Winnowing Down the Pack
Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.
The first round of Democratic Party debates has produced of results, many of which were expected but, perhaps, without the specifics which have emerged. The size of the participants who qualified for the June debates was not sustainable; although the two-night affair did produce some interesting results. By the time of the second debate on July 30 and 31, there may be a few new qualifiers, while some of the first group may have dropped out.
Regardless of what happens in July, by the September 12/13 debates, given the increased polling and fund-raising threshold, the field could be reduced to fewer than 10. Baring a big breakout from other candidates, the stage on September seems sure to include: Vice President Biden; Senators Sanders, Warren, Harris, Booker and Klobuchar; Secretary Castro; Mayor Buttigieg; and Representative O’Rourke. If indeed this is what the group will be, the subsequent monthly debate cycle is likely to reduce the group to five or six. By the time the Iowa caucus meets on February 3 and the New Hampshire primary on February 11, front-runner(s) should be firmly established.
Vice President Biden did not enhance his candidacy with his debate performance, although he still leads in the polls. For many of his backers he was not impressive and even looked beatable for the nomination. Many of in the party, however, still believe that he may well be the only person who can defeat Trump in the general election. Biden clearly has a lot of work to do to present a more effective image in future debates or he could find himself following Jeb Bush’s model in 2016, of being the right candidate who could not get the nomination.
What happened on the more progressive side of the party was also very significant. While they were not on stage together, Elizabeth Warren bested Bernice Sanders in round one. Sanders, somewhat similar to Biden, appeared to be part of the old progressive wing, and Warren was a newer, sharper version of the present. This is not to suggest that she will be nominated or could defeat President Trump, but it is likely that even some of Sanders’ most ardent supporters must have given pause as to whether they ought to switch horses. Many of the post-debate polls confirmed this perception.
The immediate winner in the debate was Kamala Harris who presented herself as comfortable, capable, and assertive. Not only in her exchange with Biden over race and specifically over busing, Harris demonstrated she could command the platform, amongst a large range of demanding candidates. Having seen it work, she is unlikely to let up in future debates. This will present a challenge to all the other candidates. It also will be up to the Democratic National Committee to ensure that the future debates shake up the mix of candidates on the stage; Warren and Harris; Sanders and Warren; Biden and Warren; etc.
Booker, Buttigieg, Castro, and Klobuchar did not hurt their candidacies and they all had their moments. To be viable in primaries and fund-raising in the months ahead, however, they too will need their Harris like break-out moments; and soon.
N.B. There was one important substantive issue which emerged from the second debate which could become a much more critical question as the 2020 campaign develops; the issue of race. While rehashing old records and positions can score debate points, it would seem to be crucial for candidates to detail what their stands are today and how they will address various race questions in the future.