Debate Prep: (Night Two) The Main Event

When the lineups were announced, this was the night everyone was more interested in. As many as 18 million people saw last night’s contest. That’s about 75% of the audience for Donald Trump’s debate debut in 2015, and the third or fourth highest audience for any primary debate.

Whether they set a new record tonight or not, a large audience is guaranteed. Let’s take a look at how the participants stack up. None of yesterday’s group called out any of today’s contestants by name. The closest was Bill deBlasio talking about “a shooting in Indiana.” The front-running group is free to proceed without responding to any particular comments already in circulation.

Tier 1: Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigeg, Kamala Harris

Bernie is going to do Bernie things. He’s a very consistent campaigner, he’s a very consistent debater. Perhaps there’s a new wrinkle, but I’m pretty, pretty, pretty sure Larry David won’t need to do any extra practicing before this week’s SNL.

The other three in the group will determine how the evening winds up. Each have plenty at stake.

Does Joe Biden still have his fastball? If elected, he would be older on his first day in office than Ronald Reagan was on his last. From the clips I’ve seen over the past several weeks, he looks a smidge older and slower than in 2016, let alone 2012 or 2018.

This is a naturally occurring thing at age 76. Go play clips of any public figure who had a career that stretched into their Social Security years. Do so at ten year intervals. It’s striking. Bernie appears mostly immune for now, but he’s a significant outlier. Biden began as an overly energetic individual, and has remained vibrant, so he had room to slow up. But there’s a line, and the public will quickly notice which side he’s on.

Trump is already probing in this direction, but it hasn’t stuck yet. It will increase scrutiny though, and with Biden running on an electability platform, centered around being able to take the fight to the president, he’s one or two flubs away from having to deal with what Low Energy Jeb, Lying Ted, and Little Marco did.

If Biden gets through tonight relatively unscathed, and has a senior moment down the road a bit, it’s more recoverable. More than any particular mistake or gaffe, look for his general processing speed as an indicator of how strong he still is.

Mayor Pete is on the hot seat. Biden, Bernie, and Elizabeth Warren have national reputations ingrained enough that one or two moments won’t make or break them. Even if the worst happens for Biden tonight, it’s not going to completely end him, just make things far more difficult. Unless Sanders suddenly says he’s all for large corporations and billionaires, he’s not going to drastically alter his career.

Buttigieg went from an unknown small-town mayor to serious presidential candidate in one quarter. He’s polished, well-spoken, and sincere. When he’s on comfortable ground. The recent shooting in South Bend forced him to confront a very difficult situation. There are leaders who respond with strong emotion in a crisis. Think of how Bill Clinton might have responded.

Mayor Pete is a technocrat. This sounds pejorative to some, but it’s appealing to a substantial group of voters. Michael Dukakis won a Democratic nomination fairly easily as a Buttigieg-like candidate with a longer resume. Dukakis also lost a general election by over 300 electoral votes.

There were several factors, and multiple bad optics, but I remain convinced the unrecoverable error was his response when asked in a debate if he would still oppose the death penalty if his wife were raped and murdered. Dukakis said he would. What killed him was the way he said it. Flat. Dispassionately. Zero emotion.

As it happens, he’s extremely devoted to his wife. Dukakis was likely trying to make sure he stayed in control. As Buttigieg probably was when addressing angry citizens at a town hall last weekend. He didn’t connect. And then appeared rattled while talking to reporters afterward.

This isn’t a good look for a very young, mostly unproven candidate. It’s particularly not good for someone doing well with white, upper income voters, and not yet registering with African Americans. It wasn’t that black voters were opposed to him. Even Kamala Harris and Cory Booker are struggling to make early inroads against Biden with older African Americans, and Bernie with the under 30 crowd.

Buttigieg will definitely get questioned about this tonight, both directly from moderators, and in one way or another by Harris and/or another candidate looking to take some of his supporters. If he isn’t 1000% ready, he will bury himself with a key Democratic constituency.

The media.

Sure, it would make his path to winning black voters longer, but South Carolina doesn’t vote for another 7 months. A majority of voters aren’t paying attention yet. He’s received very positive press. Beto O’Rourke can tell him how capricious this is. Cory Booker, or someone else, will grab the attention of media outlets and the well-educated, well-compensated coastal elite that Tim Ryan spent most of his time disparaging last night. That’s Mayor Pete’s base right now, and he’ll lose them in two minutes tonight if he doesn’t strike the right balance.

However, if he does do well, he’ll have proven he can handle adversity and get kudos for stepping up. Not only will he maintain support, but he’ll gain some, while temporarily closing off a few paths for his competitors looking for market share.

Harris has opportunity. If Buttigieg stumbles, she’s a possible direct beneficiary. She has risk. If she doesn’t seem top-tier enough, she could lose existing support to Booker or a resurgent Mayor Pete. With her support in mid-upper single digits, the difference between adding and losing a couple of points matters.

If she gains, she’s clearly top-tier and beginning to deliver on the promise the betting markets saw in her six months ago. If she drops, it’s not like she’s got a long history to fall back on. Early debates are important, but not in the way people think. She doesn’t need to catch Warren in the next week. Often slower and steadier is better. But if she drops, it’s because she’s not as good a debater as people thought. And part of the reason she’s thought of as a prospect is the idea she’s good at this.

Anyway, as long as people exit the debate talking about how that Kamala is pretty darn good at this, it’s all good for her. She just needs to avoid looking over-calculated when asked a specific question that forces her to choose between being progressive enough and moderate enough.

Last night, Beto was given a question about a 70% top marginal tax rate that ate him alive because he tried to have it both ways. Harris is susceptible to a similar situation. And it would reinforce existing skepticism about her ability to deliver against Trump.

Tier 2: None

The absence of any second tier competitors leaves room for one of the below candidates to look closer to the contenders than they otherwise might.

Tier 3: Kirsten Gillibrand, Andrew Yang, John Hickenlooper

Gillibrand has underperformed so far. As a decently high-profile senator from a big state, she’s the type that normally gets at least mild traction in a presidential primary campaign. Instead, she’s below the Klobuchar line. With the Minnesotan unable to make progress last night, there’s room for Gillibrand to flip places with her as a credentialed candidate waiting in the second tier for someone above to mess up.

Hickenlooper has a story as a centristish, entrepreneurial, successful ex-governor and mayor from a purpleish state that would have made him a strong contender 15 to 25 years ago. Tonight his best hope is to exit the Delaney Zone and create some relevancy to build on.

Andrew Yang will have an opportunity. Along with Marianne Williamson, he’s one of only two non-politicians in the race. Though more common on the GOP side, we’ve seen many candidates like this in recent years, including the 45th President of the United States. Yang has a plan for a universal basic income. This gives him a great opportunity to distinguish himself for a few minutes and get a look from voters who previously didn’t know he existed.

Tier 4: Michael Bennet, Eric Swalwell, Marianne Williamson

On the surface, the idea of Marianne Williamson as a serious candidate is ridiculous. However, she’s not just another politician without a national profile who thinks it would be fun to run for president like Bennet and Swalwell.

This positions her better than the other two to make an impact. Either she won’t sound credible, and we won’t hear much from her after the July debate at the latest, or she’ll continue a pattern three decades strong of non-politicians over-performing expectations in the summer-fall debate season.

As was the case for Ryan, Delaney, and deBlasio yesterday, the goal for Bennet and Swalwell is to have people remember they were here.

Enjoy the show. And the much needed break before the next round of debates.

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