Pre-Debate Panic Check

In case you’ve been distracted with the whole impeaching the president thing, there’s a Democratic debate coming up. Thursday, 12/19 at 8pm Eastern to be precise. It’s the first West Coast event, taking place at Loyola Marymount University, after a labor dispute caused a move from the original venue at UCLA. Until Tuesday, another labor issue at Loyola threatened the event, as all 7 contestants vowed not to cross a picket line.

The timing isn’t great. Ratings have dropped for each debate round. Christmas is almost here. And as usual, Trump is blocking out the political sun. Casual voters aren’t going to watch. Most moderately engaged voters won’t either. There will be a short news cycle afterwards. Have I mentioned Trump?

Within these constraints, the candidates still need to get their work done. Who’s feeling the heat? Who can kinda relax? From least to most, who needs to have a debate moment that breaks through the clutter?

#7 Tom Steyer

I’m trying to think about what Steyer could do or say that would make voters outside the early states who have already seen seven trillion of his ads care. And failing. Michael Bloomberg is the alpha version of this candidate type. It’s too bad there isn’t a provision where one candidate can buy a debate slot from another. I don’t think Bloomberg actually wants to participate in these events, but if he did, I wonder what Steyer’s price would be.

#6 Bernie Sanders

Why so low? Except for his post-heart attack comeback in October, debates don’t impact Bernie. There’s not much variance in how well he does. He’s never tripped up with an unexpected question. People who have watched too many of these can anticipate his answers. In case you forgot, he wrote the damn Medicare for All bill.

#5 Joe Biden

Unlike Bernie who never goes off script, Biden can’t make it more than 20 seconds without losing track of what he’s saying. He always fades in the second half. If this goes well, he’ll only gaffe once or twice. We have several months of evidence that said gaffes don’t impact his standing.

Should he do unusually well, unless he goes the next six weeks before Iowa without any of his normal stumbles, the good will fade as quickly as the bad does. His general Bidenness is so baked in to expectations, that I question whether anything he does on stage or in an interview is going to move anyone.

His results on the ground in Iowa on Caucus Day will have some impact. I just can’t see what he could say or do in a debate that would.

#4 Amy Klobuchar

The DNC has not announced criteria for the next debate in mid-January in Iowa. I’d bet there’s a provision where any candidate at or over 5% in Iowa is going to participate. Klobuchar is already safely past that line. Nationally, she’s a niche candidate, appealing to moderate, upper-income, educated voters born before 1960.

She’s got more at stake than Bernie and Biden, because extreme underdogs can’t survive a loss in momentum. But the majority of voters aren’t receptive to her yet and won’t take her truly seriously unless she wins Iowa. They’re paying attention in Iowa though, and voters who are already supporting her or at least thinking about it, are exactly those who would watch the debate.

Her ability to contrast herself against Buttigieg and Warren will have some impact. Each of the past few debates has advanced her just a bit. She’s not flashy anyway, so more of the same is her best play.

#3 Andrew Yang

This is his big chance. Finally, he’s on a less crowded stage. And one of those on stage is Steyer. Candidates like Klobuchar and Cory Booker have managed to get themselves almost as much talk time as the leaders, despite having microscopic national poll numbers. Yang has polled ahead of them for months, has raised more money, and is raising money faster as he goes.

He doesn’t interrupt or interject on stage, and moderators steer toward more “traditional” candidates. You can argue he has more different things to say than any non-Marianne Williamson candidate. And if you figure there’s a Bernie approach, with Warren doing a 9/10ths version, and the semi-moderate, “hey, we can’t do all this stuff” approach from Klobuchar, Buttigieg, and Biden, Yang is the only one with another angle.

He gets mocked for talking about the $1000/mo Freedom Dividend/guaranteed basic income idea to the exclusion of other things, but that’s not accurate when he’s given any amount of time to speak. His poll numbers aren’t moving much, but his favorability numbers among Democrats are improving.

#2 Pete Buttigieg

There’s been a polling blackout in Iowa and New Hampshire after Thanksgiving. One survey each. Both showing him losing a little ground, but hanging in. Any legit nomination path involves him winning at least one of those and getting very close if he misses the other. He really needs both.

A good night and he holds his ground and has a chance to grind out a win in Iowa and hope New Hampshire doesn’t want to veto what Iowa did. A great night and he’s going to like his next set of polls there. A decent evening, and he’s not knocked out, but has a lot of work to do. A bad night and Klobuchar moves past him.

Mayor Pete hasn’t had a bad debate yet. He’s rarely surprised or thrown off. Even the statements that don’t wear well, like attempting to draw a comparison between his experience being gay, and discrimination African Americans face, wasn’t an error due to speaking hastily under duress.

Without any policy positions that are super unique, and with the shortest resume of the serious contenders, he needs to evolve every few debates to show voters more depth or give them more confidence in his ability to actually do this. The first transition was to stop being so “lets all get along” and start going after Warren.

He can’t just play those same notes again. I have no clue what the next adjustment should be, but this debate is the time to roll out Pete 3.0.

#1 Elizabeth Warren

Buttigieg might not be ahead in Iowa anymore. Warren is definitely not leading. Her freefall has stopped. But her support is way under where it was. Sanders is ahead of her in the majority of national polls, plus Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada as far as we can tell.

By the time Iowa votes, Trump will have escaped in the Senate. Between now and then, Democrats will get increasingly upset that he’s escaping. Trump will be extra Trumpy. More Democrats are interested in voting for who they think will win than who they agree with most. We know Biden is considered the most electable, but Sanders is seen as safer than Warren right now.

This isn’t imaginary. Bernie polls better against Trump than Warren. The margin isn’t huge, but it favors him. His other advantage is that the voters who care the least about electability are the youngest voters, the same group he does best with. Warren has to start seeming more electable. Starting with this debate.

It’s not a matter of whether she can push back effectively on Buttigieg. Yes, he’s the second choice of a chunk of her voters, and she’s a second choice of many of his. They share a white, upscale, older, mostly liberal constituency. So his loss in that one area is potentially her gain. But some of his other support tracks more to Klobuchar in Iowa, Bloomberg elsewhere.

If Warren doesn’t seem like she can go the distance next November, getting the best of Pete will help candidates other than Warren. Again, I have no clue how she does this. Where the pivot is, or if it’s doubling down on her existing persona, but in such a way that voters are praying she can take Trump on. Easier said than done.

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