Your Democratic Debate Cheat Sheet

Photo: Charlie Neibergall/AP Photo.
Tuesday night is the first Democratic presidential debate. Fortunately for the country, there will be no Donald Trump figure on the stage. Unfortunately for viewers, that means things might feel a lot sleepier than the two nights of GOP sparring that have already happened. But the lack of outright hostility between opponents — and the fact that there are only five participants expected — means candidates may actually have time to articulate positions and answer questions with more than a quick soundbite.

What can viewers and the casually curious expect to hear if they turn on CNN's livestream on Tuesday night at 8 p.m.? Here are a few predictions.

Candidates will talk about immigration — but activists want more than just talk.

America faces huge problems with a bloated immigration enforcement system that imprisons and deports millions of people and separates families. And it's not just Donald Trump who has left immigrant communities disillusioned and scared. President Obama ran a very pro-immigration campaign, but once in office, his administration deported 2 million people and put children in detention centers.

"Each of the candidates needs to lay out a plan that goes beyond saying that they support a path to citizenship and immigration reform, because we need more than just the talking points on that," Cristina Jimenez, managing director of United We Dream, told us. Immigration is such a personal issue for so many Latino Americans, she says, that the betrayal of Obama's immigration policy could keep them from voting. "These candidates have to inspire trust with voters, and if that’s not created, the community isn’t going to feel encouraged to vote."

The candidates will try to win over young voters.

Expect to hear about student debt and paying for college. Bernie Sanders has said he wants public college to be free for everyone, and Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley released a plan to help students graduate from college without debt. Hillary Clinton has also come out with her own proposals, so the question is really about how to help young people and how many will actually get to school as a result. As Caty McClure of The Other 98% told us, "We're thrilled that the idea of free college for all has finally been recognized for the common-sense move it is, as opposed to some radical, pie-in-the-sky idea."

But looking at college as the be-all-end-all to improving the future is still too shortsighted, McClure said, because, "no job should pay so little that people working full-time can't even pay rent. There is no reason why a college degree should be a prerequisite for a fair wage." Whether these issues stay on the agenda will depend a lot on whether young people and poor people show up at the polls.
Expect calls for more debates.

Don’t worry, the candidates who aren’t Hillary Clinton haven’t asked for the DNC to make the Democratic schedule look more like the jam-packed Republican slate. But there are far fewer meetings planned, which means we have fewer chances to get to know the candidates. It's not just fans of O'Malley asking, either; Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard said Monday that she'd been disinvited from Tuesday's debate after she called for more debates. It's not as dramatic as Trump's insult parade, but it's a good reason to be suspicious of anyone who says the Democratic establishment is trying to make things easier for frontrunner Clinton.

Candidates won't dodge Black Lives Matter — but they could still miss the point.

At the Republican debates, moderators only asked the most superficial questions about police violence and the Black Lives Matter movement, and the candidates tried to get away from the topic as fast as they could. The Democratic candidates have not only engaged with the ideas of the protesters who have called for justice in the wakes of so many police killings; they've been physically confronted by them. And, after some early missteps (Clinton and O'Malley both repeating the "all lives matter" trope, Sanders' curmudgeonly reaction to being interrupted at an event), they've shown a willingness to learn and to listen.

We're not likely to hear anyone call for an independent oversight body to investigate police violence, or for more prosecutions for officers who kill unarmed people. But we might get lucky and get a surprise interruption.

The candidates won't be stuck on marriage equality.

LGBTQ rights are much more than just marriage equality, and the Democratic candidates have already gotten on board with the fight to expand non-discrimination laws for LGBTQ Americans. Already in 2015, 20 trans people have been killed, and couples in 31 states could get married on a Saturday and get fired for being gay on Monday — legally.

Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis got a lot of support from GOP candidates, so there could be a question about "religious freedom" laws, but don't expect anyone to hold her up as a patriot. If LGBTQ issues come up in the debate, the candidates are going to sound very similar.

There may actually be a conversation about gun violence.

There were two school shootings last Friday. Nine people were killed at a community college in Oregon on October 1. Every day, 88 people are killed with guns. Supporting stronger regulations for guns may still be politically risky, but it's one of the most important social issues in America right now. Once again, most of the Democratic candidates have come out in support of regulations like background checks, but the fact that gun control could even end up on the debate agenda is a huge shift from earlier elections.

"The fact that they’ve even put them on the table is a huge step forward," Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, told us. The dozens of school shootings that have happened since the Sandy Hook Elementary School killings are part of a crisis, and most Americans support more regulations. The Democratic candidates aren't going to win the support of the NRA, so expect them to talk about increasing mental health care and background checks.

"What we need to do is understand that this is not an argument between people who are pro-gun and anti-gun. This should be a discussion about gun violence prevention. Everyone is against gun violence," Watts said.
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