Today we need to talk about the Democratic presidential primary debate that took place Wednesday night in Atlanta. Wow, was that thing long and… pretty uneventful. But of course some candidates performed better than others, and there were a few, if nothing else–entertaining–moments. Today we’ll be discussing the main takeaways from the debate… the truth, the lies, the exaggerations, the winners and losers, whether or not the party is taking President Obama’s advice not to be too radical, and what their chances look like in terms of defeating Trump in 2020.
Now, we really didn’t learn anything new about any of the candidates during this debate. But we did see some differentiation among the candidates in terms of the strengths of their performances and what strategies they employed when answering questions and defending themselves.
Let’s start by talking about who looked strong up on the stage and who looked weak.
Buttigieg really came out on top, going after the other major candidates and defending himself when his experience and judgment were called into question. He even mentioned that Forbes poll we talked about a few days ago, where he was ranked dead last among all the candidates in terms of overall wealth. Now I’m not saying whether or not having the least wealth in itself is some sort of positive quality in terms of running for president of the United States, but it does undoubtedly make him more relatable, and perhaps likable, to the average voter. Especially when the Democratic party platform has a huge focus on wealth inequality and 2 of the 3 top candidates call out millionaires or billionaires in every basically other sentence.
Now Kamala Harris and Cory Booker both looked strong in this debate and probably both have a decent shot at the VP slot under whoever gets the nomination. Because that’s basically what they’re contending for. Amy Klobuchar looked strong enough but I don’t think she’ll be a serious VP contender. Andrew Yang also came out looking strong and had a few great moments. When asked by the moderators if he were elected what he’d say on a phone call with Putin he joked “Sorry I beat your guy.” The crowd laughed and it was a good moment, at least until Elizabeth Warren had to interrupt with “you mean not sorry.” But Yang still seemed like a crowd favorite, and I think that came across to viewers. Both he and Buttigieg also spoke about some similar policy proposals such as improving technology and becoming more competitive with China in terms of how we use data and our overall tech infrastructure.
So, who looked weak? Tulsi Gabbard had the lowest favorability rating in a post-debate poll conducted by FiveThirtyEight, and she really didn’t seem to have the crowd on her side. In exchanges with both Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg, she didn’t come across very well and appeared to lose each exchange pretty badly. When she accused Pete Buttigieg of wanting to invade Mexico, he got in a response telling her just how off-base she was and the crowd was clearly with him.
Elizabeth Warren came out better than she might have if anyone had seriously gone after the economic soundness of some of her recent policy proposals and those pesky tax plans, but no one did. She got away with some very deceptive explanations of her plans, like her supposed tax of “two cents” on billionaires. This was so deceptive… I’m not sure why she didn’t get called out for it. What she actually advocates is a two percent tax on wealth over $50 million dollars and that’s just for the health care plan, before factoring in any other taxes. Cent is not and never has been an abbreviation for percent, so this was just a straight up lie. And she also mis-spoke and said the first $50 billion is free, when she presumably meant the first $50 million. But again, this is talking about an additional tax on wealth that has already been taxed as income at federal and state levels, so no– even the first $50 million is not free.
Still, the media treats Warren very favorably and for some reason tends to gloss over Bernie Sanders, who is the originator of most of her current plans and ideas. Bernie performed well in the debate, getting in his usual points and looking extremely strong and articulate… particularly compared to fellow top contender Joe Biden.
And wow, what a night it was for Joe Biden, who made the crowd visibly uncomfortable more than once. When discussing his black support in response to Cory Booker, he had some cringe moments, particularly when he mis-stated that he had worked with the only black female elected to the senate, when Kamala Harris, present on the stage, is in fact also a black female who’s been elected to the senate. It only got worse for Biden, when he was asked about the issue of domestic violence and he somehow thought it would be a good idea to say that we’re going to go after it by punching it and punching it and punching. No, this isn’t a joke (I wish it were) and the crowd was as shocked, or disturbed, or confused, as you probably are.
But Joe Biden is still in first place in the polls. And he does have black support. And in that post-debate poll conducted by FiveThirtyEight he is still thought to be the candidate with the best chance of defeating Trump. And this still seems to be the most important thing Democratic voters are looking for in a candidate. I’m not sure if there’s some point at which his gaffes will get the best of him, but for now he maintains the top spot.
Overall, the party has shifted pretty left, but the points candidates addressed in the debate were often approached with more moderation than previously. And contenders like Buttigieg, Booker, and Yang performed well, I think, by not coming off as too extreme in their views. Perhaps with the polls showing that Democratic voters are most concerned with beating Trump in 2020, the party will in fact heed President Obama’s advice and back away from some of their more extreme positions… or at least tone them down.
Now, for the next debate which is in December, there are strict polling and campaign donor requirements to qualify. Yang and Booker have not yet qualified, although Yang has met the donor threshold and Booker is close on both metrics. Biden, Warren, Sanders, Buttigieg, Harris, and Klobuchar have already qualified, so we can expect to see them up on stage again next month. We’ll be keeping an eye on both the polls and the candidates in the coming weeks, noting any changes in policy platforms or campaign strategies that may impact the direction of the race.