Debate Recap: Five Answers

Before the debate, I asked five questions. Here are the five answers:

#1 No, Biden wasn’t a deer in the headlights

He wasn’t good. He wasn’t frequently coherent. Most of his statistics were wrong. If you weren’t for Biden before the debate began, you aren’t for him now. But the looks of confusion that plagued him in the first debate and the CNN climate change event weren’t there.

It’s hard to see how he lost many votes. He aggressively challenged Sanders and Warren to explain how they’re paying for Medicare for All. Julian Castro attempted to call Biden out for not remembering what he’d said two minutes before. Not only did Castro look mean, but when they went to the postgame replay, it turns out Biden’s memory was better than Castro’s hearing.

#2 No, Warren was not ruffled

Biden was the only candidate to go after Warren, and in terms of present verbal skill, that’s like a mouse attacking an elephant. She sailed through the evening mostly unscathed. Nothing happened to harm her top tier status.

I don’t think she gained anything though. And for reasons that mystify me, she’s completely unwilling to directly answer questions about the tax impact of her health care proposals on middle class voters.

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Debate Prep: Five Questions

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:

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Home Safe Home?

Elizabeth Warren is good shape. Betting markets think she’s the most likely nominee. More Democratic voters are considering her than any other candidate. She’s in the top three in every national survey from August or September that Real Clear Politics lists.

Warren posted strong second quarter fundraising numbers without doing any big donor events. She performed well in both sanctioned debates, plus the CNN town hall on climate change. Her ground team is widely considered the best of any candidate.

The mainstream media is treating her well. She has the most clearly positive polling trend of any candidate. Bernie Sanders turned 78 yesterday. Joe Biden reminds commentators and voters of his age with every other utterance. Warren looks like a spring chicken by comparison, and tends to run on stage during her events to reinforce it.

She’d be the most liberal/progressive nominee since 1972, maybe ever. But that’s where a lot of the Democratic electorate is right now. Even a third of Biden supporters are considering Warren. So are forty percent of Sanders supporters. The math says she can consolidate enough of the party to get nominated. No statistical contortions required.

Is there a catch?

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Berning the Skeptics

I wasn’t a believer either. The 2016 version of Bernie Sanders followed an insurgent model that doesn’t play well as an encore. If you’ve ever seen Hangover 2, you know a sequel with the same plot as the original falls flat. Sure, he had a base of true believers, but many of his primary voters were protesting Hillary Clinton.

There were so many more choices this time. Then Elizabeth Warren took off. An early July national poll from The Economist/YouGov had Bernie at 9%. It was a bit of an outlier, but still. We’re talking about the runner-up from last time, with almost 100% name recognition.

His remaining supporters were paying less attention to the campaign than any other candidate’s. Many surmised all but the most dedicated Berners would abandon him as soon as they woke up from their political hibernation. Conversation was more about how much of a spoiler he would be if he stayed in after losing early primaries. Would this cost Warren her nomination?

A funny thing happened on the way to oblivion. Check out his numbers in the new early state polls from CBS/YouGov:

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Biden Doesn’t Need Iowa. Warren Does.

The Biden campaign is downplaying the necessity of winning Iowa. The media is treating this as an early surrender, a sign of weakness. We’ll save the efficacy of Biden campaign strategy and strategic leaking for another day.

Today I’m here to agree with Team Biden. He doesn’t need to win Iowa. Elizabeth Warren does.

Sorry about the whiplash. If you read yesterday’s post, it’s possible to reach the conclusion I think Joe Biden’s candidacy is on the ropes. It’s not. Just because I’m positive he doesn’t have the communication skills to effectively govern the country until January 2025 doesn’t mean voters won’t let him try.

Betting markets are listing Warren as the most likely Democratic nominee. That’s based partly on her skill as a candidate, reinforced by her town hall performance Wednesday. It’s also based on a faulty reading of the early voting calendar.

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Sound Check

Yesterday, your intrepid correspondent forced himself to watch all ten candidates at the CNN Climate Crisis Town Hall. This does not mean I watched all 40 minutes of each. Not even close. A minimum of 7 to 10 minutes, sometimes a lot more.

With no candidates directly facing off, this wasn’t like a debate. But it was a great way to do a sound check. They all had the same amount of time. They all took a couple moderator questions and some from the audience. No artificial restrictions on how long they could take to answer.

Each participating candidate joined the nomination contest more than a few months ago. There are no excuses for not having a message locked in. The rust should be scraped away. I wasn’t expecting perfection, but did assume basic competence, and figured to see improvement from the less experienced national candidates.

Here are my rankings, based on how excited their campaign team should be about how their horse looked, and what it portends going forward:

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This is Still a 12 Pack

Tonight, CNN is subjecting the world to seven hours of town hall programming, featuring the Democratic presidential field. Each of the 10 approved contestants have 40 minutes or so to field questions about climate change from audience members and assorted CNN moderators.

With Dorian doing his worst as he works his way up the Atlantic Coast, the topic is extra timely. For those who don’t have the desire or capability to view all or most of the festivities, sound bites will circulate for the next couple of days, along with punditry galore.

This should fill the rest of the week. By next week, it’s time to think about the debate, which is next Thursday in Houston. These two events will take up most of the oxygen on the Democratic side for the first half of the month.

The same ten candidates are invited to each. Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg, Cory Booker, Andrew Yang, Beto O’Rourke, Julian Castro, and Amy Klobuchar. This isn’t an accident.

DNC rules are responsible for the regular debate qualifiers. The national committee is also opposed to any non-sanctioned debates. That’s why the CNN Climate Change Town Hall isn’t a debate on climate change, as suggested by Jay Inslee, back when he still existed.

Other codicils, fine print, and poison pills made it impossible for CNN to invite anyone to their event that didn’t qualify for the official debate. Originally, Harris wasn’t going to participate in the town hall. Then her team decided blowing off the climate event to appear at high-end fundraisers might not be the best optics.

It’s easy to reach the conclusion only these ten candidates matter. Nobody else will get any national bandwidth anytime soon. With the race having a clear polling front-runner, a clear top three, and only five candidates consistently polling around or above five percent, it feels like ten candidates is still too many, not too few.

Almost all of the polls released in the past few weeks are national. No other candidate is consistently pulling more than 1%. If they were, they’d have qualified for the debates and town hall.

But this hides what’s happening in the early voting states. Morning Consult recently released a survey. In addition to national numbers, they broke out combined results for Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina.

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In Case of Emergency, Break Glass

Let’s talk about Cory Booker. Someone needs to. His campaign is lonely. There’s the front-runner, Joe Biden. And the Big Three, which brings Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders in. Also the Top Five, including Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg, both of whom were previously closer to the leaders than they are now.

Booker is not included in those gatherings. We also have the candidates that just aren’t going to make it. I left him out there too. Where does he fit? What would it take for him to level up? Is it even worth discussing him? Here are some arguments:

Ignore Him: His fundraising is weak

He grabbed $4.5 million in the second quarter. He’s a bit over $12 million overall. It’s not nothing, but well less than Harris ($25 million total.) Buttigieg, Biden, and Sanders cleared $20 million just in the second quarter. Warren got close and has tons of fundraising momentum.

His burn rate is higher than the Top Five. 60% of his money came from donors giving at least $200. We’ve learned from the past few cycles that candidates who pull more from smaller donors have more upside. Partly because they won’t max out. Partly because it indicates a broader base.

The voting calendar gets busy quickly. Super Tuesday, including expensive places like California, is March 3. That’s only a month after Iowa caucuses. And California begins early voting the same day Iowa kicks off the process.

How is an underfunded candidate going to scale quickly enough?

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Who’s Out Next?

We know who the Big Three are. Joe Biden continues to defy expectations of his collapse. Elizabeth Warren strengthens her position daily. Bernie Sanders isn’t going away. I still owe you more detailed breakdowns on their chances.

Bernie still has a tougher path than the other two, but he’s virtually guaranteed to stick around most, if not all the way to the convention. We can’t say that about the next 17 candidates.

In reverse order of what they can gain, here’s where the rest of the field stands:

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Requiem for a Candidate: Kirsten Gillibrand

In the early-mid 1960s, Atlanta was still very much segregated. In 1973, Atlanta elected a black mayor. His name is on the airport now. Things move fast sometimes. And you don’t always realize a barrier has fallen until so many have run past it that in retrospect it seems inevitable.

A bunch of small, halting, irregular steps. And then one day, the Berlin Wall is down. The same thing recently happened with female presidential candidates. Kirsten Gillibrand’s failure is the proof.

Margaret Chase Smith became the first woman to have her name formally entered into nomination at the 1964 GOP convention. She ran in several primaries, but only got more than 3% once. This wasn’t a vanity candidacy. Smith got elected to Congress in 1940, the Senate in 1948, and was a military/national security expert.

Shirley Chisholm was next. The two-term congresswoman from Brooklyn competed in the 1972 Democratic contest, becoming the first African American candidate of any gender, along with the first woman in her party.

Her results were similar to Smith’s. With more primaries available, she got more opportunities, but didn’t reach double digits in any of them. Still, it was another step forward. In addition to being a female pioneer, Chisholm blazed a trail that led to Jesse Jackson, and eventually Barack Obama.

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