Debate Pre-Preview: The Reckoning

After an overly drawn out draw procedure on CNN, we now have the matchups for Debate 2.0:

Biden v. Harris (Night 2)

This is the main event. Also very good news for the people at CNN in charge of booking ads. Over the past 7-10 days, Kamala Harris’s polling bounce has begun fading. Joe Biden’s decline first slowed and is now reversing. His national average, while lower than pre-debate, is still double that of his main competitors.

In various interviews, Biden said he was surprised Harris attacked him in such a manner. This is either disingenuous on his part, or malpractice by his campaign team to have let him believe he would be safe. This shaky excuse is only good for one usage. Biden now has almost two weeks to prepare for the rematch.

We shouldn’t be surprised he was off. Besides being 76, and having lost a step or three from his prime, Biden hadn’t participated in a debate since fall 2012, and a multi-candidate scrum since late 2007.

But he better be ready this time. It won’t take much. As a leading candidate, getting more time than many others, he’s going to speak for ten minutes max. One 30 second properly rehearsed and delivered bit, and the first debate never happened.

In 1984, Ronald Reagan looked old and befuddled in his first general election debate with Walter Mondale (NOTE: the aging Reagan was 3 years younger than Biden is now). His polling lead over Mondale got chopped in half almost overnight. It still wasn’t a close race, but one more bad debate and it could have been.

In the next debate, one of the questioners predictably asked Reagan if he had the stamina to hold up in a Cuban Missile Crisis type situation. His response, that he would not make his opponent’s “youth and inexperience” an issue in the campaign, effectively ended the contest. Reagan won 49 states.

Post-debate polls showed a good half of the voters who abandoned Biden ditched him for undecided, not another candidate. He remains the only center-leftish candidate among those with polling support. He’s retained plenty of support among African American voters. A good 30 seconds won’t clinch the nomination, but it will put Biden back in the driver’s seat.

The Reagan outcome is the goal. The Rick Perry outcome is an equal possibility. Today, Perry is a bit of trivial irony. Secretary of Energy, the very department he wanted to eliminate but couldn’t remember the name of. That oops moment removed Perry from serious contention for the 2012 nomination.

The front-runner upon entering the contest, three debates and one historic mishap later, Perry was barely in double-digits and dropping. He would exit after Iowa. His 2016 attempt stopped before voting started. His obituary will lead with oops.

That moment finished him off. But the problems began earlier. Perry delayed his campaign entry due to back surgery. He missed the first three debates and was still being medicated. So he wasn’t sharp and didn’t have as many reps as his competition. His first debate was weak. Nothing quite as bad as the Harris-Biden exchange, but it didn’t help.

The polls didn’t move that much. Potential Perry supporters wanted to see more before abandoning him. The 2012 GOP field didn’t have as many choices as Democrats have now. His second debate wasn’t great either. He ran into trouble defending the Texas law that allows subsidized college tuition for undocumented students.

By his third debate (the sixth GOP contest overall), Perry needed a strong performance to stay ahead of Mitt Romney. Instead, he became a joke. Even with this, Perry still retained some support. He didn’t have the years and years on the national stage Biden does. So there’s likely nothing that can end the campaign overnight. But another slip and it’s time to start thinking about which more moderate candidate will eventually take his place in the lead pack.

Warren v. Sanders (Night 1)

While we know Biden will have his moment to rebound or slip further, it’s not certain the two heavyweights on the left will throw punches at each other.

The moderators will definitely attempt to create a face-off environment. It’s good TV. These are by far the biggest names appearing on the first night. Each are holding approximately 15% of national support right now. That’s enough to matter, not enough to win a nomination. Each are going to have to pick up additional votes somewhere.

Data indicates it’s not necessarily from the other, as much as their ideology and policy ideas are similar. Bernie Sanders currently does best with younger, less educated, less informed, lower income voters, regardless of race or ethnicity. Elizabeth Warren is stronger with more educated white voters, paying a great deal of attention to the campaign, with a somewhat even age split.

Some middle-aged voters who are otherwise a fit for Bernie, have him as their second choice behind Biden. Many upscale, educated, more liberal voters of all ethnicities are comparing Warren and Harris.

So there’s logic in each just making their case to the national audience, and largely ignoring the other. Neither have a history of picking fights with debate opponents. Sanders famously said he didn’t care “about the damn emails” in 2015, giving Hillary Clinton a bit of an escape. Warren resisted any temptation to punch down a level and get involved with the others in her first presidential debate.

Will they, or won’t they?

Booker v. Harris (2)

I’ve listed Booker first here. Harris has no reason to pick a fight with her fellow senator. She’s at 13.4% nationally. He’s at 1.6%. He needs to make something happen soon, or face irrelevancy.

This isn’t just a simple comparison of two ambitious freshman senators who have long sought the presidency, are of similar ages, and both African American. Each is chasing a very similar audience. The obvious part is requiring enough black support, some of which is now with Biden, to win or place very close to the top in South Carolina. Unless Biden completely falls apart, there aren’t enough remaining votes to help both Harris and Booker to the finish line.

But that’s not where they have the greatest overlap. It’s with upper-income, educated, left-leaning, but not super left, suburban white voters. While Biden has some of the voters Harris and Booker need, all of Harris’s voters are in Booker’s wheelhouse.

Pete Buttigieg lives here too. But he’s in the other debate, and Harris is doing better at the moment. Booker will attempt something. Whether it’s a direct hit on Harris, or he tries to outshine her at landing punches on Biden, we’ll see on the 31st. Something will happen.

You can visualize Harris, Booker, and Biden as something of a politician triangle. Harris and Biden may each take fire from the other two. Booker could attack either of the other two, but neither will bother with him except to respond.

Harris or Biden could be the beneficiary. If one bests the other, and Booker piles on against the loser, opinions will move against that individual. His best outcome is for Biden and Harris to fight to a draw, with neither looking great, while he damages one or both of them.

O’Rourke v. Buttigieg (1)

This is a bit of an undercard. But undercards sometimes matter. The first debate version was Castro v. O’Rourke. Julian Castro decided to go after Beto on immigration policy and got the best of him. You won’t see a ton of result in polls. Beto is still sixth, Castro still a rounding error. But Castro’s fundraising immediately benefited, and that one debate moment may keep him going an extra few months.

In this case, Beto is the aggressor not defender. There isn’t room for both Mayor Pete and Beto to do well in Iowa. There isn’t room for both to be a factor in national polls. Both fill the younger, less formally qualified, semi-visionary lane. When Buttigieg began taking off in April, Beto started to fade quickly.

Their voters aren’t always a mirror image. They currently combine for less national support than either held on their own at their respective peaks. Regardless, there isn’t room in this town for both, and with Buttigieg ahead, it falls to Beto to initiate combat.

Beto recently drew a link between his ancestors having owned slaves and his support for reparations. Mayor Pete’s greatest weakness is the mostly white South Bend Police Department and their interaction with non-white citizens. There are no candidates of color on the stage night one. Beto is free to channel his inner Bobby Kennedy without getting a side eye from Booker.

I can 1000% guarantee you O’Rourke goes after Buttigieg on this issue. I can 999% guarantee you the Mayor won’t be surprised. Beto isn’t a great debater. Buttigieg is sometimes overly measured. This could be a draw, or one might land a really good punch. Either way, it’s the most certain battle of the two evenings.

Moderates v. Sanders/Warren (1)

There are a pile of middle-aged white men who are hoping to replace Biden as an option for the somewhat overlooked, but not small, moderate section of the Democratic primary vote. If there were one choice instead of several, it’s possible that individual would actually have traction. There’s also Amy Klobuchar, who might be the biggest victim of the candidate pileup.

With the exception of Michael Bennet, who is stage left on night two, the others are all here:

Tim Ryan, Steve Bullock, John Delaney, and John Hickenlooper. Add in Klobuchar, and the not-that-left by the standards of the 2020 campaign O’Rourke, and there’s a big policy divide between the two center stage candidates and the rest of the group. Buttigieg is the only candidate squarely between the moderates and the leaders.

Can any of the pack separate themselves? Do the moderators set this up as Sanders/Warren versus the others? The lesser candidates will need to prepare for their potential moment. If nothing else, this is likely the debate with the most actual debate over issues we’ll see this fall.

Biden v. Future (2)

In the last debate, Eric Swalwell repeatedly implored Biden to pass the torch. Biden declined and Swalwell, facing a primary challenge for his House seat, retreated from the race. That time it was a semi-clever line from a candidate with no hope or purpose for running.

This time, it’s a two hour visual. There are three candidates age 70 or older. Biden is the only one on night two. He’s from the Silent Generation. He’ll only face a couple Baby Boomers. Most are Gen X, with Tulsi Gabbard representing Millennials.

The other white candidates are to far the sides of the stage. One of them, Bill de Blasio, is guaranteed to mention his African American son. Better than any ad ever could, this debate will contrast Biden, representing the Democratic Party of the past, with the majority of the stage, representing where Democrats are headed.

This isn’t necessarily bad for Biden. Not all primary voters are ready to take that leap, especially if it includes having Donald Trump frame the general election around AOC’s Squad. If the ex-VP performs decently (see above), this will serve to further lock in the divide among the Democratic electorate.

Those afraid of how Trump v. AOC will impact swing voters, and/or just aren’t ok with the Squad representing them, will rally behind Biden. Those who are sure nominating Biden risks a repeat of what happened to Hillary, and don’t want to make compromises anyway, will have extra reason to want to move on.

We have two weekends and a week until the debating begins. The campaign teams are already in full prep mode. Now that they know the lineups, the framing will begin. You’ll see clues of how they’re going to approach these matchups before we get to the actual debates.

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