Debate Night Post Mortem

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By Emma-Louise Boynton and Jim Cowles

The first Democrat debates are OVER. So we're taking stock of what went down in Miami these past couple of days - who won, who lost, and who didn't matter.

1. The ‘breakthrough’ candidate...
Night one: Cory Booker

  • He was the most vocal candidate on stage, speaking for a total of 11:06 minutes (Beto O’Rourke was second with 10:33 minutes). Booker was also the most searched for on Google, followed by little-known Congresswoman from Hawaii, Tulsi Gabbard. Although Booker hasn’t been a frontrunner in the polls, he’s the favorite amongst early-state activists, according to polling analyst firm, FiveThirtyEight.

Night two: Kamala Harris

  • The former prosecutor came in second on speaking time at 12:16 minutes, compared to 13:19 minutes for Biden. But it’s not just about quantity, it’s also about quality. She delivered a firm blow to Biden’s record of associating with segregationist senators and, in one of the most memorable moments of the evening, evoked her past as a " young California girl who was bused to school" as part of the desegregation of public schools in the U.S. This caused a surge in searches of the topic by over 3,000%. Overall, Sen. Kamala Harris was the top trending topic on Google in the U.S. over the course of the evening.

2. They did what they had to do...
Night one: Elizabeth Warren

  • The highest-polling candidate on the first night’s stage, the Massachusetts Senator dominated the first hour of the debate, fielding a series of questions that went right to the heart of her policy agenda: the economy, income inequality, and sweeping change to the nation’s health care system. She faded into the background as the night wore on, but it didn’t matter: she was clearly the candidate setting the policy agenda for the primaries.

Night two: Pete Buttigieg

  • This was Mayor Pete Buttigieg's opportunity to show that he has staying power in the overcrowded Democrat field. At 37 years old he’s the youngest candidate in the race, and on Thursday he showed that didn’t matter. He was calm and prepared and, when challenged about the recent South Bend shooting (when an African American man was shot by a white police officer following an alleged altercation) he conceded the situation “was a mess”. Overall, he showed that his growing popularity over the past few months has been warranted. A good night for Mayor Pete.

3. Better luck next time… if there is a next time
Night one: Beto O’Rourke

  • The former Texas congressman’s star has faded. Once the Democrat’s golden boy, his poll ratings have of late been stuck dismally low at around 2%, and his performance in Wednesday’s debate won’t have helped that. He was notable only for breaking into Spanish at one point and for being ‘schooled’ by Castro on immigration policy. “Whatever Beto Was Born To Be In, It Wasn’t This Debate” summarised FiveThirtyEight reporter, Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux.

Night two: Joe Biden and Andrew Yang

  • It was not a good night for frontrunner Joe Biden, who struggled when attacked by Senator Harris and others on his past voting record. Going forward, it’s not so much the issues that will haunt him, but the way in which he fumbled his responses. Twice during the debate he cut himself off mid-sentence to declare ‘I am out of time’ - a more prescient statement than he intended, perhaps? It didn't seem as though he was being a stickler for the rules, but rather that he’d just forgotten what he was going to say.

  • He was never going to be a frontrunner, but former tech entrepreneur, Andrew Yang, also had a disappointing night, speaking for a total of 2:58 minutes. The ‘Yang-Gang’ won’t be celebrating his performance.

4. Who brought the heat?
Night One: Julian Castro

  • Overall, the first debate was notable for its civility and temperance - so much so, that President Trump tweeted midway through: “BORING”. But San Antonio mayor, Julian Castro, did ratchet up the heat when confronting Beto O’Rourke about his position on immigration, specifically on why Beto didn’t support decriminalizing illegal border crossings.

  • The spat clearly helped elevate Castro’s visibility over the course of the evening as according to Google trends, the candidate "spiked +2,400% in search" during the debate. Let’s see whether that helps to boost his previously low polling numbers, which have been stuck at 1% for 2019.

Night Two: Kamala Harris

  • Temperatures were higher on night two, with the most ‘heat’ being delivered by Harris in her challenge to Biden on his past positions. Her training as a prosecutor was in full force and will likely prove a formidable weapon going forward.

5. Puedes hablar español?
Night one:

  • Si. Spanish is the second most widely spoken language in the U.S. and, according to the Pew Research Center, Latinos are on track to be the largest share of nonwhite voters in 2020. The debates were broadcast on Spanish speaking network, Telemundo, and, for several of the candidates - Beto O'Rourke, Sen. Cory Booker and Julian Castro - this was an opportunity not to be missed, as they each broke into Spanish at varying points throughout the evening.

Night two:

  • Nope. There were no bilinguists evident here.

5. President Trump
Night one:

  • Trump was on Twitter but not in the debate hall, where he was mentioned a total of 20 times throughout the entire evening (most often by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who brought up the President 5 times). Also notable in their absence from debate discussion was frontrunner Joe Biden.

Night two:

  • There were 34 mentions of Trump in total. Eight by Kirsten Gillibrand. The most notable mention of the President was by Joe Biden, who said the first thing he’d do as President “is make sure that we defeat Donald Trump.” Interesting.

6. The issues
Immigration and healthcare

  • Both evenings were strong on substantive policy questions, with immigration and healthcare the top issues up for discussion. And although Bernie didn’t have a great night, his success in paving the left-wing way for the party was clear. All the candidates today are debating how to expand Obamacare and move toward government-run healthcare, and everyone raised their hand in support of providing undocumented immigrants with free healthcare. However, a few candidates stood out in regards to their position on expanding Medicare. On both nights they were asked whether they supported a Medicare-For-All plan that would abolish private health insurance. And on both nights two hands went up. Elizabeth Warren and Bill de Blasio in the first debate, and Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris in the second. Given that only one in 10 registered voters wants Medicare-for-all if it means getting rid of private health insurance plans, it’ll be interesting to see how this policy stance serves them during the primaries and possibly beyond.

  • On immigration: after Castro called out O’Rourke on night one for refusing to support the decriminalization of illegal border crossings, the candidates in the second debate were virtually unanimous in their support for Castro’s policy. Everyone but Sen. Michael Bennet and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper raised their hand when asked if illegal entry into the U.S. should be classified as a civil offense instead of a crime.

  • Most Americans believe that we need to make healthcare more affordable and available and that we need comprehensive immigration reform, but are the candidates shifting too far left for the general election?

The response from the President
President Trump on Twitter

"I am in Japan at the G-20, representing our Country well, but I heard it was not a good day for Sleepy Joe or Crazy Bernie. One is exhausted, the other is nuts - so what’s the big deal?"

So round one is over and it feels as though the race to the White House has truly begun. New polls will be out soon to see the impact of the debates not just on public opinion, but also on fundraising. We'll be watching closely. Next up, 20 candidates will be heading to the motor city, Detroit, for the next round of debates scheduled for July 30th and 31st. We're counting down the days...

The Venn Media