Debate Prep (Night One): Standing Room Only

Welcome to the logical conclusion of what George McGovern wrought. This is the thirteenth presidential cycle since the Democratic Party changed their nomination rules for 1972 and upended how presidential candidates are chosen by their parties.

In 1968, Hubert Humphrey controversially won the Democratic nomination without competing in a single contest prior to the convention. McGovern led the committee that re-wrote the rules to ensure voters could and would always weigh in.

Understanding his own rules better than his competitors, he won a close nomination contest, defeating Humphrey and several others. At that point, this meant competing in all of the available caucuses and primaries, and taking Iowa seriously.

Jimmy Carter began his 1976 campaign in January 1975, way earlier than anyone else had ever officially launched. McGovern was an underdog, but Carter was virtually unknown. Laser focused on Iowa, “Jimmy Who” finished first and began winning other contests before a few of his more heralded competitors even entered.

This was the last time any serious candidate attempted entering the nomination race after voting began. And Carter inspired an endless stream of little known to completely unknown candidates who camped out in Iowa with the hopes of repeating his miracle.

While nobody has repeated the exact feat, George Bush the Elder and Younger owe their presidencies to the 1980 Iowa Caucuses. After becoming an honorary Hawkeye, Bush upset front-runner Ronald Reagan, winning the caucus. While Reagan recovered in New Hampshire and swept to the nomination, Bush wound up as Veep. Next thing you know, 41 and 43 were a thing.

Now, nobody blinks when a candidate declares for the presidency a full year or more before Iowa votes. With earlier announcements, earlier debates followed. What used to begin in the fall before voting now starts at the beginning of summer.

While candidates made sure to declare before voting, they were continuing to enter the race after debates began. That practice may have ended permanently with Rick Perry in 2012. Slightly late to the show, having missed the first debate, he stumbled through the second, forgot the name of a cabinet agency he wanted to eliminate in the third, and his career never fully recovered.

Department of Irony: He’s currently serving as cabinet secretary for the very entity he couldn’t remember.

Even if Carter and Bush 41 are the last candidates to go from the third or fourth tier to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, others like Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum managed to do well enough in early primaries to spend many years depositing checks from TV networks.

The above would already make for a busy debate. Add in a bit of a pileup due to Hillary Clinton and the Democratic establishment scaring off several candidates who might have run in 2016. Then there’s the increasingly partisan environment in many states. It’s very difficult for a Democrat to win or retain statewide office in a red state.

Candidates like Julian Castro and Pete Buttigieg face long odds in trying to win a Senate seat or Governorship in their state. Beto O’Rourke decided running for president was a better option than trying for the Senate a second time. For many years, winning statewide office or serving as VP was a prerequisite for winning a nomination.

Donald Trump stomped all over that rule and then tossed it out the window. If you’re Tim Ryan and wake up one day seeing your recent House colleague Beto and current colleague Tulsi Gabbard running, and know your dream of dislodging Nancy Pelosi as Speaker is charitably fanciful, then why not.

If you’re Bill deBlasio, mayor of the biggest city in the land, and see another mayor, all of 37 years old, leading a “city” of just over a hundred thousand people, consistently polling in the top five, will you let the complete lack of interest in your candidacy stand in the way?

This combination of factors leads to the fullest house in the history of nomination contests. Following the 2016 GOP tussle, which previously held this distinction. Few of these trends show any sign of abating. If anything, we may look back at 2020 as the calm before a storm of even more aspirants in 2024 or 2028.

With two nights of ten aspirants each, let’s break the candidates into tiers to simplify. Tomorrow, we’ll do the same for the second group.

Tier 1: Elizabeth Warren

Warren is the only one of the top five candidates to wind up in the first debate. The eight candidates with the best polling were separated out, and then randomly drawn into two groups. #3, #6, #7, and #8 wound up together.

Because there’s a noticeable gap between #5 and #6, it makes this feel a bit like Liz and the Lilliputians. If some of the other nine on stage think scrapping with her will forward their cause, she may spend much of the event swatting at flies, wishing she was going head-to-head with her polling peers.

I don’t expect this. The more direct rivals for the lower tier candidates are in the second debate. While Warren is doing relatively well, she’s not *that* far beyond her base. There aren’t a ton of votes to harvest here. Whatever are up for grabs wouldn’t all go to the same alternative candidate.

She’s going to stand in the middle of the stage, and wind up with the bit of extra air time that the strongest candidate in a debate usually receives. It will give viewers a chance to visualize her as a front-runner and think about how she might do against Trump in another 15 months. On balance, I think this is a good break for her.

Tier 2: Beto O’Rourke, Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar

Most of the 20+ candidates have never broken 3% in a single national, Iowa, or New Hampshire poll. By virtue of having done so, these three are a cut above the masses.

Beto was in double digits for a minute after his announcement. He then turned into a caricature and the media turned on him. Mayor Pete stole his thunder and poll position. While others were getting prime TV spots, O’Rourke traversed the country in a series of rented minivans.

All this makes him a post-hype sleeper. Warren is the only better known candidate in this debate. He gets to stand center stage with her. He’s tall. Expectations are minimal. Beto is not a spectacular head-to-head debater. I think Ted Cruz got the best of him last fall. But he had a few good lines, and with 10 people crowding the stage, requirements are different. A single well-timed comment, combined with a stumble the following day by Mayor Pete, and the two could easily swap places again.

Booker is also tall. He’ll stand near center stage. He’s frequently a little awkward and nerdy. Not a problem in this group. The problem is Biden and Buttigieg are in the other debate.

Each of them are holding supporters Booker needs in order to have a path to the nomination. Kamala Harris has some overlap and will actually get to share a stage with them.

Last week, Booker excoriated Biden for his comments about working with segregationist senators back in the Paleozoic Era. Were they together, Booker could try to land a punch. He’ll still likely want to go there, but not sure how it will look to attack someone who can’t respond until the next day.

Buttigieg is stumbling through his first major campaign challenge, in the aftermath of a white South Bend officer shooting a black resident under questionable circumstances without activating his body cam.

Mayor Pete appeared rattled during and after his town hall on Sunday. Having served as mayor of Newark, and living amongst some of the city’s most disadvantaged residents, Booker is well positioned to contrast himself. But again, wrong day.

Klobuchar seemed like a potentially upper tier candidate when she was preparing to announce. She did noticeably well during the Kavanaugh hearings, as several future candidates took turns preening. It looks like all that stuck was controversy about how she’s treated staffers over the years. Google “Klobuchar eating salad with comb.”

She’s a decent fallback choice for Biden supporters if their guy begins losing altitude. Her state borders Iowa, and she is doing marginally better in polls there than nationwide. The debate gives her a chance to at least distinguish herself from those in the tiers below her.

Tier 3: Julian Castro, Jay Inslee, Tulsi Gabbard

There are two possible qualifications for reaching the debate stage. Reaching at least 1% in three accredited national or early-state polls, or gaining 65,000 unique donors. Unlike the candidates in Tier 4, who qualified just from squeaking past the polling requirement, this trio managed to clear both measures.

As three of 14 who have done so, they are virtually guaranteed access to the July debates. This explains why I’ve got them in a higher tier, but whatever. Is there any reason to pay attention to them?

Yes. The odds of any getting the nomination are slim, but in the past several cycles, it’s very normal for at least one candidate to emerge from this level to become relevant for at least 15 days of fame.

Inslee’s entire focus is on environmental issues. The debate is in Miami. The Everglades are currently burning. Castro is the only Latino candidate in a contest with a substantial amount of Latino voters. Gabbard is a young, female veteran of color, who left her position at the DNC to support Bernie in 2016.

Each has a niche. This can lead to support with more exposure. Debates are best for more exposure. They each have negatives. Inslee is boring. Castro lacks texture. He’s got more position papers than anyone except Warren. He’s reasonably smooth. But something’s missing. Gabbard is too friendly to the Syrian regime and previously made homophobic comments. That’s why they’re down here.

One of these three will get some positive press coming out of the debate. Your guess on who is as good as mine.

Tier 4: Tim Ryan, John Delaney, Bill deBlasio

If I’m writing anything about any of them in the recap, they did better than expected. At this point, they’re trying to make sure they get to attend the next debate. DeBlasio has negative popularity. The other two are running as moderateish white males in a world where Joe Biden exists.

Enjoy the show, and please visit us in the aftermath for postgame commentary.

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