Now that the second round of debates are over, Democrats have a few months to take stock of the field and decide who will continue on to the Fall debates. No single candidate stood out from the pack on either night despite the best efforts of CNN to “game-ify” the entire event. That being said, several candidates solidified their positions, like Warren, Buttigieg and Biden, while several others fell short of expectations, like Harris and Booker. Only a few really damaged their current position, like Beto and Hickenlooper, and still fewer increased their chances of success, like Yang and Marianne.
Overall, not much regarding the current positions of the candidates is likely to change in the wake these debates. The public, by and large, learned nothing new about the frontrunner candidates. But there were some interesting dynamics on stage that are worth pointing out as potential indications about the future of the race, as well as some negative aspects of the debate production that are valuable to consider for reforms.
1. Debates are Reality TV:
Televised debates are usually somewhat contrived, but CNN knows how to put on a show like no other network. For instance, remember when CNN hosted a Republican primary back in 2015 and made eleven Republican candidates stand in front of Ronald Reagan’s retired Air Force One? Thankfully, CNN didn’t go that far overboard for the Democratic debates this week, but they still put on a show.
The spectacle began with an unnecessarily long introduction that included not just the national anthem, but also veterans marching through the hall in almost total silence but for the ominous sound of stomping boots. It was a strangely solemn and uncomfortable way to start the evening.
Throughout the debate itself, moderators attempted to set up skirmishes between candidates by asking them what they thought of each other. But some of these match-ups failed to deliver the reality TV moment that the moderators were looking for. For instance, at one point, moderators attempted to force Klobuchar and Buttigieg to engage with each other. The moment simply fell flat, since these two candidates are not natural rivals and neither would not benefit from a dust-up. This style of questioning undercut the credibility of the entire debate since they revealed the desperation that networks have for the kind of political drama that brings high ratings.
2. The Undifferentiated Middle:
Several candidates continue to fail to differentiate themselves from each other. These candidates are Hickenlooper, Bennet, Ryan, and Bullock. These four candidates are very similar in style and attitude, and as a result, it is hard to separate them out from each other in terms of their policies. Inslee, Delaney, and Deblasio are also on the brink of fading into this crowd of middle-aged white men. Hilariously, Deblasio grew sideburns in order to attract more attention, which reinforces the palpable feeling of desperation that these candidates project.
This group also tended to skew more towards the center, which meant that they spent a lot of time attacking progressives on issues ranging from health care to immigration to climate change. For instance, they tended to be skeptical of Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, and they engaged with both Sanders and Warren aggressively. At one point Warren lost patience with Delaney, who frequently criticized policies ideas like Medicare for All as being “impossible promises” and “more free stuff.” He also called Warren’s policy positions “fairy tale economics.” In response, Warren quipped, “I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for,” she said. “I don’t get it.” That line brought some of loudest cheers of the debate.
These candidates will most likely continue to struggle in the polls. One of their rank, Swalwell, dropped out of the race already last month. More will probably follow over the next month or two. While predictable, these candidates are worth paying attention to because they represent a core type of liberal that the Democratic Party have largely ignored in recent months: the conservative Liberal. Democrats will need to win among conservative Liberals like these men if they want to have a shot at winning in 2020.
3. Notable Omissions: Mueller and impeachment; Spanish:
One fairly conspicuous difference between this round and the previous round of debates was the lack of Spanish in the rhetoric. During the first debates, the candidates made huge efforts to speak Spanish in an effort to signal their support for Hispanics and Latinos. This time around, not a single one attempted to draw attention to their Spanish speaking skills. The moderators also did not prompt any of the candidates in Spanish.
Another topic that did not take up much air time was the Mueller report and potential impeachment proceedings. There were a few back and forths about the risks and rewards of impeachment. Booker argued for impeachment on moral grounds, Deblasio countered with a message of caution and a plea to vote Trump out instead, and Castro responded by making the point that if Democrats do not impeach now, Trump will use that lack of action to demonstrate his innocence. But other than a few small exchanges like these, the Mueller testimony just last week and the nuances of impeachment strategy were not addressed in much detail.
Was this a make or break moment for some candidates? Absolutely. Yang, Gabbard, and Williamson capitalized on their turns in the spotlight to successfully boost their name recognition. But did anyone break? That depends on who you ask. Biden did well enough to fend off savage attacks for Harris and Booker, but he also demonstrated his limits as a candidate, which mainly revolve around several moments when his responses were shaky and weak. Another toss-up would be Buttigieg. Some viewers found his responses to critiques from Warren and Bernie to be effective while others were disappointed with his answers to questions on race and social justice. Of course, Hickenlooper probably had the worst night of all simply because he got the least amount of time to speak.
By the end of the evening on Wednesday, it was clear that not much would change in the polls based on these performances. That is bad news for the lower tier of candidates who are facing an uphill battle for spots in the next debates, which are scheduled for October. There is a good chance that the field will narrow before then, but if they do, it will not be a result of anything that happened during these debates; if anything, it will be a result of what didn’t happen.