On Tuesday night, the Republican presidential primary field took to the stage in Las Vegas, Nevada with a single goal in mind: look good, and make the others look bad. But it wasn't just one debate, by virtue of the GOP's jam-packed field of candidates — there are still 14 Republicans running, and only nine made the main stage, with another four more being shuffled into the earlier, undercard debate. But what about the Democratic side of things? Will there be a JV Democratic debate on Saturday night, too?
It's an understandable question, thanks to the frenetic scene on the Republican side of things, where the debates have more closely resembled reality television that a somber, level-headed assessment of domestic and world affairs. But if you're suffering from a little end-of-year debate burnout, never fear, because the answer is no! There won't be a Democratic undercard debate, and for a very simple reason: there aren't enough Democrats in the race.
Even when the Democratic field was at its high-water mark when the first debate went down back in October, only five candidates were on the stage — Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, followed by distant trailers Martin O'Malley, Jim Webb, and Lincoln Chafee. Now, that number has dwindled to three, with Webb and Chafee having abandoned their no-hope bids. Onetime Democratic challenger Lawrence Lessig, who never got into one of the debates, has also since ended his candidacy.
In other words, an undercard debate wouldn't just be unpractical, it'd also be numerically impossible. I mean, sure, you could let Clinton and Sanders duke it out in primetime, and force O'Malley to deliver a stream-of-consciousness soliloquy about his policy ideas for an hour and a half before their main event began but that wouldn't be terribly fair to him, would it? To the contrary, the Democratic debates stick to the usual, traditional style — one night, one debate, and one more shot to make a name for yourself.
Saturday figures to be a pivotal encounter for the different campaigns, as well. After a surprisingly strong showing on international affairs by Sanders in the last debate, which occurred in the immediate aftermath of the ISIS-related terrorist attack in Paris, France, in November, he's got a chance to continue to broaden his message and widen his appeal, proving to the Democratic base that he's not just a one-trick pony when it comes to economic justice.
For Clinton, on the other hand, her solidly big leads across a slew of crucial battleground states (including Iowa, South Carolina, and Florida) makes for a far more comfortable, coasting position. She doesn't need to score any big hits or take any big risks, but simply needs to continue to appear the most polished, electable, and qualified of the three Democrats.
This is part of why Sanders' previous debate was so unexpectedly effective, and a return to a non-economic focus could help him gain some ground. Although he's undoubtedly most passionate about things like corporate greed and income inequality, those are already very well-tread issues at this point in the primary, and it hasn't been enough to put him over the top (save for New Hampshire). Simply put, Sanders showed last time that he can stand up and aggressively contest Clinton's record on foreign affairs, and whether he does again will prove crucial to both campaigns. If he does, almost anything could happen, but if he reverts back to myopic, single-issue form, he'll be giving up the game before it's even started.
As for O'Malley, well, it's best not to get your hopes up. If anybody could actually have benefited from a bigger field and a JV debate process, it might have been him. If he'd had the opportunity to stand among a group of weaker, Democratic also-rans, he might have stood out in a way that gave him a meaningful boost onto the main stage, with some genuine momentum that his current campaign entirely lacks. As it stands now, his primary concern should probably be getting his parking stub validated — he's going nowhere fast, and the campaign death-watch has been in full effect for weeks.