What to Watch For: The Second Democratic Primary Debate

Amanda Hunter | Jul 24, 2019


The second Democratic presidential primary debate in Detroit next week will mirror the first debate in some ways: six women made it to the debate stage and, on each of the two nights, three women will make their cases to the American people. However, this time Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Senator Kamala Harris, Senator Amy Klobuchar, Senator Elizabeth Warren, and Marianne Williamson will have opening and closing statements, in addition to question answers, to show why they should be President.

At the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, we’ve been studying voter attitudes towards women running for office for the past 20 years, with a specific emphasis on women running for executive office. Here are some things we’ll be watching for in this debate.

1. Emphasizing Qualifications

Women face additional barriers when running for executive office, and proving they are qualified is one of them. During the first debates, we saw Senator Gillibrand, Senator Harris, Congresswoman Gabbard and Marianne Williamson highlight their qualifications and accomplishments in various ways. This was no surprise. Our research shows that while voters assume men are qualified, they don’t extend the same courtesy to women. Women must show, while men can tell. We recommend women weave their experience and qualifications into their narrative, which is exactly what happened during the first debates.

2. The Role of Family

In the past couple of years, motherhood and family have become a more important part of the conversation in political campaigns. On the 2020 campaign trail, Senator Gillibrand, Senator Harris, and Senator Warren have all made proactive references to their families. Talking about family allows candidates to be 360-degree candidates, using the whole of their experience to connect with voters. And yet during the first two debate nights, it was the men on stage that seemed to talk about their families the most. Who, if anyone, will talk about their family on the debate stage this time?

3. The Likeability Litmus Test

Our research has repeatedly shown likeability is crucial for women candidates. Voters will not support a woman candidate they do not like, yet they will vote for a man they do not like. The notion of likeability is subjective. During post-debate analysis, will pundits and commentators hold the women candidates to a different and higher standard when it comes to interjecting, contrasting with opponents, and tone of voice?

4. Asking about “Women’s issues”

While arguably, “women’s issues” affect everyone, in the first two debate nights we saw very little focus on issues that are traditionally considered of interest to women. The first night, we saw references to abortion and LGBTQ civil rights issues, and the second night also saw a question about abortion. This time around, we will see questions about topics like equal pay, paid family leave, or child care?

5. Positioning as “Change-makers”

Research has shown voters are fed up with the status quo, and voters are more open to supporting a woman if they believe women serve differently in office. We saw this play out during the 2018 midterm congressional elections. Will the women capitalize on the opportunity to position themselves as change makers in the upcoming debates?

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