The second night had former Vice President Joe Biden and California Senator Kamala Harris as the headliners, with most viewers wondering whether or not there would be a repeat of their explosive exchange in the first debate. Ultimately, neither candidate landed a significant blow, as the night instead saw many others targeting Biden on stage, testing his composure and presence, which were called into question after last month’s debate.

As with the first night, I will grade how much the candidates’ performances contributed to their campaigns.


Andrew Yang: B+

Oftentimes the fallout of a debate depends heavily on the comparison between the pre-debate expectations of what will take place and the reality of what actually takes place. Because of a particularly underwhelming performance at his first debate, Andrew Yang had relatively low expectations from viewers, if they even knew who he was to begin with. Contrast this expectation with his effective, punchy and crisp answers, clearly showing that he has upped his game. Now, you have a recipe for success. Yang, being one of the candidates on the cusp of qualifying for the next debate, is likely to be around for a while longer. 

His marquee policy of Universal Basic Income got a proper hearing at this debate, as well as the other astute points he brought forth. He made connections between issues that are often not seen at debates — as short punchy soundbites are generally the go-to strategy to gain traction. He earned a lot of applause for saying that immigrants are scapegoated for problems which are in no way their fault. He mentioned how he supports Medicare-for-All because it is something that will take the burden off of small businesses and allow them to treat their employees better, either through wage increases or giving them more time and energy to attend to their needs. He talked about how his wife is a stay-at-home mom whose work is not considered valuable in today’s United States economy, which was a strong point, as was the comparison between the way debates are conducted and reality TV shows, saying this was one of the reasons Trump was elected. All in all, this was the better of the two debates for him, and he made big strides in many aspects of his presentation, message delivery and his ability to exude confidence.

Cory Booker: B

New Jersey Senator Cory Booker had a good night as well, with some dubbing him the “happy warrior” of the debate. He almost always had a smile on his face and an energetic demeanor, even when he was pressing other candidates on certain issues. Booker provided a few quotable lines, such as when he told Biden that he was sipping the kool-aid but did not even know the flavor, or when he said that Biden invokes former President Barack Obama when it helps him but backs away from doing so when it does not. An example is the Obama administration’s policies on deportations, which do not play as well as they used to in a field leaning to the left. Overall, Booker had a solid performance for the second debate in a row and has qualified for the debate in September.

Julian Castro: B

Former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Castro continues to make immigration his central issue, and it seems to be playing well for him in the Democratic primary. However, there has been plenty of criticism from more conservative outlets that have suggested his approach to this issue plays so badly that it would be a main reason why Democrats lose in November 2020. The talking point of “open borders” came up again at this debate, which will surely humor Trump. He suggested that Democrats should lead on this issue and that he is the one to do it, and prodded Biden by suggesting that he has not learned the lessons of the past. Castro generally gives off an aura of being an adept and measured politician who is in control, as was the case in this debate as well.

Tulsi Gabbard: B-

Hawaii Representative Gabbard had a better night than that of the first debate, going on the offensive in an effort to carve out a breakout moment for her campaign. In what seemed like a deliberate and calculated political decision, she went hard after Harris, while at times even defending Biden instead of attacking him. Her brutal rundown of a list of questionable actions by Harris as prosecutor jolted the audience, and the fact that Harris had little to say in response, or in terms of denying or reframing one of the accusations, meant Gabbard landed a clean blow. Additionally, she managed to somehow be the most Googled candidate for the second debate running that she appeared in. However, whether or not this will be enough for her to qualify for the September debate is yet to be seen. Nonetheless, she did decently well for herself, and if nothing else, she seemed to effectively bring the Harris campaign down a peg.

Joe Biden: C+

Former Vice President Biden had a lot to prove going into this debate after many voiced concerns over Harris’ lambasting of his record at the last debate and that he came off as ill-prepared and not mentally agile enough to take on Trump in a general election. After all, it has largely been the public’s perception of his electability that has kept him head-and-shoulders above the field in this race. With almost everybody on the stage seeming to be endlessly trying to take down Biden that night, he managed to stand relatively firm compared to his first debate performance. Although he still had some rough moments sprinkled throughout the debate, Biden seemed to emphasise exuding more energy, speaking more vigorously and being more pointed in his responses. 

Due to his commanding lead in many polls, this debate is unlikely to help his chances, but it is also unlikely to hurt them too much, hence the neutral to middling grade. His night could have been even better without the several gaffes, such as accidentally calling Cory Booker president, then correcting himself to “future president”; saying that four more years of Trump would be an aberration, but eight more years could fundamentally change this country; and using his closing statement to direct viewers to “Joe 30330” instead of telling them to text 30330 or to go to Overall, it was nothing to lose sleep over for the Biden campaign, as some of the fears after the first debate seemed to be quelled, although questions of his mental agility and age continue to linger as some mild gaffes continue to appear in his speaking.

Jay Inslee: C+

Washington Governor Inslee, who has made climate change the cornerstone of his campaign, landed some decent talking points on his signature issue, but overall failed to impress enough to really shake things up. He went after Biden for taking half-measures and not being bold enough for the seriousness and urgency that climate change requires, thus landing an important line on his signature issue. He also drew distinction again with Biden on the Iraq War, pointing out that he was against it from the start, unlike Biden. But his relatively short total speaking time, coupled with few noteworthy moments, means this might be the end of the road for Inslee’s largely single-issue campaign.

Michael Bennet: C+

Colorado Senator Bennet had an okay showing, but likely needs much more to hurdle his campaign into the next debates. He tried to attack Sanders, Warren and Harris for having healthcare plans that outlaw private insurance, as if there are no differences between what the three are proposing. His attacks might have had some sting to them this time around, but nothing noteworthy enough to claim as a win, especially when he referenced Biden’s objections in his challenge to the policy. He had a pretty good closing statement as well, but this debate will probably be his last.

Kirsten Gillibrand: C+

New York Senator Gillibrand was eager to get off the blocks early at the first debate, and with qualification restrictions tightening, seemed likely to employ a similar approach a second time around. She had some decent lines and interesting appeals, but her more canned lines seemed to largely fall flat, such as when she went after Biden about comments he made about working moms in a several decades old op-ed. Biden responded by saying that he thought they were friends, and remarked that the only reason he can see for the disconnect is that she is now running for president. He pointed out that Gillibrand came with him to Syracuse, New York to an event where she said that Biden was passionate about making sure women were treated equally, and if the reaction of the crowd to this response is anything to go by, he seemed to even get the better of the exchange, rather than it ending in a stalemate. Gillibrand did all right for herself, but did not blow expectations out of the water, either.

Kamala Harris: C

Many eyes were watching with great interest what Harris and Biden would do in their second night on stage together. For the most part, it seemed that Harris was more passive, reserved and even largely withdrawn from the back-and-forth between the candidates. Whether this was a purposeful strategy or just an off night makes for interesting speculation, as there were some who suggested that her attack on Biden at the first debate might not have played as well as previously believed, as evidenced by both the media and social media reaction to the altercation.

On top of the generally uneventful performance, Gabbard’s line of questioning ended up as one of the most memorable moments of the night, with Harris scrambling to downplay it both during and after the debate, all to no avail. While by no means a campaign-ending blow, her prosecutorial record is, without a doubt, something that Harris must find a compelling way to defend, because it is sure to continue coming up as long as she is in the race. She will look to rebound at the next debate, but will be frustrated that there is still a month and a half until then.

Bill de Blasio: C-

New York City Mayor de Blasio did not enjoy the same amount of success and applause for his words as he did at the first debate. In what seemed to be a plan to position himself as an attack dog of the more left-leaning elements in the party, de Blasio came right out of the gates hurling accusations and questions toward Biden and Harris. To their relief, many of the attempts did not materialize as de Blasio had planned, and his lines, in general, did not garner the response they did at the first debate. Additionally, the protesters who were yelling at de Blasio to “fire Pantaleo,” the New York Police Department officer involved in the death of Eric Garner, was a terrible moment for him. Not only did he not have an adequate answer to their grievances, but seemed taken aback by the line of questioning. De Blasio was always likely to struggle to go far in this primary, and qualifying for the next debate may prove to be out of reach for him.