Third Democratic primary debate recap and rankings
The third Democratic debate was scheduled for after Labor Day, a time many consider to be an inflection point in attention paid to the race. It was the first single-night debate, with all the candidates congregating on stage to dance to the tune of the moderators’ questions and crowd reactions.
The debate was relatively uneventful and did not have clear “winners,” although some did better than others. The emerging consensus of a consolidated field, where only Biden, Warren or Sanders seem viable, is unlikely to be changed by this debate. Nonetheless, I will be grading the candidates based on how much they helped their chances.
Cory Booker: B
Senator Booker continued his jolly, do-gooder approach to the debates, which, despite good reviews, has not moved the needle for him. From his answers suggesting many Americans are in a crisis with regards to health care, as well as saying that guns should require licenses to operate, Booker had an array of responses framed as bold and progressive yet practical. His answer to the question about the ethics of veganism in the wake of the Amazon fires in Brazil was interesting, in that he did not take it in the direction of his own vegan diet, but instead made a compelling point about the destructive impact of factory farming in particular, and corporate consolidation of food production in general.
Bernie Sanders: B
Senator Sanders has an unflinchingly relentless, focused demeanor whether he is on the debate stage, campaign trail, or doing media interviews. Often this dynamic raises questions as to whether focusing on a central set of policies and big ideas limits his appeal. All his greatest hits received a full-throated defense, and the contrasts drawn on health care and the Iraq War with Biden were good moments for him. Sanders’ performance was solid and firm but unspectacular and unlikely to change the minds of many voters, most of whom are familiar with him by now.
Andrew Yang: B
Businessman Yang has enjoyed a surprising rise, going from complete obscurity to sixth place in the Real Clear Politics average of polls. His answer on immigration, tying his own story to that of the American Dream, was an impactful line. This, coupled with his unique yet laughed-at idea of “Democracy Dollars”— $100 given to each citizen solely for the purpose of donating to any candidate — were solid moments for him. It would not be a Yang appearance without the mention of Universal Basic Income, which came up throughout the debate. Yang is proving to be a candidate with more staying power than at least half of the remaining field, who only seem to be further marginalized as time passes.
Elizabeth Warren: B-
Senator Warren came into the night surging, both in polls, where she has caught Sanders, and in media attention. The debate was almost set up to be a battle between the two frontrunners, with much talk of Warren and Biden being on stage together for the first time. Warren, having set the bar quite high at her first two performances, was relatively subdued in comparison. Her best moment was the distinction on health care with Biden, although he fought back well. This, coupled with the fact that she seemed to all but disappear— along with Sanders and Biden— for a long stretch in the middle of the night, made this debate performance ineffectual compared to the first two. The high expectations, if in fact the case, may limit potential for growth from this debate.
Joe Biden: B-
Former Vice President Biden came out determined not to be pushed around by the candidates by his side, looking to draw from his support as the frontrunner. He was effective in the early stages, providing a resolute alternative to Warren and Sanders on either side of him. As the night wore on, Biden was less energetic and combative, which inhibited his performance. Far from disappointing, though with the customary gaffe or two, such as his answer on race and reparations, Biden had a decent showing, perhaps even his best yet. Hitherto, his campaign strategy of supporter retention and damage limitation continues largely unscathed.
Beto O’Rourke; B-
Former Congressman O’Rourke, who relaunched his campaign for President in August, has seen the excitement and energy that was generated from his unsuccessful run against Ted Cruz in the Senate and carried over to the presidential race fizzle out. However, he ended the night with perhaps the most controversial line, saying, “Hell yes, we are going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.” The line could play well enough to draw interest and even some support in the Democratic primary, but it has already prompted many harsh “gun-rights” responses. O’Rourke did well to come away with one of the most quoted lines of the debate, but how well this will play for him in the long term is hard to discern.
Julian Castro: B-
Secretary Castro had the most polarizing performance, but if there is anything to be gleaned from the last presidential election cycle, perhaps there is some truth to the mantra “any publicity is good publicity.” Some perceived his questioning of whether Biden had forgotten what he had said about health care buy-ins to be harsh, demeaning or ageist. I did not see it that way, either initially or afterwards. How Castro’s performance will be perceived depends on voters’ reactions to this moment, which is difficult to gauge. Additionally, the line directed at Buttigieg, mentioned in the following section, was a strong soundbite for Castro.
Pete Buttigieg: C+
Mayor Buttigieg had a lot of momentum following the release of fundraising information that he paced the field for the second quarter of 2019. However, improving poll numbers or debate performances have not followed. Far from being lackluster or inept in any debate, Buttigieg has mostly been overshadowed by more attention-grabbing performances. Also, he has suffered at least one losing moment at each debate, with the moment this time being Castro’s point at his expense.
When Castro and Biden were arguing over health care, Buttigieg interjected, appealing for civility, calling the debates “unwatchable” due to candidates “scoring points” on each other, Castro replied, “Yeah, that’s called the Democratic primary election, Pete. That’s called an election,” to much applause. Buttigieg is grappling with the same problem that all but the top three of Warren, Biden and Sanders are struggling with, which is that they have not found a specific lane or niche to help propel their candidacy to top-tier status. Color me skeptical as to whether this debate will help him do so.
Amy Klobuchar: C+
Senator Klobuchar continued her appeal to the moderates disillusioned by “extremes,” but has not been successful in her efforts, with little reason to think this performance will be different. The rhetorically and dispositionally moderate lane is occupied by Biden at the moment, and he has shown little sign of fading to this point.
Her best moment was her answer to the last question posed to all the candidates about resilience and her biggest setback. She told a compelling story about her father struggling with alcoholism, faith and how everyone should have a chance to be “pursued by grace,” as well as a story about well as the birth of her daughter who was seriously ill and was in and out of the hospital for a year and a half. She will have another chance in October to make a lasting impression, but is on the outside looking in as things stand.
Kamala Harris: C
Senator Harris started off the night strong, explicitly mentioning Trump, as if to elicit a direct response on social media to generate attention. This did not go as planned, and neither did many of the canned lines later in the debate.
These included her saying “yes we can” instead of “no we can’t” to Biden, followed by an awkward laugh, to an almost palpable silent groan from the crowd, as well as her equating Donald Trump to the “little guy” in the Wizard of Oz, who is, in fact, the Wizard of Oz. Her breakout performance, with dominant stage presence, well-timed interjections and strong assertive rhetoric of the first debate was nowhere to be seen this time.