Yes, debates are kinda overrated. No, they’re not usually as meaningless as the first two Democratic rounds. In two debates over four nights, we’ve see a Kamala Harris bubble which quickly lost helium, and a related panic over Joe Biden, which soon subsided.
Elizabeth Warren probably helped her standing by performing well. Though there’s no particular spot in the data that proves this. Julian Castro may have done just well enough to qualify for rounds 3 and 4 by doing reasonably well in 1 and 2.
Beyond that, it’s a real reach. I think Pete Buttigieg and Cory Booker have performed well. I think Beto O’Rourke and Amy Klobuchar haven’t. Surveys taken after each debate indicate viewers agreed with me. Regular horse race polling doesn’t show any impact.
Tulsi Gabbard did well the first time and smacked Harris the second. For her trouble, she didn’t qualify for the third round. Tom Steyer, yet to appear in a debate, just qualified for the fourth round.
Speaking of which, if you like seeing all qualifying candidates on stage together tonight, soak it in. Now that Steyer is the 11th contestant for Round 4, next time we go back to dividing over two nights. For candidates who want more space, they only need to endure the crowd once. For those who want to punch up soon, they better not miss tonight.
Here are the five questions I’m most curious about:
#1 Will Biden resemble a deer in the headlights?
Every single poll says Democratic voters think Biden is the most electable next November. A large percentage of voters care more about this than anything else.
As such, many Biden voters won’t leave him. At least until he starts losing polling matchups with Donald Trump. Given that he’s neither Trump nor a socialist, I’m not sure what could actually precipitate this until they’re in one-on-one combat.
There’s a gap between the voters that are Biden do-or-die and those who will vote for him as long as he can get through a 3 hour debate without verbally pissing on himself. That gap is the difference between winning the nomination and not.
His first debate was a debacle. His second showed how little it takes to keep his second tier of supporters on board. The CNN event was back to looking like he was on leave from the political convalescent home.
It’s his first time on stage with Warren. She’s a threat in a way Sanders and Harris weren’t. If she hits him on protecting credit card companies and not looking out for the regular Americans he claims to defend, he best be ready. He can get away with anger. Defensiveness is suboptimal. Weakness or confusion will lead to a new front-runner.
#2 Can anyone ruffle Warren?
For the first couple rounds, she resembled peak Muhammad Ali. Flew through debate one like a butterfly. Stung John Delaney in the second like a swarm of bees. It’s not like a Democratic contender is going to call her Pocahontas.
When someone comes at her from the right, it just gives her a good excuse to remind liberals why they like her. She doesn’t have a series of Senate votes that look bad to the base in retrospect.
Some campaigns have telegraphed they think her previous status as a registered Republican is a weak point. Once upon a time, a 70ish year old candidate with uncommon vigor for that age, who belonged to the other party for decades, before switching and appealing to the less moderate wing of the new party, ran for the nomination to challenge an unpopular incumbent.
Polls a year ahead of the general election showed that person would struggle to win in November. There were many thoughts a more moderate candidate would be safer.
But nobody really minded that Ronald Reagan used to be a FDR Democrat. He used it to his advantage. This won’t work on Warren either.
#3 Can Kamala level up?
We know Kamala Harris can create a good debate video clip. We know her team can make sure corresponding t-shirts are ready for sale immediately after the debate.
But can she sound as consistently convicted as Warren and Sanders? Can she get through a three hour debate without hesitating on a tricky issue? Can she keep from reversing herself on Friday morning?
A couple months ago, I thought she might be destined to be the Democratic Marco Rubio. So far that’s not fair to Little Marco. As such, she’s got a steeper hill to climb than he did.
Tonight we find out if the top tier candidate many thought she was is in there, or if she’s really part of the Booker & Beto group at best. Yes, she was at 15 to 20 percent in the polls for a minute, but Rick Perry hit 30% in 2012. Sometimes a candidate is better in theory than reality. And it doesn’t always take an oops for voters to notice.
#4 Can Yang get screen time?
More than any other participant, Yang has different things to say. Even Warren and Sanders don’t want to talk about universal basic income. He’s the candidate who best understands technology. He’s the first East Asian candidate in a party that prizes identity politics.
As the campaign has progressed, he’s started sounding better. Yang did pretty well during the CNN climate confab. In a time slot that guaranteed few would see him. Of those who participated in both of the first two debates, Yang got the least amount of speaking time.
With all of the top tier candidates on stage together, he might get further crowded out, especially if he remains resistant to break into conversations to punch up at the leaders. That’s not his brand, so I don’t think he should do it.
The October debate will give him a lot more space. So if he can somehow get attention this time, he’ll be a major factor then. You may not take his chances at getting nominated seriously. I’m not. But he can greatly influence the New Hampshire primary result by attracting independents who might have otherwise chosen a front-runner.
#5 How do Buttigieg, Booker, Beto, Castro or Klobuchar get a bounce?
All roads appear blocked at the moment. Beto and Klobuchar could do far better than they have so far. But based on what happened to the others, would it even matter?
The Economist has measured the following interest levels for each. This is voters who are at least considering the candidate. In many cases, this is as a third, fourth, or fifth choice. Gotta start somewhere.
Pete Buttigieg: 28%
Cory Booker: 21%
Beto O’Rourke: 18%
Julian Castro: 15%
Amy Klobuchar: 9%
For Mayor Pete, it’s more converting existing interest to being first choice. Klobuchar needs to get someone to care first. Everyone else falls somewhere in between.
Usually, I have endless thoughts about what I’d tell each candidate to do in a debate if I was their strategist. Completely stuck.
Klobuchar can’t rely heavily on being more moderate. Delaney tried that last time, and though I thought he made several good points, Warren used him as dental floss. She can’t lean on being someone who “gets things done” and will build a “bipartisan coalition.” Not only is that not in style this season, but it’s Biden’s brand, and Buttigieg says it better.
Hoping for Biden to spontaneously combust isn’t a strategy. And if he does, Harris, Booker, and Buttigieg will benefit more. To add to the degree of difficultly, her best future likely involves getting picked as someone’s running mate. So picking fights isn’t in her best interest either. If she has a big night, her team will have earned my everlasting respect.
Buttigieg, Castro, and Booker are already all at the 85th to 95th percentile of how good I think they can sound. Piling on Biden hasn’t helped anyone yet beyond an immediate sugar rush. Warren isn’t an easy target. An attack could easily backfire. It’s impossible to make Bernie blink. Harris doesn’t have enough supporters to steal.
The best opportunity is O’Rourke’s. He’s to the higher end of consideration for this group. He’s run one of the shakiest campaigns. The bar appears lower for him. He’s got some star power. Think we may see Beto Unplugged tonight. He’s built up to this since the El Paso shooting.
No clue how well it will play. Could be fun to hear a presidential candidate say fuck once or twice in a debate. Could look like the posturing of an entitled fortysomething at twosomething in the polls. If he sticks the landing, his polls should move.