What Does Beto O’Rourke Need to Do in the First Democratic Presidential Debate?

Beto O'Rourke encourages voters in Dallas.
Beto O'Rourke encourages voters in Dallas.
Brian Maschino

Believe it or not, there is an honest-to-goodness presidential debate tonight in Miami. It's the first of the 2020 election cycle, getting underway 222 days before the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 3. Thanks to the Democrats' clown-car-filling 24 candidates for president, the debate will actually be held over two nights, with 10 qualifying candidates taking the stage on Wednesday and Thursday, based on random draw. Former Texas U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke will get his biggest chance yet at making a national impression during the first debate.

Joining O'Rourke in the first debate are senators Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar, U.S. representatives Tulsi Gabbard and Tim Ryan, former U.S. Rep. John Delaney, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, former HUD Secretary Julián Castro and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

O'Rourke, despite being stuck in the mid-single digits in most recent polling, stands out as one of the biggest names in heat one, along with Warren. Former Vice President Joe Biden, senators Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg all drew Thursday night straws, making the second bout a more media-friendly affair.

The luck of the draw means that O'Rourke won't have quite as much of a chance to buoy his campaign as he would've with bigger name opponents, says Rice University political science professor and noted O'Rourke whisperer Mark Jones.

"He's a top-tier player, but he's on the stage with a bunch of nobodies," Jones says of O'Rourke. "The only ready for prime-time players are him, Elizabeth Warren and, to a lesser extent, Cory Booker ... The risk he runs is that he doesn't distinguish himself onstage with a bunch of nobodies."

Jones likens it to an NBA player taking on a bunch of high school basketball players: pundits will expect O'Rourke to wipe the floor with his fellow debaters. If he does just OK or plays down to his competition, O'Rourke's performance could be viewed as a disappointment.

"Some of these third-tier candidates have a much greater incentive to be outrageous to get coverage, whereas more serious candidates like O'Rourke, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Joe Biden, they have to appear presidential," Jones says.

O'Rourke has made some waves this week with his plan for veterans — which calls for ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in addition to taxing Americans who aren't members of the military to pay for veteran services — but his biggest debate goal should be survival, Jones says.

With the audience watching the debate guaranteed to be small, the worst thing the El Pasoan could do for his candidacy is do something that will become fodder for America's cable news industrial complex.

"The biggest impact of these debates is on the media coverage of them," Jones says. "It's not so much the debate itself, it's how it's covered in the media that most people see ... The principle impact on voters, donors and conventional wisdom will be how the press interprets the debates. You definitely want to avoid any gaffes because, at this point, everybody is looking for reasons to cull the herd."

The first 2020 Democratic presidential debate will be in Miami on Wednesday and Thursday from 8 to 10 p.m., featuring 10 candidates each night (TV: NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo; Live-streaming: NBCNews.com, NBC News apps, Telemundo, NBC News' Facebook, Twitter and YouTube).

Wednesday's candidates

  • Cory Booker
  • Bill de Blasio
  • Julián Castro
  • John Delaney
  • Tulsi Gabbard
  • Jay Inslee
  • Amy Klobuchar
  • Beto O'Rourke
  • Tim Ryan
  • Elizabeth Warren

Thursday's candidates

  • Joe Biden
  • Michael Bennet
  • Pete Buttigieg
  • Kirsten Gillibrand
  • Kamala Harris
  • John Hickenlooper
  • Bernie Sanders
  • Eric Swalwell
  • Marianne Williamson
  • Andrew Yang

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