The 2020 Democratic debate cycle has, well, there’s no other way to put it, it’s sucked. Several of these in, and the biggest moment was Kamala Harris calling out Joe Biden on busing. It resonated so well that she’s been out of the race for two months. Maybe the next most memorable thing was Pete Buttigieg’s wine cave. He was so harmed by this exchange that he (unless you ask Bernie) won Iowa.
Every few weeks, I convince myself that this will be the debate with fireworks. The one they play clips of every four years in perpetuity. And then 20 to 30 minutes in start thinking I should use my time more wisely. Even the pre-Iowa debate wasn’t a big deal, with the Sanders-Warren non-handshake at the end more significant than anything that happened during. Oh, and it didn’t move many voters in a new direction.
If we don’t get excitement this time, it’s just not possible for this group. Not only do we still lack consensus on who won Iowa, but those same two, Bernie & Buttigieg are now the clear favorites in New Hampshire. Sanders has the advantage. They’re close in some polls, Sanders leads noticeably in others. Bernie won big in 2016. Buttigieg has the momentum. For each, there’s the question of where they will win next if they don’t win here.
That should create energy by itself. Then we have Elizabeth Warren needing to remain relevant. It will take a big debate moment to pull her above third place, but she also needs to make sure not to finish fourth or fifth while Sanders wins. If Amy Klobuchar doesn’t finish ahead of Joe Biden, she’ll be going home. If Biden isn’t a semi-strong third, he’s going to have an awful next week.
Tom Steyer and Andrew Yang have a chance to take advantage of Mike Bloomberg’s absence to draw attention to whatever it is their respective goals are. Neither can win the nomination, but in the permanent campaign we have now, 2024 has already begun. I don’t have any specific advice for either except to do what they do, and hope the others disqualify themselves over time. Again, they’re playing for some future campaign anyway.
But I will tell you what I would tell each of the other five if they asked me.
Bernie Sanders: RESIST. Resist spending too much time complaining about being cheated out of a clear Iowa win. He did well enough. His base is already fired up. Voters trying to choose between him and Warren or him and someone else don’t need him fixated on this. The best way for him to look like a winner is to take New Hampshire convincingly and roll in to Nevada and get that too.
This isn’t like 2016 where narrowly losing Iowa to Hillary mattered. He needed everything to fall perfectly then. Now, FiveThirtyEight thinks he’s already almost 50/50 to win a majority before the convention, with another chunk of chance that he’s leading, but not quite there yet after the primaries.
Bernie walks a line between energetic and grouchy old man in these debates. He needs Energetic Bernie, the surprisingly spry uncle people love. Besides that tone adjustment, he has less to figure out than anyone else. He’s said the same things for decades and always knows what he believes in. The 99 percent. The 1 percent. Get rid of the billionaires. Plus now he can complain about Bloomberg trying to buy the nomination. Just play your greatest hits album Bernie. Nothing your opponents throw at you will stick.
Pete Buttigieg: In previous debates I’ve worried about Buttigieg being a little too chill. Not taking command. Not showing enough emotion. Won’t be an issue this time. Biden will go after him with vigor. Despite my advice (see below), Klobuchar will have a hard time resisting. He’s in Warren’s way too, so she’ll contrast herself with him. Each of the three of them are desperate. He has some of their voters. Beyond that, even Sanders may decide to play. Now that Pete got his split decision in Iowa, Bernie may have some of the resentment for the young whippersnapper than other candidates have shown.
This plays into his hands perfectly. Buttigieg is better at parrying than attacking. With a ton of momentum already, and a candidacy that’s an excellent fit for New Hampshire, he doesn’t have to worry about firing anyone up. Instead, he gets to show off his even temperament. Both explicitly and implicitly he can make his case that only calm, dead eyed calm will make Trump lose his mind in a debate and lead to victory.
If the stage gangs up on him and he survives (which he should), that will make him look like more of a winner than anything else he can do.
Elizabeth Warren: I’m the most stuck on Warren’s play here. Her overlap is with Bernie (ideology), Klobuchar (gender), and Buttigieg (upscale voters with post-grad degrees.) When she was riding high, she had a bit more support from each of those corners. I’m clueless how she gets it all back at once, which would be necessary for her to truly contend to finish at or near the top.
Strong progressives had trouble with her flip/flop on Medicare for All. There’s a perception that she has electability issues. And it’s not unfounded. Both Biden and Sanders perform better against Trump in most polls, especially in key swing states. Sometimes she’s ahead of the president too, but never does better than the two established brands.
It appears Warren is presenting herself as a compromise/consensus candidate. Should the party get stuck between Sanders and something more moderate, she could theoretically bridge the gap. Her plan is to stick around, accumulate some delegates and then be the fallback. But her poll numbers in New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina indicate the math is a bit risky. She’s not clearly above 15% in any of these places.
I’d suggest she pick one opponent for contrast and not try to take on all three. The best answer is likely Buttigieg. If she can peel a couple points from him, she can finish a stronger third. Sanders has too strong a base right now for her to compete very directly with him. But if she can make sure Pete doesn’t win, then he’ll go away eventually. And Bloomberg is an ideal foil for Warren.
Warren is older. She’s more experienced. She’s accomplished more. And unlike Biden, she can carry out a thought for more than 12 seconds without stumbling. The experience argument re: Buttigieg is tough for Biden because he can seem lost. But nobody questions Warren’s acuity. I don’t love this approach. She’s in a bad place right now.
Joe Biden: Before the Iowa debate, I suggested Biden had a unique opportunity to go for a strong close. That he should lean in on his son and Ukraine a bit. Didn’t happen. Joe played it safe. And now his back is up against the wall. With another wall closing in. He doesn’t need to win New Hampshire. But he can’t finish fifth. Or 15 points behind Pete.
Whether it’s Biden or his advisors, they’ve avoided any path that could lead to stirring up trouble or possible weaknesses. I get why they played it safe. But they can’t now. The only way for Joe to get a push is to bear his soul. He’s not gonna win a debate on technical merit.
He needs to talk about his beach house.
For decades, he was the poorest senator. Then after his Vice Presidency, Biden did some expensive public speaking. And got to buy a gigantic house on the Delaware shore. Where his whole extended family can hang out at once. He’s closer to eighty than seventy. His plans for this summer should be hanging out there with his grandchildren, not hoping to make a nomination acceptance speech in Milwaukee. Were it up to me, I’d have him talk about this. How much he looked forward to retirement. But how the calling he feels to protect the country from Trump was stronger.
Biden likes telling a story about his dad telling him to get back up after being knocked down. Well, Iowa knocked him down. He can share how it was a gut check moment. The type that makes you wonder if you really want to continue. And in that moment, he was reminded he’s a Biden. His father’s son. His son Beau’s father. He needs to say that every part of his soul, every part of his being knows he needs to keep going, keep fighting, so that Donald Trump can’t ruin the country his son fought for and his dad raised him in.
Amy Klobuchar: When your odds are as bad as Klobuchar’s (1 in 1,000 chance of having a majority of delegates before the convention), any path to the nomination involves jumping over multiple opponents and winning a contested convention. She finished fifth in a caucus held across the border from the one she represents. Her campaign has limited financial resources (like enough to run ads for 10 minutes in California.)
You might wonder why she’s even bothering. Besides not wanting to bail when she only needs to make it an extra week until New Hampshire votes, there’s one more good reason. She almost beat Biden the other day. And some polls have her close to him again here. If she can best the guy who was the mathematical favorite five days ago, that’s a reason to continue.
One. Step. At. A. Time. It’s tempting to want to surpass Biden and Buttigieg and attempt to finish second or third. If that were to happen incidentally, great. But the key is ending Biden. She can’t be viable with him in the race. Klobuchar is pulling nothing with younger voters. Buttigieg and Bloomberg (though not both of them at the same time) have a way to the nomination with Biden still around. She doesn’t.
Her primary focus is contrasting herself with Biden (he’s washed, she’s not.) Secondary is Warren. For those voters who want a female candidate and think more moderate is more electable, she can carve a bit here too. Warren is struggling enough that Klobuchar could almost knock both out, especially if Sanders finishes 20 points ahead of his progressive alternative.
So she can go back to the well on selling her approach as more realistic than Warren’s. But that’s the garnish. The main course is thanking Biden for his service and picking up the torch. It can’t be obvious, like when Eric Swalwell tried this in the first debate. He was smug, and visibly thought he was being clever. Klobuchar needs to talk about how welcoming Biden was when she first got to the Senate. How much she learned from him. How they share similar values in fighting for working people and connecting with rural Americans. How she wants her daughter to look at her the way his kids look at him. Voters will get it. And more importantly, it will give them permission to abandon someone they know has lost his fastball.
Soon enough, we’ll see if any of these candidates try any of these suggestions. And if they seem to work. Let’s just hope it winds up being worth watching.