Debate Recap: (Night One) By the Book

When the history of the 2020 campaign is told, the first Democratic debate won’t take up much time. There were no stunning gaffes. No punchlines pundits will repeat for a generation. A solid effort for most though, and reason for Democrats to feel good about their choices, especially with several prominent candidates waiting to make their debut tomorrow.

Here’s how they finished:

Moved Up:

Julian Castro, Cory Booker, Tulsi Gabbard, Bill deBlasio

He’s not particularly likeable. He’s not particularly popular in the city he runs. He doesn’t check any of the identity boxes that would give him a natural constituency. He’s very progressive, but nobody is getting to the left of Bernie Sanders. The debate began with zero reason for Bill deBlasio to exist in this contest.

While it’s not yet necessary, he showed he at least belongs on the stage for another round. Interrupting in debates is a necessary skill for all but the strongest of front-runners. You need to interject quickly and strongly, cutting off the moderator and/or opponent. If you try to interrupt, you need to succeed. If you sound like a 9-year-old kid hoping the teacher picks him to answer, you look weak.

At best, deBlasio is now a third tier candidate. He’s a first tier interrupter. And I say this with the greatest of respect. His performance here should ensure he qualifies for the July event. Some more quality interjecting and he’ll have a shot at reaching 2% in 4 national or early state polls, along with 135,000 unique donors so that he can participate in the fall battles.

Tulsi Gabbard sounded crisp. This is an underrated thing. Candidates get 60 seconds to speak in these scrums. Many try to pack 3 minutes of information in. Others fail to have a beginning, middle, and end to their comments. Frequently, a debater decides to spend half their time answering a previous question they were skipped on.

She didn’t rush. She didn’t try to say too much. She didn’t avoid in a ridiculous way. She spent a lot of her time on her signature issue of wanting to move military spending to other uses and end several deployments.

Viewers saw someone who was distinct enough from the other candidates. Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight pointed out she led the field in search traffic during the debate, narrowly ahead of Booker. Given where she began the day, a “hey, who’s this” from the public is a win.

Speaking of Booker, he spoke the most. FiveThirtyEight tracked this. The Senator got 2181 words in. The quantity was matched with pretty good quality. He managed to talk about racial issues in a personal way, without undue pandering. Looked forward more than backward.

He already got a bit of extra media attention last week regarding Biden’s comments. This will give him a little extra push. Booker is just a couple more good weeks away from being the Media Flavor of the Month.

If Booker isn’t the biggest winner of the evening, it’s Castro. To begin with, he’s getting a lot of early mentions as a winner. More people watch or hear commentary after a debate than actually see or hear the debate itself. If he’s declared a winner then his perception changes.

Given the importance of identity politics in the current Democratic Party, it seems implausible there wasn’t more excitement about the lone Latino candidate. After all, the GOP put both Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz up last time, with one finishing 4th and the other 2nd.

He still has a really long way to go, but his odds of jumping to a solid 4-5% in the polls, and pulling enough unique donors to make sure he qualifies for fall debates just increased tremendously. As much fun as a giant leap is, a candidate who can move up one rung at a time for the next several months is in a good position to compete.

That I’m thinking about possible paths for him to get nominated, however questionable they may be, is a very good indicator of how well this turned out for him.

Fell Back:

Beto O’Rourke, Amy Klobuchar, Jay Inslee, John Delaney

Neither Inslee or Delaney solved the “why is this individual’s presence in the contest necessary” question. Castro was strong on immigration and the benefit of having a Latino candidate. Gabbard made a case for considering a veteran. Inslee was supposed to show up as Captain Climate Change, but instead he wasn’t particularly focused on his main issue.

Perhaps if he’d had a Republican candidate to joust with he could have picked a good fight, but in this group, it was all kinda meh.

Meanwhile, if Delaney wants to get elected to something, his platform and delivery is perfect as the sort of moderate GOP candidate who wins governor races in the northeast. He could be the next Charlie Baker or Larry Hogan. But Democratic primary voters aren’t buying what he’s selling.

Klobuchar made it clear she’s not as liberal/progressive as most of the other candidates. Zero excitement though. Midwestern moderation in tone sounds like a good idea. In practice, Tim Pawlenty (Class of 2012 GOP) and Scott Walker (Class of 2016 GOP) can tell you it leads to dropping out of the race the fall before voting begins.

She needed a good performance as much as anyone on the stage and didn’t stand out at all. If you’re not a front-runner and aren’t moving forward, you’re moving backward. A malady Klobuchar, Inslee, and Delaney will each wake up with.

Not Beto. He actually went backward during the debate. There weren’t any terrible moments. But he said nothing compelling the whole time. There were no issues or concepts he owned. The shallowness concern was verified.

Particularly when Castro took him to task on details of immigration policy. Before Beto is imaginable as a real threat, he would need to separate himself from Booker, Castro and Pete Buttigieg. The shooting in Indiana leaves Mayor Pete in a precarious position heading into the debate tomorrow. Beto had an opportunity to make an impression with his voters. That didn’t happen.

He needed to remain clearly a step ahead of Castro among Texan candidates who don’t want to challenge John Cornyn’s Senate seat. If anything he’s now trailing Castro. He needed to look clearly stronger than Booker to make himself a prime alternative for those who want a candidate under 70 with potential appeal to voters of color besides Kamala Harris.

Nope. Since the time he entered, Beto has run consistently ahead of Booker. Expect this to change as soon as the next batch of polls are out. He’ll qualify for the next debate and has a chance to reverse this before he needs to drop out, but thinking about when he might drop out is the definition of a bad outcome.

Stayed in Place:

Elizabeth Warren, Tim Ryan

Staying in place doesn’t mean the same for both. Warren entered the debate surging in the polls. She’s no worse than 3rd place nationwide, and is beginning to place second in some surveys. She was by far the leading candidate on the stage tonight. And she may have won the debate on points.

With her four closest competitors not arriving until tomorrow, her opportunity to move up was limited. However, she could have hurt her position. Or one of the other candidates could have visibly outshone her. Didn’t happen. All clear. Full speed ahead. And every expectation that she’s more than ready to face more direct competition if the draw is more even in July.

Tim Ryan did the Rust Belt thing. He mentioned Youngstown, OH. Flint, MI. Working, or working-class Americans every three words. He stayed resolutely on message. Several others mentioned blue collar workers. Talked about jobs their dads did. But he sold it all the way through.

Beyond remembering it was Al Qaeda, not the Taliban that flew the planes into buildings on 9/11, there isn’t much else he could have done. But Joe Biden still exists. And as long as he exists another few months, Tim Ryan will no longer exist as a Democratic presidential candidate. It’s hard to see him picking up 135,000 contributors in time for the fall debates.

Post-Debate Tiers

First Tier: Elizabeth Warren (unchanged)

Second Tier: Cory Booker (now more solidly here), Julian Castro (up from Tier 3)

Purgatory: Amy Klobuchar (down from Tier 2), Tulsi Gabbard (up from Tier 3)

Third Tier: Bill deBlasio (up from Tier 4)

Fourth Tier: Tim Ryan (almost made it to Tier 3), John Delaney (unchanged), Jay Inslee (down from Tier 3)

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