Candidate by Candidate: Did the Debate Performances Matter?

Candidate by Candidate: Did the Debate Performances Matter?
AP Photo/Brynn Anderson
Candidate by Candidate: Did the Debate Performances Matter?
AP Photo/Brynn Anderson
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Did anything really change after the first two nights of debates?  We are still over seven months out from the Iowa caucuses, and many more debates, town halls, stump speeches, gaffes and “game changers” will occur in the interim.  At the same time, there is a lot going on in the Democratic race right now, and candidates have definite things they are fighting for.  We can group these loosely into three “buckets,” depending on the candidate tier.

First Tier: These are the “big five” contenders who are in the mix for front-runner status (Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg). These candidates want to be plainly seen by the Democratic electorate as a plausible presidential standard-bearer, and if possible, knock Biden down a few notches.

Second Tier: These are candidates who didn’t catch fire in the first portion of the Democratic race (unlike Buttigieg) but who nevertheless were seen as being in the mix.  They need to break through at some point, and this was their first opportunity to do so.

Third Tier: These candidate have a completely different interest: stay alive.  In September, the DNC tightens the criteria for entering the debates: Candidates have to register at least 2% support in four qualifying polls, and have to have a minimum of 130,000 individual donors.  If these candidates don’t get a second look -- or in some cases even a first look -- from donors, their campaigns will be on life support (at best) in October.

So how did it shake out?  It’s hard to say for certain – average viewers see things very differently than political analysts – but I think we can use the above criteria to form some general thoughts.

Night 1

First Tier (Warren): The general assessment after the debate splits were announced was that Warren was the big winner.  After all, she effectively would have the stage to herself.

I was skeptical, and think the way things shook out justified this skepticism.  Warren was in the midst of a poll spike, pushing her way into second place in some national polls.  She really didn’t want to have that momentum interrupted. But being the only first-tier candidate in the debate complicates this.  The only way she really wins is by absolutely dominating the stage, such that people look at her and think, “Now this is the next president of the United States.”

That didn’t happen.  Warren did avoid the worst outcome, which would have been a haymaker landing on her from a second-tier candidate. But her workmanlike performance – at times she faded from the debate completely – gave the second- and third-tier candidates a chance to shine (which probably doesn’t affect her momentum), and handed the first-tier candidates on Day 2 all the buzz (which might affect her momentum).

Second Tier (Cory Booker, Beto O’Rourke, Julian Castro, Amy Klobuchar):  These candidates wisely avoided going after Warren, and instead mostly bickered among themselves.  Castro’s exchange with O’Rourke over immigration was one of the highlights of the night.  Booker and particularly Castro will probably get serious looks after that performance.  Klobuchar’s performance was solid. O’Rourke was probably the biggest loser of the night, as his candidacy was already in a state of serious decline.  He looked nervous and, frankly, defeated, for most of the night. He risks slipping to third tier status unless he turns things around.

Third Tier (Bill de Blasio, John Delaney, Tulsi Gabbard, Tim Ryan, Jay Inslee): Given the void at the top of the debate, these candidates were able to command a fairly significant amount of time. All of them were able to get some press coverage, and will get looks from some people who might not have otherwise given them the time of day.  One or two might actually end up in the September debate.

Night 2

First Tier (Biden, Sanders, Harris, Buttigieg): The highlight clip of the night will undoubtedly be the heated exchange between Harris and Biden.  Biden got in a few zingers, but Harris seemingly had the better of their debate, is poised to get a second look, and will perhaps steal momentum from Warren.  Biden looked increasingly weary as the night wore on, stumbling over his words and losing his train of thought at times (at one point he seemed to have trouble remembering that the law authorizing the war on terror was the “AUMF”).  It wasn’t quite a catastrophic debate for him, but it should make his supporters nervous.  Buttigieg managed to avoid O’Rourke’s fate; he likely did little to expand his base of support but also avoided doing  damage to his campaign.  Sanders was Sanders.

Second Tier (Kirsten Gillibrand, Andrew Yang): If the second tier was the focus of activity in Wednesday’s debate, it was largely forgotten on night 2.  Gillibrand’s performance was fine, if not particularly memorable. Yang looked nervous.  Neither seemed to do much to advance the ball.

Third Tier (Michael Bennet, John Hickenlooper, Eric Swalwell, Marianne Williamson): The debate was just too crowded for them to break through.  The exception was Williamson, whose quirky approach probably earned her some supporters.  But overall, it is very possible that no one in this group will make the September debate.

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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