Democratic debate reflection: each candidate's performance, graded
With the first democratic primary debates behind us, each candidate will be pressing to spin their performance favorably, no matter how middling, lackluster or even self-evidently superb their performance may have been. Now that the campaign is underway and candidates are being scrutinized by voters and moderators alike, I will be sharing my own post-debate takeaways. The ranking system is based on who did the most to improve their chances and — especially for the lesser known candidates — get their name out.
All references to poll numbers used the average polling numbers here at the time of writing — which was the day immediately following each of the debates, respectively. For those interested, this site provides a good running average of where the polls stand at any given time.
Debate Night One
Julian Castro: A-
Julian Castro ended up as the greatest beneficiary of the first debate. His relative obscurity to this point in national polls and limited media coverage alike contrasted with his strong delivery and his willingness to go on the offensive — to raucous applause — when seeing a flaw in an opponent’s answer, which boded well for him. In particular, his exchange with Beto O’Rourke over immigration policy will leave a lasting impression on viewers of the debate. His focused and forceful delivery, highlighting Section 1325 of U.S. immigration law and proposing decriminalizing the act of crossing the border to prevent the separation of children from their parents, was one of the highlights of the entire night.
Bill de Blasio: B+
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, a relatively late entry into the race, was a surprise presence in the limited amount of time he was able to speak — often by interjecting himself uninvited. He approached the issues from an unapologetically left-wing perspective, reminiscent of the energy Bernie Sanders has brought to his presidential campaigns. He reprimanded his fellow candidates for what he termed “equivocations” and dancing around questions, particularly with O’Rourke on both health care and whether the top marginal tax rate should be increased to 70 percent. He had another strong moment on the issue of scapegoating immigrants and blaming them for problems the American people face. The brief impressions he left are likely to be lasting, and due to his total lack of support to this point in the polls, this debate might be an entryway for him to continue on to appear at later debates, where the threshold for qualifying is raised.
Elizabeth Warren: B+
Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who has recently enjoyed a steady surge in the polls and media coverage surrounding her campaign, started off the debate with pointed answers which carried on to the remainder of her appearances on the screen. Many were concerned that the setup of the debates, which separated Warren from her highest-polling competitors, would attract fewer viewers and provide fewer opportunities for Warren to siphon off support from other candidates with more of a foothold in the race. While the impact of the debates’ format remains an open question, Warren did no harm to her chances, instead coming off as a calm, collected, prudent and affectionate candidate as well as showcasing a dizzying array of policies and ideas. Although her speaking was quite effective, her standout moment may well have been a simple hand raise when the candidates were asked by Lester Holt, in an oddly worded way that seemed more like a personal question of preference rather than a question of what their approach will be for health care at a legislative level, “Who here would abolish their private health insurance in favor of a government-run plan? Just a show of hands.”
Cory Booker: B
New Jersey Senator Cory Booker had a solid night as well. His plan seemed to be putting forth a broad progressive vision without much hesitation or tepidity in his presentation. He was given plenty of chances to speak, and rather than struggling to fill that time, he provided plenty of firm, complex answers to difficult questions — insofar as the debate format of short 45- to 60-second answers allowed for that. Some online commentators have even suggested that Booker made a great case for himself as a potential vice-presidential pick, especially given his lower poll numbers. Booker also did particularly well in highlighting the interconnected nature of many issues, suggesting that health care, instead of being a standalone problem, is an educational, economic and retirement issue in that it affects people’s ability to thrive in various aspects of their lives.
John Delaney: B
Businessman and former Representative John Delaney enjoyed a sometimes-ambivalent and other times applause-generating reception from the crowd. If the crowd response and Delaney’s portrayal of himself as more moderate and “pragmatic” without much substantial pushback is anything to go by, he might have successfully differentiated himself while remaining relatively unscathed. Whether there is much of a lane for Delaney in the race with Biden’s presence and Delaney’s low name recognition is a legitimate question; however, he can only stand to gain from his performance.
Tulsi Gabbard: C+
Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard had a relatively slow start to the debate, and only broke with that general trend once or twice. Her direct engagement with Tim Ryan over his slip-up (Ryan incorrectly attributed 9/11 to the Taliban) worked in her favor and may have left a lasting impression. Overall, her lack of speaking time did not give her many more chances to break out, and she had one of the more underwhelming performances. The slight edge over several other performances is a combination of her not having any gaffes and the reports that she was the most searched candidate on Google, which can only go to help a candidate who has nowhere to go but up in the polls and name recognition.
Jay Inslee: C
Washington Governor Jay Inslee, known to many climate activists as one of the strongest candidates in the field on the issue of climate change, struggled to get a word in for much of the debate. Additionally, there was little to no time spent on his marquee issue, which he also struggled to get a memorable word in about. The relatively neutral rating is due to the debate likely not helping but also not harming him, as his profile relative to other candidates is not particularly high. The problem for Inslee was that because he was not able to do much to help himself in this debate, the second debate entrance threshold might be too much to ask.
Amy Klobuchar: C
Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar also had a tough evening, failing to establish a firm presence as a moderate alternative to a party that she believes is being pulled too far left by the current of Bernie Sanders. Her candidacy and messaging in speeches thus far have largely been centered around this message as well as avoiding “pie-in-the-sky” promises that cannot be delivered, but she failed to make a lasting impression as a viable, forceful presence to be reckoned with, something many voters believe will be required for any Democrat challenging Trump next year. She had a few zingers that received considerable applause, but not too much else.
Tim Ryan: C-
Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan started off the night solid, criticizing Democrats for being out of touch with certain segments of the country and being perceived as a party of the coastal elite. This criticism remains resonant within a party which lost many House seats, state legislatures and governorships despite having the Oval Office for eight years under Obama. However, his gaffe in the altercation with Congresswoman Gabbard is likely to limit any of the traction he might otherwise have gained.
Beto O’Rourke: D+
The former Texas congressman and Ted Cruz challenger in the 2018 midterms, Beto O’Rourke, had a difficult night all around. He had plenty of time to speak and delivered an abundance of vapid platitudes, as well as frequently avoiding questions he was asked. The most obvious example of this happened in his first chance to speak when he was asked quite directly whether he would support a top marginal tax rate of 70 percent. Instead, he deferred to explaining how the economy does not work for everyone, and that corporate tax rates should be raised to 28 percent. At no point, even after being offered an additional 10 seconds to give a quick yes or no, did he answer what was asked of him. Later on, when the debate turned to immigration, Julian Castro came out on top when they engaged after his reference to Section 1325. He did not have too many redeeming moments of cogent, pointed answers or confrontations he got the better of. Because he went into the debate with perhaps the second-highest profile of the candidates there, his poor performance means he only stands to lose from the proceedings.
Debate Night Two
Kamala Harris: A
This first debate may well go down as the night where California Senator Kamala Harris emerged as a true contender for the nomination. She was assertive, delivering strong, pointed answers and commanding the stage basically the entire night. Debates, however regrettably, are never won on policy and ideas alone, but have a lot to do with how candidates carry themselves and how they are perceived by the viewers. (For one of the earliest examples of this, one can watch debates between Nixon and Kennedy.) Her willingness to go on the offensive against Biden, the leader in the race, and her success in doing so, proved decisive in the debate. Criticizing Biden both on his comments about segregationist senators and on the issue of busing, Harris received incredibly enthusiastic applause. Overall, Harris’ performance proved far and away the most eye-catching, attention-grabbing and memorable of the lot, and this has been reflected in her post-debate upwards polling bump.
Bernie Sanders: B
Supporters of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders may have been somewhat underwhelmed by what was a repetitive and evasive set of answers he offered. He did not have any gaffes or standout moments where he tripped himself up. However, avoiding (or perhaps forgetting to answer) the first question, on whether the middle class would pay higher taxes to fund some of his signature policies until an additional 10 seconds were provided, meant he got off to a slow start. As the debate progressed, however, he seemed to pick up a head of steam and had two particularly strong moments. One was his drawing a distinction between himself and Joe Biden over Biden’s vote for the Iraq War—which, if one revisits the 2008 race between President Obama and Secretary Clinton, was one of the wedge issues Obama pressed, some would say all the way to victory. Additionally, his closing statement was the most memorable, strongly worded and well-delivered of the bunch. The closing statement, coupled with the fact that many of the ideas that dominated both debates were brought into the national dialogue by Sanders in the 2016 race, is the reason for his somewhat favorable grade. I do not see any scenario where his performance hurts his chances and because he began as one of the favorites, any support he may have picked up will be crucial, especially with Biden struggling.
Pete Buttigieg: B
The mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg, enjoyed a relatively steady, calm and collected performance, making it look quite easy. If not for Harris’ commandeering performance, Buttigieg may well have been the greatest beneficiary of the debate. His firm but polite, authoritative yet welcoming demeanor has worked quite well to get him this far and he can hardly be said to have hurt his candidacy with this performance. Never lacking the words to fit the moment and context, he delivered many memorable vignettes. He largely avoided confrontation with other candidates, with the notable exception being when Eric Swalwell pushed him on his handling of a recent police shooting in South Bend. Swalwell was quite assertive, if not aggressive, in his questioning, offering a scathing line “But you’re the mayor. You should fire the chief if that’s the policy and someone died,” which prompted a visibly upset facial expression from Buttigieg. Nonetheless, the totality of the debate was probably a positive for him.
Michael Bennet: C+
Colorado Senator Michael Bennet had a relatively uneventful night. His answers did not command much attention, except for his direct challenge to Biden about extending the Bush-era tax cuts. His attempts at differentiating himself from Sanders’s Medicare-for-all plan might have highlighted a key policy difference but were largely ineffectual. There was not much from his performance to suggest that he will be one of the candidates that sticks around, but neither was it all bad for Bennet.
Kirsten Gillibrand: C+
New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand had good moments sprinkled throughout the debate, but I believe that her constant attempts to interject — although she was far from the only candidate guilty of this, she was the most persistent and unrelenting throughout the night — will likely not go unnoticed by the audience. There is a delicate balance that one must strike when attempting to interject at certain points in a debate, especially when the goal is to get your name out and raise your profile as a candidate, but I believe Gillibrand was unable to find that balance.
Marianne Williamson: C+
Marianne Williamson certainly earned the right to be called the most out-of-left-field candidate on the stage of either night after her performance on Thursday. If nothing else, being different in such a crowded field only stands to help her. Add on top of that the fact that she basically became an overnight viral meme and you end up with a somewhat successful debate — at least if the old adage that all publicity is good publicity holds true. In particular, her challenge to President Trump, claiming that she would "harness love" to defeat Trump's political use of "fear," earned considerable applause and was a strong moment for her.
Andrew Yang: C
Entrepreneur Andrew Yang, who has enjoyed a sort of cult-like following online, spoke the least of any candidate both nights. When he did speak, his impact was minimal, but his online presence remains strong. It is likely that Yang only stands to gain from being in a nationally televised event such as this one, whereas his main support base seems to spend far more time online than watching cable TV.
Eric Swalwell: C
It was an eventful, if not positive night, for Representative Eric Swalwell. He tried to interject himself into the conversation many times, succeeding in some and failing in others. He attempted to use “pass the torch,” a Biden quote from the California Democratic Convention 32 years ago, to highlight the age discrepancy between them — but this drew what sounded like boos from the audience and a smile from Biden, who seemed at ease in the moment. It seems that Swalwell would like to pursue the lane Buttigieg has opened for himself in recent months of being the young new fresh face of the party, but that lane seems occupied by one of the top five contenders, and Swalwell’s performance did nothing to improve his numbers in post-debate polls.
John Hickenlooper: C-
Former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper appears to have made the entire point of his campaign to make sure that people know he is not a socialist, and he thinks the Democratic party should do the same. Needless to say, this line can get a little bit old and repetitive after hearing it more than a handful of times, which he easily eclipsed in the roughly five minutes of speaking time he had. It seems that Hickenlooper has made it his goal to do the work of the Republicans for them, as his attacks echo Trump saying at the State of the Union that the U.S. will never be a socialist country. Apart from the fact that Republicans called President Obama a socialist in both 2008 and 2012 to no avail, endless harping on opposing socialism seems to only alienate a section of the base which would, in fact, like to see more things like health care and paid family leave available to its citizens, whether the proposals are labelled socialist or not. Plus, being anti anything is actually not a policy prescription, nor is it a solution to anyone’s problems.
Joe Biden: C-
Former Vice President Joe Biden came into the night with a healthy lead in the polls, perhaps suggesting that he was the one with the most to lose and entering with a target on his back. This proved true throughout the course of the debate, as it was he who was fielding questioning from opponents more often than not (Sanders excluded). The exchange with Senator Harris was the most effective attack against Biden on the night. There were many moments when Biden looked to be somewhat confused or forgetful, and he did not seem as vibrant as successful candidates usually are. While there were other, more ineffective attempts to go at him — Swalwell’s “pass the torch” line comes to mind — on the whole, it was not a good night for the former vice president.
With the debates behind us, the real work and management of the fallout from each campaign respectively begins. With the DNC planning to raise the entry requirements for the next debate, we should expect some candidates to not qualify, if not drop out altogether. As the race dwindles down to the top contenders, the few percentage points of those candidates at the margins might well prove crucial in putting one candidate over the top, to win a plurality of the vote — assuming that with four if not five major contenders, an outright majority will be difficult if not impossible to achieve. Expect Sanders, Biden, Harris, Warren and perhaps Buttigieg to have staying power in this race.