Round 3: Debate Night Post Mortem
So, another round of Democratic debates are over, and despite the marathon-length (3 hours!) it proved to be both entertaining and informative. With ten candidates fighting for the spotlight, the moderators definitely deserve a shoutout. They covered a wide range of topics, did a good job of re-asking questions of candidates when they failed to answer the first time, and, for the most part, kept order. Here were our main takeaways from the evening.
Trump was mentioned 35 times in total, most frequently by Senator Harris who referenced the President 11 times. Also a hot topic: Obama, whose name cropped up 21 times over the course of the evening.
Biden had the most speaking time at 17.4 minutes, followed closely by Warren at 16.5 then Booker at 14.7.
Yes, there are significant differences amongst the candidates. Here are a few observations:
ON HEALTHCARE: This will continue to be a debate within the Democratic Party - what their offer is to the American public. Sanders and Warren are all in for Medicare For All. Others, including Biden, Klobuchar, and Buttigieg hit hard against it, saying the costs would be too high and choice would be taken away from people.
GUN CONTROL: Beto would ban all assault weapons, AR-15s, and certain types of ammunition. Harris would issue an executive order in her first 100 days that would limit access to guns... or so she said. According to Biden, Beto and Harris’ proposals are pie in the sky thinking since a president has "no constitutional authority" to ban guns via executive order. However, while he was keen to remind audiences that there are limits to presidential power, he offered up no real alternative proposal for tackling America’s gun violence crisis. He is the only candidate who has defeated the NRA though, as he made sure to remind everyone.
CHINA AND TARIFFS: Not a single candidate said that on day one in office they would overturn or end Trump’s tariffs on China. In what was probably the only time the group agreed with a Trump action. Nonetheless, they all critiqued the President for having an erratic, undisciplined approach to China, and to foreign policy in general, while also calling out China for stealing American technology and violating trade rules.
AFGHANISTAN: The debate took place less than one week after President Trump abandoned peace talks with the Taliban, dashing hopes that there may soon be an end to the U.S.’s almost 18-year war in Afghanistan. It was no surprise then that the issue was raised early on in the evening, with Warren, Sanders, and Biden all suggesting they’d quickly move to withdraw U.S. troops. Biden was pressed on whether such a withdrawal might result in a security vacuum emerging, and whether he regretted quickly pulling troops out of Iraq during the Obama administration. His response? No regrets.
This is a legitimate point for analysis. Every candidate will have spent lots of time analyzing and preparing for what type of persona they wanted to exhibit on stage. Here’s what we think they were trying to do… and how we think they actually came across...
Wanted to show energy, take on the progressive wing of the party on healthcare, and avoid any gaffes. He also wanted to drum home to audiences, lest they’d forgotten, that it’s not just Biden, it’s Biden/Obama.
Result: He did show energy and successfully challenged Sanders on healthcare. But oddly he still had trouble defending his record, and appeared the least articulate of all the candidates. He will undoubtedly retain his lead in the polls, but the debate stage is not his forum.
Wanted to show that he is a fighter for the people, wins against the odds, and is proud to be a Democratic Socialist.
Result: Instead, he came across as largely combative, even ‘angry’. Does he have any other gear but outrage? Nonetheless, he successfully turned around a question on whether his politics risks turning America into Venezuela - a key point of criticism amongst his opponents - to articulate a clear vision for his brand of socialism, including: “guaranteeing health care to all people as a human right...a living wage…[an] expand[ed] trade union movement… an economy that works for all of us, not 1 percent.” People may not agree with him, but he does have an answer. Won’t move in the polls.
Wanted to ignore everyone else and just explain her plans. She has a lot of them, lest we forget.
Result: She largely achieved that. Yet, while she has many a comprehensive plan, it seems that every problem confronting the U.S. is because of ‘corruption’. Healthcare, the environment, the economy, education, gun violence, poverty: for Warren the root cause is the greed of corporations and the 1%. Her solution? The government must take control and increase taxes on the wealthiest individuals and companies. But does this narrative have legs? She held back on any attacks on Biden and emerged largely unscathed herself. She will at least hold, but likely increase, her poll numbers.
Wanted to come across as mature, relatable, and likable.
Result: She spoke a lot about her time as a child or about talking with children. She basically said, ‘I have seen the impact on children of gun violence, inferior education, poverty, the environment.’ She tried to make jokes and appear jovial, which sometimes fell flat. And then she delivered the worst line of the night when she joked about Trump being like the ‘small’ man behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz. It came across as though she was making fun of people of short stature - perhaps not the wisest move given that debate host, George Stephanopoulos, doesn’t exactly stand “tall” at 5 ft 6. Harris hasn’t been able to regain the momentum she garnered in the first debate, and last night’s performance won’t have helped.
Wanted to reiterate that he did a LOT as a Mayor and knows how to get things done.
Result: He was the most articulate of them all and spoke well of his past accomplishments, throwing in a touch of humor to lighten things up. Overall, he had the top performance of the evening and looks like the best ‘moderate’ alternative to Biden. Will this raise his poll ratings? We’ll have to wait and see.
She wanted to portray herself as a moderate who believes in America.
Result: She came across as a moderate who believes in America. Don’t think she’ll be getting a surge in the polls though.
Wanted to come across as a tough guy who will challenge the other candidates.
Result: In the end he just came across as mean, especially when taking a big shot at Biden for his age, accusing the former Vice President of forgetting what he’d said only minutes before. It was a low blow and, as it turns out, Castro was actually wrong in suggesting Biden had reversed his position. Going nowhere in the polls.
Wanted to drum home (again) his proposal for a version of universal basic income he calls a Freedom Dividend, consisting of a monthly handout of $1000 to Americans over the age of 18.
Result: Success! By announcing that his campaign is inviting people to sign up to a ‘lottery’ on his website for a chance to be one of ten families who will win $1,000 per month for a year, Yang certainly had people talking about the Freedom Dividend. Google searches for the former businessman and philanthropist, have surged by 191% since April, making him one of the top searched Democratic candidates in recent months. Will this tempting offer help boost his momentum?
After the recent attacks in his hometown, El Paso, he wanted to reiterate his strong stance on gun control.
Result: He did just that. While it wasn’t much of a standout night for the former Representative, he was certainly strong on gun control. “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47,” he said. In addition, he got a lot of candidates’ praise for how he responded to the shooting in his hometown. It seems unlikely we'll see much move movement for Beto in the polls.
Wanted to regain some of his early campaign momentum, which has been notably lacking as of late. His poll numbers are low and a standout moment like he had in the June debates may have provided a much-needed boost.
Result: Alas, it was not to be. He had no such ‘breakout moment’, although he did get people talking with his deeply personal response to a closing question regarding candidates’ 'biggest professional challenges'. He used this as an opportunity to relay his coming out story - a presidential candidate first. Unlikely to be buoyed in the polls because of the debate.
October debate! Tom Steyer will be joining the group...and maybe others.