25 quick takes on the first Democratic debates

Like many Democrats around the country, I tuned in to both MSNBC debates, featuring 20 of the presidential candidates. If you missed them, you can find the transcripts on the Washington Posts’s site (first night and and second night). My thoughts:

1. Debates seven months before anyone votes will not decide who wins the Democratic nomination. As Dan Guild has noted, a large share of Iowa caucus-goers typically decide during the final month. With so many contenders, I expect even more volatility than usual in the later stages of the campaign. So I would caution politics watchers not to draw big conclusions from this week’s events.

2. There’s more than one way to win a debate. Candidates near the top of the polls needed to do no harm. Simply avoiding mistakes that could drive away supporters and leaners would be an acceptable showing for now. But for the second tier (polling in or near double digits) and especially for those barely registering in opinion polls, it was imperative to show they deserve voters’ serious consideration.

3. MSNBC’s moderators did poorly. They failed to keep control of the dialogue, asked too many long-winded questions, and didn’t come close to giving candidates equal time to make their case. I didn’t expect long-shots to get as much speaking time as Joe Biden, but the disparity was ridiculous. Here’s how long each candidate was able to speak, based on Bloomberg News calculations from the first night and second night.

Joe Biden: 13:23
Kamala Harris: 12:03
Bernie Sanders: 11:39
Cory Booker: 10:53
Pete Buttigieg: 10:07
Beto O’Rourke: 9:38
Kirsten Gillibrand: 9:30
Julian Castro: 8:42
Elizabeth Warren: 8:26
Amy Klobuchar: 8:12
Michael Bennet: 7:59
Tim Ryan: 7:33
Tulsi Gabbard: 6:35
John Delaney: 5:32
Bill de Blasio: 5:18
John Hickenlooper: 5:03
Jay Inslee: 4:49
Marianne Williamson: 4:41
Eric Swalwell: 4:35
Andrew Yang: 2:58

Turning to each candidate in alphabetical order:

4. Michael Bennet argued persuasively (in my view) that a public option is an easier political lift for Democrats than Medicare for All. I loved how he took apart the Obama administration’s compromises with Congressional Republicans on extending the Bush tax cuts and cutting domestic spending. But I didn’t hear anything likely to propel Bennet to a higher tier.

5. Joe Biden was already in a weak position in Iowa for a front-runner, and last night’s performance will likely cause more slippage. Getting more time to speak than everyone else should be an advantage, but he used too many weasel words and sounded defensive. It was absurd for Biden to claim, “I did not oppose busing in America” during the 1970s, on the grounds that he was only against busing ordered by the U.S. Department of Education. Harris pointed out the obvious: the federal government needed to intervene on civil rights, because too many states and local governments were committed to segregation and discrimination. Biden’s had a lighter schedule of public events than most of the others, so he had no excuse for not being well-prepared.

6. Cory Booker did what he needed to do. Speaking powerfully about a number of issues, he made himself part of the conversation. During the June 26 debate, he was the most-searched candidate in fourteen states, including almost the whole South. Dan Guild commented on Twitter, “Democratic Primaries in the Southern States range from 25% to 60% African American. It took a while for Obama to win African Americans over in ’08, just as [Andrew] Gillum consolidated the African American vote late in [the] Florida [primary for governor in 2018]. A positive sign for Booker here.”

7. Pete Buttigieg helped himself. Not only was he articulate, as usual, he handled a predictable tough question about policing in South Bend without dodging and excuse-making. The contrast between him as Biden on that metric was notable.

8. Julian Castro was a clear winner. Like Booker, he made himself relevant and prompted thousands to seek more information about him on the evening of June 26. In addition, most of the post-debate analysis mentioned Castro’s sparring with Beto O’Rourke, so millions of Americans who didn’t watch the debates will hear about him in a positive way. Castro also picked up more Twitter followers than any of his rivals on stage in the first debate.

9. Bill de Blasio was too belligerent. He needed to explain why he deserves to be on that stage and what he’s offering that other candidates aren’t. I didn’t hear it.

10. John Delaney was visibly frustrated to be short-changed on time. He managed to make his case against single-payer health care and for a carbon tax to address climate change. He claimed what might be called the “pragmatist” niche on the first night more effectively than Hickenlooper or Bennet managed on the second night.

11. Tulsi Gabbard was the most-searched candidate nationally during the first debate and topped Google searches in 35 states. She stayed on message by keeping her focus on foreign policy and her military service. I would guess her performance will help her qualify for later debates. She depends more than others on national media exposure, because she’s not building much of an operation in Iowa.

12. Kirsten Gillibrand spoke forcefully and was able to get more air time than the moderators wanted to give her. I didn’t hear anything that would drive voters away, but unfortunately for her, she wasn’t involved in the second evening’s most dramatic exchanges.

13. Kamala Harris delivered the strongest performance on June 27, and it wasn’t close. She appeared presidential by rebuking other candidates for engaging in a “food fight.” Every time she answered a question, she spoke with authority. I’ve noticed at Harris’ events in Iowa that she speaks deliberately and more slowly than some politicians, but she makes her points effectively. As other commentators have noted, she probably honed those skills as a prosecutor who needed to communicate with jurors from diverse backgrounds. Many of the candidates showed up in Miami well-prepared, but Harris generated the most Google searches on the second night in all 50 states. Her clash with Biden on race and busing was must-see tv. For those who missed it, here’s the video, and here’s the transcript.

14. John Hickenlooper had few opportunities to speak. Although he described some impressive accomplishments as Colorado governor, I would guess he didn’t leave much of an impression.

15. Jay Inslee had less speaking time than any other candidate on the first night, but he used his time extremely well. Whereas some candidates avoided mentioning the president, Inslee drew cheers by saying, “The biggest threat to the security of the United States is Donald Trump.” He proudly noted he was the first governor to sue to stop the Muslim ban and the only candidate to implement a public option for health insurance. Inslee’s closing statement was the best of the 20, in my opinion.

16. Amy Klobuchar drove home a central argument for her candidacy: she can appeal to many voters who are inclined to support Trump, and therefore help the ticket all over the country. Lots of Democrats view many contenders favorably and are trying to figure out who has the best chance to win the general election. I don’t know whether Klobuchar will get a bump in the polls, but she did not hurt her prospects.

17. Beto O’Rourke struggled with the format. He relies heavily on anecdotes about voters he has met around the country. Answering questions that way worked well in his CNN town hall earlier in the year, but O’Rourke had trouble integrating the personal stories with his proposals in the short time allotted. O’Rourke seemed to be blindsided by the attack from Castro on immigration policy, and many pundits declared him the June 26 “loser” for that reason. I would guess, though, that many Democrats (not to mention independents) agree with O’Rourke that the government should not decriminalize illegal border crossing.

18. Tim Ryan stayed on his message of being the kind of Democrat who can appeal to working-class (white) voters who have drifted away from the party (in Ryan’s telling, because of economic dislocation). But his most memorable exchange on June 27 was getting schooled by Gabbard. The moderators wanted to move on, but Ryan insisted on continuing the dialogue, which didn’t end well for him.

19. Bernie Sanders said the same things he’s been saying for many years. His consistency and authenticity are central to his appeal. So unlike Biden, he didn’t hurt himself. I doubt anyone planning to vote for him heard anything to make them question that choice. But Sanders didn’t say anything that could broaden his appeal beyond his current supporters. If he ends up on the same stage as Warren in the next round of debates, watch out.

20. Eric Swalwell tried to make a mark by identifying with a younger generation and pushing his signature issue of gun control. I thought he made a fair point against Buttigieg: “If you’re the mayor, you should fire the [police] chief, if that’s the policy and someone died.” But he still seemed like a minor figure in this large, talented field.

21. Elizabeth Warren delivered a standout performance in the June 26 debate, and I’ll be surprised if she doesn’t continue to rise in national and state-level polls. I think Paul Waldman said it best.

22. Marianne Williamson managed to distinguish herself from the rest of the field, but not in a way that will put many voters or caucus-goers in her camp.

23. Andrew Yang got screwed by the moderators. Every other candidate had at least a minute and a half more air time. The leading candidates had three or four times as much time to speak. That said, Yang could have done better with his closing statement by focusing on how his central proposal (a universal basic income) would improve people’s lives. Framing that policy as an electability argument didn’t work for me.

24. Steve Bullock wasn’t able to participate in the debates. Having joined the presidential race late, because he chose to focus on matters at home during the Montana legislature’s session, he failed to generate campaign contributions from at least 65,000 donors. I hope he will be included in the next round, because he has a strong record and a unique story to tell as governor of a state Trump carried. Bullock held town-hall meetings in Iowa on June 26 and in New Hampshire the following day, and his campaign released these statements after the two debates:

“As the only candidate who has won a Trump state, it was clear that a critical voice was missing from the debate stage tonight. I’ve been focused on winning back the places we lost. That’s why tonight I spoke directly with voters in a televised town hall in Iowa and will do the same in New Hampshire tomorrow. If we don’t change our strategy — if we don’t both turn out Democrats and win back some of the voters we lost in the last election — we will lose to Trump again and we will deserve to.”

“Over the last two nights, it was clear that these debates were missing an important voice. As the only candidate who’s won and governed a Trump state — and the only one who’s passed progressive policies through a majority-Republican legislature even in these divided times — I can tell you that we can’t discount these perspectives if we’re ever going to beat Trump and get America back on track. I look forward to joining my colleagues in Detroit next month to discuss our plans to bring all Americans together to ensure a fair shot for everyone.”

25. Seth Moulton also didn’t meet the Democratic National Committee’s debate criteria. Instead of spending this week campaigning in early voting states, he traveled to Miami and booked as many television interviews as possible. Moulton’s campaign paid to run this commercial on MSNBC during the debates:

It’s a good spot, but Moulton won’t have a chance at becoming part of the conversation if he can’t qualify for later debates.

About the Author(s)

Laura Belin