Debate Recap: (Night One) By the Book

When the history of the 2020 campaign is told, the first Democratic debate won’t take up much time. There were no stunning gaffes. No punchlines pundits will repeat for a generation. A solid effort for most though, and reason for Democrats to feel good about their choices, especially with several prominent candidates waiting to make their debut tomorrow.

Here’s how they finished:

Moved Up:

Julian Castro, Cory Booker, Tulsi Gabbard, Bill deBlasio

He’s not particularly likeable. He’s not particularly popular in the city he runs. He doesn’t check any of the identity boxes that would give him a natural constituency. He’s very progressive, but nobody is getting to the left of Bernie Sanders. The debate began with zero reason for Bill deBlasio to exist in this contest.

While it’s not yet necessary, he showed he at least belongs on the stage for another round. Interrupting in debates is a necessary skill for all but the strongest of front-runners. You need to interject quickly and strongly, cutting off the moderator and/or opponent. If you try to interrupt, you need to succeed. If you sound like a 9-year-old kid hoping the teacher picks him to answer, you look weak.

At best, deBlasio is now a third tier candidate. He’s a first tier interrupter. And I say this with the greatest of respect. His performance here should ensure he qualifies for the July event. Some more quality interjecting and he’ll have a shot at reaching 2% in 4 national or early state polls, along with 135,000 unique donors so that he can participate in the fall battles.

Tulsi Gabbard sounded crisp. This is an underrated thing. Candidates get 60 seconds to speak in these scrums. Many try to pack 3 minutes of information in. Others fail to have a beginning, middle, and end to their comments. Frequently, a debater decides to spend half their time answering a previous question they were skipped on.

She didn’t rush. She didn’t try to say too much. She didn’t avoid in a ridiculous way. She spent a lot of her time on her signature issue of wanting to move military spending to other uses and end several deployments.

Viewers saw someone who was distinct enough from the other candidates. Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight pointed out she led the field in search traffic during the debate, narrowly ahead of Booker. Given where she began the day, a “hey, who’s this” from the public is a win.

Speaking of Booker, he spoke the most. FiveThirtyEight tracked this. The Senator got 2181 words in. The quantity was matched with pretty good quality. He managed to talk about racial issues in a personal way, without undue pandering. Looked forward more than backward.

He already got a bit of extra media attention last week regarding Biden’s comments. This will give him a little extra push. Booker is just a couple more good weeks away from being the Media Flavor of the Month.

If Booker isn’t the biggest winner of the evening, it’s Castro. To begin with, he’s getting a lot of early mentions as a winner. More people watch or hear commentary after a debate than actually see or hear the debate itself. If he’s declared a winner then his perception changes.

Given the importance of identity politics in the current Democratic Party, it seems implausible there wasn’t more excitement about the lone Latino candidate. After all, the GOP put both Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz up last time, with one finishing 4th and the other 2nd.

He still has a really long way to go, but his odds of jumping to a solid 4-5% in the polls, and pulling enough unique donors to make sure he qualifies for fall debates just increased tremendously. As much fun as a giant leap is, a candidate who can move up one rung at a time for the next several months is in a good position to compete.

That I’m thinking about possible paths for him to get nominated, however questionable they may be, is a very good indicator of how well this turned out for him.

Fell Back:

Beto O’Rourke, Amy Klobuchar, Jay Inslee, John Delaney

Neither Inslee or Delaney solved the “why is this individual’s presence in the contest necessary” question. Castro was strong on immigration and the benefit of having a Latino candidate. Gabbard made a case for considering a veteran. Inslee was supposed to show up as Captain Climate Change, but instead he wasn’t particularly focused on his main issue.

Perhaps if he’d had a Republican candidate to joust with he could have picked a good fight, but in this group, it was all kinda meh.

Meanwhile, if Delaney wants to get elected to something, his platform and delivery is perfect as the sort of moderate GOP candidate who wins governor races in the northeast. He could be the next Charlie Baker or Larry Hogan. But Democratic primary voters aren’t buying what he’s selling.

Klobuchar made it clear she’s not as liberal/progressive as most of the other candidates. Zero excitement though. Midwestern moderation in tone sounds like a good idea. In practice, Tim Pawlenty (Class of 2012 GOP) and Scott Walker (Class of 2016 GOP) can tell you it leads to dropping out of the race the fall before voting begins.

She needed a good performance as much as anyone on the stage and didn’t stand out at all. If you’re not a front-runner and aren’t moving forward, you’re moving backward. A malady Klobuchar, Inslee, and Delaney will each wake up with.

Not Beto. He actually went backward during the debate. There weren’t any terrible moments. But he said nothing compelling the whole time. There were no issues or concepts he owned. The shallowness concern was verified.

Particularly when Castro took him to task on details of immigration policy. Before Beto is imaginable as a real threat, he would need to separate himself from Booker, Castro and Pete Buttigieg. The shooting in Indiana leaves Mayor Pete in a precarious position heading into the debate tomorrow. Beto had an opportunity to make an impression with his voters. That didn’t happen.

He needed to remain clearly a step ahead of Castro among Texan candidates who don’t want to challenge John Cornyn’s Senate seat. If anything he’s now trailing Castro. He needed to look clearly stronger than Booker to make himself a prime alternative for those who want a candidate under 70 with potential appeal to voters of color besides Kamala Harris.

Nope. Since the time he entered, Beto has run consistently ahead of Booker. Expect this to change as soon as the next batch of polls are out. He’ll qualify for the next debate and has a chance to reverse this before he needs to drop out, but thinking about when he might drop out is the definition of a bad outcome.

Stayed in Place:

Elizabeth Warren, Tim Ryan

Staying in place doesn’t mean the same for both. Warren entered the debate surging in the polls. She’s no worse than 3rd place nationwide, and is beginning to place second in some surveys. She was by far the leading candidate on the stage tonight. And she may have won the debate on points.

With her four closest competitors not arriving until tomorrow, her opportunity to move up was limited. However, she could have hurt her position. Or one of the other candidates could have visibly outshone her. Didn’t happen. All clear. Full speed ahead. And every expectation that she’s more than ready to face more direct competition if the draw is more even in July.

Tim Ryan did the Rust Belt thing. He mentioned Youngstown, OH. Flint, MI. Working, or working-class Americans every three words. He stayed resolutely on message. Several others mentioned blue collar workers. Talked about jobs their dads did. But he sold it all the way through.

Beyond remembering it was Al Qaeda, not the Taliban that flew the planes into buildings on 9/11, there isn’t much else he could have done. But Joe Biden still exists. And as long as he exists another few months, Tim Ryan will no longer exist as a Democratic presidential candidate. It’s hard to see him picking up 135,000 contributors in time for the fall debates.

Post-Debate Tiers

First Tier: Elizabeth Warren (unchanged)

Second Tier: Cory Booker (now more solidly here), Julian Castro (up from Tier 3)

Purgatory: Amy Klobuchar (down from Tier 2), Tulsi Gabbard (up from Tier 3)

Third Tier: Bill deBlasio (up from Tier 4)

Fourth Tier: Tim Ryan (almost made it to Tier 3), John Delaney (unchanged), Jay Inslee (down from Tier 3)

Debate Prep (Night One): Standing Room Only

Welcome to the logical conclusion of what George McGovern wrought. This is the thirteenth presidential cycle since the Democratic Party changed their nomination rules for 1972 and upended how presidential candidates are chosen by their parties.

In 1968, Hubert Humphrey controversially won the Democratic nomination without competing in a single contest prior to the convention. McGovern led the committee that re-wrote the rules to ensure voters could and would always weigh in.

Understanding his own rules better than his competitors, he won a close nomination contest, defeating Humphrey and several others. At that point, this meant competing in all of the available caucuses and primaries, and taking Iowa seriously.

Jimmy Carter began his 1976 campaign in January 1975, way earlier than anyone else had ever officially launched. McGovern was an underdog, but Carter was virtually unknown. Laser focused on Iowa, “Jimmy Who” finished first and began winning other contests before a few of his more heralded competitors even entered.

This was the last time any serious candidate attempted entering the nomination race after voting began. And Carter inspired an endless stream of little known to completely unknown candidates who camped out in Iowa with the hopes of repeating his miracle.

While nobody has repeated the exact feat, George Bush the Elder and Younger owe their presidencies to the 1980 Iowa Caucuses. After becoming an honorary Hawkeye, Bush upset front-runner Ronald Reagan, winning the caucus. While Reagan recovered in New Hampshire and swept to the nomination, Bush wound up as Veep. Next thing you know, 41 and 43 were a thing.

Now, nobody blinks when a candidate declares for the presidency a full year or more before Iowa votes. With earlier announcements, earlier debates followed. What used to begin in the fall before voting now starts at the beginning of summer.

While candidates made sure to declare before voting, they were continuing to enter the race after debates began. That practice may have ended permanently with Rick Perry in 2012. Slightly late to the show, having missed the first debate, he stumbled through the second, forgot the name of a cabinet agency he wanted to eliminate in the third, and his career never fully recovered.

Department of Irony: He’s currently serving as cabinet secretary for the very entity he couldn’t remember.

Continue reading “Debate Prep (Night One): Standing Room Only”

Home Sour Home (Part 2)

And we’re back. In Part 1, we talked about Elizabeth Warren’s challenges at home in Massachusetts, and by extension, New Hampshire. Of all candidates showing the vaguest of pulse, only Warren and Kamala Harris have a clear issue protecting their home state.

The others are either beyond safe (Biden & Bernie), likely safe as long as they’re otherwise viable (Beto), probably safe until proven otherwise (Buttigieg), or needing to worry about getting to the point where this is something to worry about (everyone else).

If you’ll permit me to make a cross-party comparison, Kamala is showing signs of being the Democrats’ version of Marco Rubio. Like Marco, she’s a first term senator, one who is widely acceptable to primary voters, without being the first choice of very many.

She was considered a top-tier candidate from the moment she made her announcement, in part because said announcement was predicted from the moment she won her seat.

Like Rubio, she has a completely legit campaign organization, and will be at least competitive on the funding side, if probably not the money leader. She’s similarly appealing due to youth and demographics. Marco was actually young, Kamala is young by comparison to Biden, Sanders & Warren.

Many Democrats figure a youngish woman of color is the perfect choice to turn out voters who stayed home on 11/8/16. Very similar to how Rubio was supposed to help the GOP break free of their reliance on older white voters.

As we know, things went in exactly the opposite direction. And the current polling leader, Biden, is effectively the inverse of Harris. Kamala’s mission is to avoid Marco’s fate.

Continue reading “Home Sour Home (Part 2)”

Home Sour Home (Part 1)

It helps to win Iowa. It’s great to win New Hampshire. Winning South Carolina is often decisive. You know what’s an absolute must?

Winning your home state.

Since the modern primary system began in 1972, no candidate lost their home state and then won the nomination. It’s a bad sign if it’s even close.

In 2016, losing Florida caused Marco Rubio to leave the race. Polls in late 2015 showed Donald Trump leading both Rubio and Jeb Bush, often combined, a clear signal that two of the early favorites were in more trouble than their campaigns were willing to admit.

Joe Biden is going to win Delaware by eleventy billion percent. This will happen even if he drops out of the race before his home state votes. Vermont always feels the Bern.

Beto O’Rourke slipped noticeably nationwide in the last quarter. He’s down to 3.6% in the Real Clear Politics average of polls, from a high near 10% when he joined the race.

But Texas is supporting their almost-was-a-Senator. He’s averaging 15.5% in the two surveys taken in the last few weeks. This puts him second behind Biden, more than four times as popular as he is away from home.

In any scenario where Beto is remotely competitive in Iowa and New Hampshire, he wins Texas. When he was sitting at 6% nationally in late April, he pulled 22% at home, one point less than Uncle Joe.

We don’t have any numbers yet on Pete Buttigieg in Indiana. I’m very curious to see how he does. If he’s trailing Biden by 5 to 8 points, no big deal, but he should be ahead of the rest.

Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, and the litany of others are both lacking polls in their home state, and doing poorly enough nationally that some skepticism at home wouldn’t mean much yet.

Julian Castro’s lower tier status is reinforced by his 3.5% placement in Texas. Perhaps he’s hampered by having served as Mayor of San Antonio instead of having campaigned statewide. Maybe he won’t be taken seriously by Texans until he is by the rest of the country. Or he’s just less popular than Beto. Regardless, he’s got work to do.

We’ve skipped two leading contenders.

Continue reading “Home Sour Home (Part 1)”

Why the World Needs Another Political Blog

Every four years, I start this same quest. To write about the upcoming presidential election as clearly and objectively as possible, offering analysis and thoughts that aren’t published anywhere else yet.

Basically, the ultimate fool’s errand. Clarity is difficult. Objectivity virtually impossible. And what are the odds of saying truly new things?

Each presidential cycle, one or more candidates (looking at you Mayor Pete) say this is the most consequential election in recent history. And one of these times, they’re gonna be right. So if they can say this is that one crucial election, I can say this is the one blog we’ve been waiting for. The one that changes how we look at elections.

Also, I’m making progress. In 2012 I gave up after the Florida primary. In 2016, I threw in the towel during the GOP convention. At this rate of improvement, it’s a solid 50/50 I last until Election Day.

So welcome to the team! Like your favorite candidate, there’s no telling how long this will last or how well it will turn out, but I do have favorite things to talk about:

Polls. They’re fun. Also, combined with other analysis, they’re way more informative than given credit for. You’ll see a lot of posts that have something to do with polling.

Debates. Always a big deal in an open primary. Likely a bigger deal with 20+ candidates. I can’t resist writing previews, recaps, strategy memos, and all kinds of pontificating about why Candidate X must say Y or face extinction.

Primaries. We’ll track Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina individually. Plus the various Super Tuesdays. Each cycle has a couple of turning points. Maybe we can anticipate them early.

History. There’s a limited sample size in presidential elections. It’s not like we’ve done this 10,000 times. The modern primary system only dates to 1972. Still, there are various clues we can find in the recent past that relate to the present.

Data. Polls are a form of data, but nowhere near the only kind. If there are numbers to play with that give us something to look for or at, it’s worth discussing.

I have my candidate preferences. They sometimes change, but they always exist. If I do my job correctly, you won’t be sure what they are. When I talk about what a candidate should do next, that’s separate from whether I hope they actually do it. I’ll try to point out my biases as best I can.

Within a week or two, I’ll be posting at least once a day. Until then, I’m aiming to get a couple posts up before the Democratic debates kick off the next phase of the race.

Talk to you soon!