It’s Debate Day! Tonight, 12 contestants will scrap and claw in the attempt to forward their odds of stepping on to a stage with Donald Trump about a year from now. Every poll and metric indicates Democratic primary voters are primarily concerned with beating Trump.
FiveThirtyEight is partnering with Ipsos to measure the same voters before and after the debate. One of their measures is how likely voters think each candidate is to defeat Trump. You’ll notice this closely mirrors the national poll numbers for each candidate.
It’s not exact. Joe Biden is at 70% chance, Elizabeth Warren at 62%, and their poll numbers are a little closer. Kamala Harris is at 46% while Pete Buttigieg is 43%. Their polling is reversed. You get the idea. It’s close enough. Candidates will need to spend the evening convincing voters they can beat Trump.
The principle of show, don’t tell applies. Amy Klobuchar consistently makes the most direct argument that she would beat him. She wins by a lot in Minnesota. Which is fairly purple these days. And is a Midwestern state not that different from Wisconsin. So by the transitive property, she’d defeat him. Except that Dem voters only think she has a 32% chance of doing so, about the same as the very unproven Andrew Yang.
People think Biden will beat him because 6,000 surveys taken over the past few years say he will. The Ukraine thing is a wash for now. It proves Trump is scared of him. But it also introduces Hunter Biden as an issue. If Biden should somehow knock his response to the controversy out of the park tonight, he’s going to be in really good shape. If he fumbles like usual, until surveys start announcing Trump would beat him, his numbers are still going to look good.
The tricky part is this. Voters are looking at how someone does on a packed stage and trying to figure out how that same candidate would do one-on-one with the Hated One. It’s not that hard to imagine how Biden would be. Many voters have seen him in previous two-person debates. They’re assuming he would beat Trump for non-debate reasons.
Warren is really good at this stuff. She’s unruffled, quick on her feet, and doesn’t back down. She’s at or near center stage, engages actively in the debate when she wants to, cruises when she feels like it. Over time, her performances have helped her become a front-runner.
Bernie Sanders does Bernie things. He’s always the same. Between his consistency, lack of care about what anyone thinks about what he’s saying, and previous experience with him going one-on-one with Hillary Clinton, there’s no need to imagine. He’s also consistently scored well in polling matchups with Trump over the past four years. Not quite as well as Biden, but often darn close. His 59% confidence rating matches this. As long as he seems to have survived the heart attack intact, the debate can’t hurt him.
When Harris had her moment with Biden in the first debate, there was a temporary thought that she could disembowel Trump. We now have a lot of evidence that was a fluke. She’s another candidate where voters can get a mostly clear read. They’re correctly worrying about a lack of authenticity on stage with Trump.
For better or worse, the president knows who he is. He has no shame. A wishy-washy Kamala isn’t a great match for the guy who invited Bill Clinton’s accusers to a debate 48 hours after the Access Hollywood tapes were released. If I were on her team, besides looking for my next place to land, I’d plead with her to let it rip, and damn the consequences.
Until the most recent debate, Beto O’Rourke looked weak and unfocused. Unfortunately for him, he dug a ditch for himself over a period of months. One too big to climb out of with a couple strong moments on assault rifles. We’ve covered Klobuchar. Warren just looks stronger and more effective.
We’ll see about Tom Steyer. He’s spent 20 million taking shots at Trump on TV, and it bought him a debate spot. Tulsi Gabbard measures up. Her problem is voters aren’t otherwise seeing her as a credible choice. If it were only about debates, ideology, experience and all else forgotten, she’d be a front-runner.
Yang needs to get in the game. He regularly disappears. The difference between where he is and being Bernie 2.0 is Bernie’s willingness to charge forward in a debate and pre-existing status. I’m not going to argue this is preventing him from being a leading candidate by itself, but he’s got room to grow if he can make himself heard. On a twelve person night, I’m not expecting it.
This is Julian Castro’s last appearance. He’s not going to make the next debate. His numbers are crap. He’s broke. If he wants to remain relevant, his job is to look like he’d do well against Mike Pence. A Veep is supposed to be a bit of an attack dog, he just needs to do it more skillfully than his attempt last time against Biden.
This brings us to the two candidates who look good on paper, have done well, based both on media reviews and poll questions about debate performance, but are not matching these results in their national survey results. Pete Buttigieg and Cory Booker.
My personal take is that they would do well on stage with Trump, for different reasons. Booker is a big guy, and unlike Trump he’s fit. On the primary debate stage, the candidates are all in a line, can stand on something if they need to, and are only contrasted with whomever is standing right next to them. In the general election debates, there’s usually at least one where the candidates walk around.
Trump was able to use his size to tower over Hillary. He looked down in the primaries on candidates like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, when they were placed next to him. Booker would make him look old and fat. Ideally, Booker would also slow up a little bit. He’s rushed in this format. It brings out elements of his communication style that are less ideal. One-on-one you’ve got space to craft memorable lines without losing depth.
Somehow, Booker needs to get himself to slow up a bit on a crowded night, while he’s on life support in the polls. He’s already qualified for the next round, so the better he can chill and maximize his presence, the better.
Meanwhile, Buttigieg has limited physical presence. Trump would take up way more space on stage. He might look like a child next to him. Voters are thinking about this a bit, even if it’s subliminally. What they’re not as focused on is his composure. At least not in a positive way. He’s less fiery than The New Beto. Some other candidate usually gets the clips that get played post-Debate.
I have a sense this same measured approach would take Trump apart. That he might say increasingly ridiculous things in a failed attempt to get under Buttigieg’s skin. His challenge is to convey this without Trump being there. No clue how he could or should do this. Having served in Afghanistan, he’ll definitely get a question about Syria, Turkey, and the Kurds. Maybe the answer is in there somewhere.
He has the lowest unfavorable numbers of any candidate. He’s got money. He’s got favorable media coverage. But he’s trailing Sanders by 10 points and the leaders by 20 plus. The way up is by selling himself as a true danger for Trump. That, and only that, will make him a real contender.