Democratic Debates: The Good, the Bad and the Meh

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It’s impossible to rate, in a sensible fashion, all 20 (!!!) Democratic contenders who made the debate stage in Detroit, so I will start by noting that though many of the low-polling candidates – the one-percenters, as I like to call them – had credible performances, that this is not enough for them. Yes, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand and Michael Bennet had their moments, but it is hard to see these debates generating much momentum for them.  Basically, if a candidate isn’t listed below, he or she didn’t make much of an impression, and is probably fits into the “losers” category.

In a strange way, though, the preceding paragraph succinctly sets out the real story about what happened Tuesday and Wednesday night.  Remember, this two-stage debate will have relatively little to do with who the eventual nominee is, but it will have a substantial impact on who the nominee is not. To qualify for the third match-up(s) in September, candidates have to have 130,000 individual donors and reach a threshold of 2 percent in four polls.  The Detroit debates were the best chance for candidates to raise their profiles and clear those bars; to the extent they do not, their candidacies are probably over.

Winners

  1. Elizabeth Warren – By most accounts Warren had another strong debate. She’s hurt somewhat by the fact that, once again, she went on the first night, and that she missed an opportunity to take swings at Joe Biden.  At the same time, given that neither of the other top-tier candidates had great debates, her profile is likely helped.
  2. Steve Bullock – The Montana governor performed well, and for a candidate who got in late, that is important.  More importantly, Bullock may have established himself as the moderate alternative to Biden; as candidates like John Delaney and Bennet drop out, Bullock could consolidate their support.  His actual path to the nomination is probably predicated on Biden collapsing (which seems less likely as of today than it did yesterday), but he’s gone from missing the first debate to having a reasonable pathway to making the third, which makes him a winner.
  3. Donald Trump – It is almost cliché to name the other party’s candidate as a winner in a debate, but in this case it is actually true.  Kamala Harris complained repeatedly about moderate candidates endorsing Republican talking points.  Some of this is hand-waving around uncomfortable facts: “Medicare for All” is expensive.  But there’s little doubt that if Harris were to be the nominee, some Trump campaign commercials will be cut from statements made last night by Bennet and Biden.  Moreover, this nomination contest seems to be headed toward an all-out brawl, which helps Trump as well.
  4. Andrew Yang – Yang had some memorable one-liners, and got the opportunity to use the microphone more than at the Miami debate.  He also did a much better job of staying on message, bringing the conversation continuously back to his signature issue of Universal Basic Income.  He’s got a lot of work to do, but there’s little doubt that he’s starting to generate some buzz.

Losers

  1. Kamala Harris – The California senator was the consensus winner of the first debate.  This time she simply did not shine as much.  She is a gifted political athlete, arguably the most talented one in this field, but her performance was fairly lackluster, was notable as much for Tulsi Gabbard’s attacks on her as anything else, and she seemed unprepared for some predictable assaults.  This is far from fatal, but she’s unlikely to generate the type of momentum coming out of this debate that she did from the first one.
  2. Beto O’Rourke – At this point is it almost difficult to remember that O’Rourke was once considered to have a legitimate shot at the nomination.  He has qualified for the third debate, but really is running out of opportunities to re-establish himself as a serious contender.
  3. Amy Klobuchar – Klobuchar once seemed to be the most obvious beneficiary of a potential Biden collapse, but other candidates are simply outstripping her. She will likely be on the stage for the third debate, but like O’Rourke, she’s starting to run out of time to vault herself into the top tier.
  4. Julian Castro – Castro had a strong performance in the first debate, but it failed to translate into a polling surge. It’s hard to see his more lackluster performance here helping him.  Maybe he’ll consolidate some votes as other candidates drop out, but he could very well find himself on the outside looking in come September.

Meh

  1. Joe Biden – Barack Obama’s vice president once again stumbled over words and repeatedly fumbled with facts; some users on social media suggested that the former could be attributed to his childhood stutter, but that cannot explain the latter issue. Unlike in the Miami debate, though, he didn’t take any direct hits.  To the extent that his goal was to avoid a collapse he has probably done so, but if he is hoping to set himself as a dominant figure who can put this race away fairly early, he’s probably fallen short.
  2. Cory Booker – A few commentators dubbed Booker a happy warrior in this debate, and that seems correct. He probably helped himself a bit with his performance and will be around in September, but it was far from a tour-de-force.
  3. Pete Buttigieg – If the South Bend, Ind., mayor weren’t already in the third debate, it would be tempting to lump him in with the one-percenters; his sleepy performance was unlikely to win anyone over to his cause. But he clearly has some cachet with donors, and will be around for a while.
  4. Bernie Sanders – Bernie continues to be Bernie, and if experience serves, nothing is going to change that.  His path to the nomination is to bring his 15-20 percent support into the primaries and use it to survive and build from as other candidates bail out. He didn’t do anything to surge ahead, but he did nothing to jeopardize his strategy, either.

TBD

  1. Tulsi Gabbard – Gabbard was much more of a force in this debate, landing some solid hits on Harris and showcasing her unique appeal to antiwar Democrats. There probably isn’t enough here to declare her a “winner,” since the safe bet is still probably that she won’t enjoy enough of a surge to make the next debate.  But it is at least plausible, and worth watching.
  2. Marianne Williamson – Williamson generated some buzz after the Miami debate, but failed to turn it into solid polling numbers. This performance generated even more buzz for her, so it is again worth waiting to see whether she can reach the necessary polling threshold to keep her candidacy going.

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 strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.



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