How Elizabeth Warren's debate draw could help her or hurt her

 edition.cnn.com  06/14/2019 20:00:42 

There is, of course, two debates on consecutive nights with ten candidates on each stage. And because of a random draw, all the other top polling candidates (former Vice President Joe Biden, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, California Sen. Kamala Harris and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders) are debating against each other on the second night.

That leaves Warren facing off against nine other contenders the night before, including New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke.

The question is whether Warren lucked out or struck out by being separated from the other high polling candidates? The answer to me is not immediately clear and strong cases can be made for both.

Here are the matchups for the first 2020 Democratic debates

Warren gets the additional benefit of not being on the stage with Biden. Any moderator worth her or his weight would want Biden and Warren to contrast themselves with each other: Biden and his more moderate voting record vs. Warren and her very progressive record. By not being on the same stage as Biden, Warren will get to talk about her record on its own.

Meanwhile, Warren can allow other candidates to do her dirty work. Other high polling candidates and maybe even a few low polling ones will have the chance to take down Biden. In doing so, they may end up damaging each other, which would in essence kill two birds with one stone for Warren.

Yet, I have to step back and recognize that most people are not political junkies. Even among those who deeply interested in the primary, who is really going to tune into two nights of debates? And if you only tune into one debate, are you going to watch the one with most of the polling leaders or the one with Warren?

There is a clear possibility that viewership for the Warren debate could be lower than the one featuring most of the other polling leaders. This means that fewer people will be able to hear Warren's message.

There is also the possibility that Warren not being on the stage with the other frontrunners will limit her ability to make a viral moment. She won't be able to punch upward. Instead, Warren might find herself on the defensive from Democrats on her stage looking to go after the most high profile Democrat around.

Worse, Warren could end up looking like the head of the junior varsity squad. Instead of rising above the fray, the optics of being on the stage with low polling candidates may make Warren look like she doesn't belong on the same stage as folks like Biden and Harris.

Interestingly, a far easier case could made that Booker and O'Rourke are in a better position. They are by far the most well known candidates next to Warren on their debate night. This means they'll be elevated in a way they wouldn't have been if they were on the stage with Biden, Buttigieg, Harris and Sanders.

The fact that I'm arguing back and forth with myself here points to something rather obvious: we don't know if Warren is helped or hurt by the debate draw. The only way to know is to see what happens on the debate stage later this month.

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