Tonight’s Democratic Debate: How to Watch, Start Time—And 4 Key Issues to Watch for During It


A pending impeachment trial in the Senate, a possible conflict with Iran, and a battle brewing between Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren will likely highlight the seventh Democratic presidential debate tonight.

Tuesday’s debate begins at 9 p.m. E.T. and will be co-hosted by CNN and The Des Moines Register at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer, CNN political correspondent Abby Phillip, and Brianne Pfannenstiel, the Register‘s chief political reporter, will moderate.

The seventh Democratic debate comes precisely three weeks before the Iowa Caucuses, the first primary of the 2020 election season, take place across the Hawkeye state.

There is a four-way fight among candidates in the latest Iowa Poll, with Sanders maintaining a narrow lead over Warren, Buttigieg, and Biden. Meanwhile, the latest Monmouth Poll of Iowa voters has Biden well ahead of his rivals.

Tuesday’s debate comes amid rising tensions between the United States and Iran following and as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi prepares to send the articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump to the Senate possibly this week.

“It’s not only an incredibly busy week, but the question will also become which candidate can create a narrative that will be an inspiration for voters going forward,” said Dan Sena, former executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Which candidates qualified for tonight’s debate in Iowa?

6 Candidates Qualified for Tonight's Democratic Debate In Iowa

Daniel Acker—Bloomberg via Getty Images

Six candidates—one fewer than last month’s debate—have qualified for Tuesday’s contest:

  • Former vice president Joe Biden
  • South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg
  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)
  • Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)
  • Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.)
  • Billionaire activist Tom Steyer

Once again, requirements were much stricter to qualify for Tuesday’s debate than last month’s. The candidates had to hit at least 5% in four approved Democratic National Committee (DNC) polls, or 7% in two early-state (Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina) polls.

Candidates also needed to have 225,000 donors—an extra 25,000 donors from last month’s debate.

DNC Chair Tom Perez told MSNBC last week there were at least 20 polls that candidates could have qualified for, compared to only five polls before the Democratic debate in Iowa in 2016.

“We have set the rules out. They have been very transparent,” Perez said on MSNBC’s Velshi and Ruhle on Jan. 7. “We’ve given unprecedented access.”

With New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker on Monday announcing his sooner-than-expected departure from the presidential race, tonight’s debate will be the least diverse so far with six white candidates sparring.

While Booker did meet the donor requirement, he again missed getting on the debate stage by not meeting the polling threshold (tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang also met the donor requirement, but not the polling threshold).

Nonetheless, Booker bowing out follows the departure of former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro, the only Latino candidate in the field, who dropped out of the race on Jan. 2 (and endorsed Warren four days later). Last Friday, self-help author Marianne Williamson ended her long-shot campaign bid.

Meanwhile, these candidates failed to qualify for the January Democratic debate:

  • Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard
  • Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet
  • Former Maryland Rep. John Delaney
  • Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick
  • Billionaire and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg

Bloomberg, who has spent a reported $200 million in advertising, has even gone so far to say the current primary structure favors Trump, not the Democratic candidates.

DNC Chair Tom Perez told MSNBC that Bloomberg “obviously has the resources to do a lot of advertising, and that is obviously his right. What we are going to find out, again, we’re less than a month from voting, and the voters will make their choices very clearly.”

Perez thinks there will be a record voter turnout in Iowa and the other early primary states.

“It’s basically a 90-day sprint to the end of April,” Perez said. “We will have 90 percent of the delegates allocated, and it’s a question the voters will answer.”

“The enthusiasm is off the charts,” Perez said Jan. 7. “Women are coming out in great numbers…We have the wind at our backs and we’re going to keep organizing. I look forward to this debate.”

How to watch tonight’s Democratic debate online—even without cable

The January Democratic debate will air live on CNN, CNN en Español, and CNN International.

You can watch the debate for free online via a live stream available at and at

The debate is also viewable on mobile devices, including CNN’s and the Register‘s iOS and Android apps.

YouTube and SiriusXM channels 116 and 124, and TuneIn, will also carry tonight’s debate.

4 things to watch for during the debate

The last two debates didn’t bring that much excitement, but tonight the gloves might come off.

1. Will we finally see that ‘Clash of the New England Senators?’

Bernie Sanders Elizabeth Warren Showdown at Tonight's Democratic Debate in Iowa?
Expect the debate moderators to instigate a possible clash between Warren and Sanders, and watch whether either candidate takes the bait.
Justin Sullivan—Getty Images

Sanders denied reports Monday that he privately told Warren in 2018 a woman can’t win the presidency.

On Monday, Sanders said in a statement that it’s “ludicrous” to think that at the same meeting he had when Warren told him she was running for president that a woman couldn’t win.

“It’s sad that, three weeks before the Iowa Caucus and a year after that private conversation, staff who weren’t in the room are lying about what happened,” Sanders told CNN. “What I did say that night was that Donald Trump is a sexist, a racist, and a liar who would weaponize whatever he could. Do I believe a woman can win in 2020? Of course. After all, Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump by 3 million votes in 2016.”

Previously, reports surfaced that Sanders’ campaign volunteers were encouraged to question Warren’s ability to expand the Democratic party’s coalition beyond highly educated voters.

Warren later told reporters Sunday in Marshalltown, Iowa, that she was “disappointed” to hear the Sanders campaign was apparently “out to trash” her.

“I have never said a negative word about Elizabeth Warren, who is a friend of mine,” Sanders told reporters during a rally in Iowa.

Still, expect the debate moderators to instigate a possible clash between Warren and Sanders, and watch whether either candidate takes the bait.

What’s at stake for the two New England progressive candidates? Not only winning in Iowa, but New Hampshire as well. Keep in mind that every Democrat in U.S. history who has won both the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries has eventually become the presidential nominee.

Sena believes Warren and Sanders will do their best to remain civil to each other.

“I think they both know they are their voter bases second most-favorite candidate,” Sena said. “Given the caucus format, they will do whatever they can because they know there is a mutual benefit to keep their messages positive and clear.

“However, post-Iowa, all bets are off between the two of them.”

2. Was the Soleimani killing justified?

The candidates will definitely use the debate stage to state their individual positions on the Trump Administration’s decision to kill Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, and to strike back at Trump, who called Democrats disloyal.

Trump said the U.S. took “a monster” out, who threatened to harm to Americans.

“We killed the number one terrorist in the world by every account. We killed him, and when the Democrats try to defend him, it’s a disgrace to our country,” Trump told reporters on Monday at the White House.

Earlier, Trump tweeted, “The Fake News Media and their Democrat Partners are working hard to determine whether or not the future attack by terrorist Soleimani was “imminent” or not, & was my team in agreement. The answer to both is a strong YES., but it doesn’t really matter because of his horrible past!”

Look for a possible unified stance among the Democratic candidates who will be doing their share of fact checking the President’s position. However, a candidate like Sanders may not resist and call out Biden for voting to authorize the Iraq war in 2003.

If Biden continues to struggle coming up with a good answer, it could potentially lead to this past weekend’s popular hashtag, #JoeVotedForTheWar, to start trending on social media again.

3. Impeachment defense

As Pelosi prepares to hand over impeachment articles to the Senate, the candidates will undoubtedly defend the House Speaker’s actions, and rail against Trump, who wants the two charges against him dismissed, and the Republicans supporting him.

Surely, there will be one candidate during Tuesday’s debate who will echo Pelosi’s televised statement on Sunday, “This president is impeached for life,” which led to a furious tweetstorm by Trump (and the hashtag #ImpeachedForLife to start trending on Twitter).

As three of the six Democratic candidates are sitting senators, each could give an outline of what they expect during the trial and what role they plan to play.

4. Accusations of billionaire Democratic candidates trying to buy the nomination

Money and politics will inevitably come up during Tuesday’s debate as Bloomberg and Steyer are flooding the airwaves with their commercials.

“The alternative is Michael Bloomberg’s version of democracy, and that is billionaires who decide among themselves, who’s going to reach into their pocket and throw a few hundred million on the table and buy, what, a nomination? An election?” Warren said on MSNBC last week, echoing similar comments she’s said on the campaign trail.

“If that’s the case,” Warren continued, “then our democracy becomes something that only works for a tiny number of people, and it’s going to shut everyone else out.”

Perez, the DNC chair, said on MSNBC last week that “the person who is going to win the Democratic primary—I don’t know who that will be—is going to be the person who garners votes across the broad quilt of the Democratic party.”

If you look at the polling, Perez said, it reflects that sentiment.

“Whoever is able to do that, is going to win,” he said. “The voters are speaking very clearly, and we’ve had the most inclusive process in American history.”

More must-read stories from Fortune:

—Donald Trump and the power of incumbency
—Just six candidates qualify for the January Democratic debate
—The wealthiest members of Congress—and how they made their millions
—USPS could privatize as early as next year
—2020 Crystal Ball: Predictions for the economy, politics, technology, and more

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