
  • At least one poll suggests former Vice President Joe Biden is gaining strength in Iowa, after avoiding direct conflict with his closest rivals in the past few debates. But this time, Mr. Sanders seems primed to go after him. Can Mr. Biden stay out of the fray again tonight?
  • Has Pete peaked? After holding a commanding lead in Iowa, Pete Buttigieg has fallen back into the pack. He’s been a strong debater, but will his performance be enough to convince voters that a 37-year-old former mayor should be the party standard-bearer?
  • Several strong debate performances raised expectations for Senator Amy Klobuchar. But she’s struggled to pull moderate, older voters away from Mr. Biden and Mr. Buttigieg, and her numbers remain far below what it will take to win in Iowa. Can she make Klomentum happen?
  • The billionaire Tom Steyer squeaked onto the stage after polls showed him with double-digit support in Nevada and South Carolina. But even though he’s spent more than anyone else in the debate lineup, he’s failed to make much of a splash in Iowa and New Hampshire. Can he make himself more relevant tonight?


Ad of the week: Throwback Monday

It’s a voice that’s immediately recognizable, even if the orator was president nearly 60 years ago. Since Monday, the distinct Massachusetts accent of John F. Kennedy has flooded the airwaves in Iowa, part of a new ad from Mr. Sanders’s campaign that uses a moon landing analogy to make a case for his broad liberal agenda.

And in an increasingly cluttered media market — there are 42 different political ads airing in Iowa this week alone — the use of Kennedy’s unmistakable voice gives Mr. Sanders a way to cut through the noise.

The message

For the first six seconds, viewers hear Kennedy’s famous pitch about going to the moon and exploring other frontiers, “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Immediately, the voice of the 35th president gives way to the Brooklyn accent of a man who hopes to be the 46th, and the image of Kennedy behind the presidential lectern flashes to Mr. Sanders speaking from a campaign podium.


“President Kennedy knew that settling for half measures wasn’t good enough,” Mr. Sanders says, laying out a rationale for his unrelenting and uncompromising positions on “Medicare for all” and universal free college, as he pushes for the country to do “big things.”

The takeaway

In addition to Kennedy, the ad splices in images of former Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson, using icons of the Democratic Party to frame Mr. Sanders’s vision for the country. In so doing, the campaign is making an appeal to the party’s rank and file, reaching beyond Mr. Sanders’s fervent base of progressive voters.

Since Monday, the Sanders campaign has been ramping up its pitch, spending roughly $32,000 in the past 24 hours to air the ad more than 240 times in the state.


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It’s the smaller debate voters wanted. But will they watch?

An update on the television ratings from Michael M. Grynbaum:

Between impeachment hearings, football playoffs and the holidays, TV audiences for that other national story line — the Democratic presidential primary — have been dwindling.

Candidates and cable television producers are hoping that tonight’s matchup in Iowa can reverse the trend.

Last month, 6.17 million people watched the Democratic debate on PBS — a 66 percent decline from the 18.1 million Americans who tuned in for the second night of primary debates in June. The December event was easily the smallest live audience for a presidential debate in 2019.

But Tuesday’s event, sponsored by CNN and The Des Moines Register, is shaping up as must-see-TV.

Only six candidates will appear, the fewest this election cycle, which is good news for Democratic voters who have complained about unwieldy debates featuring up to a dozen candidates.

The Democratic Party is promising a two-hour-long debate on Tuesday, including opening statements, a tighter schedule than past debates.

To prepare, an army of CNN producers has spent 10 days transforming Sheslow Auditorium, an intimate opera house on the campus of Drake University, into a futuristic soundstage.

The building’s stained-glass windows will be integrated into the broadcast. Seventeen cameras, and about 5,000 feet of lighting and power cable, were required for the production.

“It’ll be interesting to see if the candidates feel closer to the audience and if that makes them open up a little more,” Mark Preston, CNN’s vice president of political events, told The Register. “Perhaps it will.”

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Thanks for reading. On Politics is your guide to the political news cycle, delivering clarity from the chaos.

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