What to Watch For: The Seventh Primary Debate

Amanda Hunter | Jan 8, 2020


The first Democratic primary debate of 2020 fittingly takes place in Iowa, where things are heating up. With only six people qualified so far, this debate will include the fewest participants to date. As of now, it will also be the least diverse, with only white participants on stage. Out of six confirmed participants, there will be two women on stage: Senators Klobuchar and Warren. (Tulsi Gabbard remains in the 2020 race, but has not yet qualified for this debate.)


The debate is hosted by CNN and the Des Moines Register. There will be as many women at the moderators’ table as there will be onstage.  CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer, CNN political correspondent Abby Phillip and Des Moines Register chief politics reporter Brianne Pfannenstiel will moderate. This is the third debate in a row where the majority (if not all) of the moderators are women. Will having a majority-woman panel lead to more questions on issues central to women and family like paid family leave, childcare, reproductive rights, sexual violence and harassment against women? Across all six debates so far, questions on those topics have made up a tiny fraction of overall questions, but there’s been a definite difference is the issues discussed when there are more women moderators.

National Security

With recent developments in Iran and the Middle East, the topic of national security is likely to come up in this debate. Voters hold an entrenched stereotype of what a Commander in Chief looks like. Our research shows that historically, both men and women voters listen for male voices on the issues of military responses and national security. Women candidates are persuasive when they talk about safety, preparedness and keeping voters informed.

Fewer Participants = More Speaking Time

With more time available to speak on issues, candidates will have more time to provide details and depth around their policy positions. Women are often held to a higher standard on the campaign trail, and expected to be more prepared than their male counterparts. We will be watching to see if moderators and pundits treat the candidates equally on this front.

Using Humor

Senator Warren and Senator Klobuchar have both had success using humor on the campaign trail in 2020.  Research shows that voters like women candidates who show a sense of humor and don’t take themselves too seriously, though women must be mindful of balancing humor with seeming credible, something male candidates don’t have to worry as much about.

The right kind of humor can help to create a bond with the voter. Humor can be an important tool for winning over voters, which is important since likeability is a non-negotiable for women candidates. Will we see any memorable jokes during the debate?

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