LOS ANGELES — It was touch and go for a while, but the final Democratic presidential debate of the year is on for Thursday night, with seven of the leading contenders thrashing it out on stage at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.
A labor dispute between a university contractor and a food services union representing roughly 150 workers threatened to torpedo the Democratic debate after all seven of the presidential candidates vowed not to cross a picket line to take part in the nationally televised Democratic National Committee event. However, the union and company reached agreement Tuesday on a new three-year contract, prompting a sigh of relief from Democratic officials who had feared the sixth debate of the year was in jeopardy.
The seven candidates include former vice president Joe Biden, the current front-runner in national polls, Senators Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana. The three other lower-tier candidates are entrepreneur Andrew Yang, Senator Amy Klobuchar and billionaire activist Tom Steyer. These seven of 15 Democratic candidates seeking the nomination to challenge President Donald Trump next November survived a Democratic party winnowing process based on their showing in the polls and fundraising.
The high-profile debate, hosted by PBS NewsHour and Politico, is occurring a day after Trump was impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives.
Ironically, the debate originally was scheduled to be held on the campus of the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), but had to be moved to Loyola Marymount because of a separate labor dispute. For Loyola Marymount students, that change in venue was a pleasant surprise.
"When I found out that it was going to be on campus, my first, my first thought was to change my flight home so I could stay," said Havana Campo, a Loyola Marymount biochemistry student from Texas.
The debate is being held a week after final exams. While most students will not get to see the debate in person, a few lucky ones, such as Emily Sinsky, who is volunteering the day before the debate, has been given a seat in the debate hall.
"It's exciting. I couldn't believe," said Sinsky, a Californian who is studying international relations.
Super Tuesday factor
One reason the debate is being held in California is because the solidly Democratic state has gained significance due to its primary election date being moved up by three months. With 495 delegates at stake, California will play a bigger role in determining who will represent the Democratic Party in challenging Trump than in past elections.
"They [California's primary elections] will be more relevant than they normally have been, because in most cases we know who the nominee will be by the time he got to California, and we were just ratifying what already had been decided," said Michael Genovese, president of the Global Policy Institute at Loyola Marymount University. "That got a little old for most Californians. So now, we're going to be very important and we'll have a strong say."
Primary voters in California will be going to the polls on Super Tuesday, which is March 3, 2020. Thirteen other states will also hold primaries that day.
California is also highly attractive to candidates because of its donors with deep pockets.
"Los Angeles is a place where candidates do not campaign so much as come for the money, to shake the money tree," Genovese explained. "The donors come from a rich variety of sources. You've got Hollywood. You've got a very strong component of the gay community."
There are also tech companies, lawyers and donors in the corporate world from Los Angeles who would be willing to give to their preferred candidate.
Candidates and issues
With the top four contenders being Biden, Sanders, Warren and Buttigieg, "what's unusual is that we have so many older candidates running and at first you thought maybe this is going to be a generational debate," Genovese said. "The older voters and the older candidates versus the younger generations. It hasn't quite worked out that way except maybe with Yang and Buttigieg." Biden, Sanders and Warren are all in their 70s, while Buttigieg is the youngest candidate at 37.
Some younger voters are looking at their candidates from a broader lens outside of a candidate's age.
"Age is not particularly a concern if the candidate that you're supporting is more part of a greater movement, and if they select a vice president that really doubles down on their beliefs," said Luke Hart-Moynihan, a screenwriting graduating student at Loyola Marymount University.
One candidate taking the debate stage that should be watched, analysts say, is Yang, who most likely will not make it to the top, but did qualify for the debate just before the deadline.
"He's established himself as a player. So the question is not what will Yang do now, it's what will he do in the next two, four, six, eight or 10 years," Genovese said. "You can see him being in a Democratic president's Cabinet, establishing himself as a person of weight and gravitas, and sort of channeling that to something bigger in the future."
Many of the Loyola Marymount students who are following the debates are focused on Sanders and Warren. The topics that interest them are as diverse as the students' backgrounds.
"Three topics in this election that concern me the most would be climate change, health care and immigration reform. I come from a family of immigrants," said Campo, who is the daughter of a Cuban mother and Colombian father.
"One thing that I feel I have not heard enough from the Democratic candidates is talking about both election security and election legitimacy, because over the past several decades, there have been a lot of concerns about gerrymandering of congressional districts, voter disenfranchisement through voter identification laws," said Peter Martin, a political science student from California.
"We're starting to hear a lot more about student debt. Issues that affect young voters, which is really important," said Gabriella Jeakle, an English major from Washington state, voicing a concern of many of her schoolmates.
Sinsky, the student who plans to attend the debate, said if she had a chance, she would ask the candidates what they would do in their first 100 days in office.
"That really shows where their values are," Sinsky said.