What a difference a debate makes. Over two nights and four hours, the shape of the Democratic primary was re-shaped by the performances of 20 candidates, especially by the top five. For Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren, it was a game changer. For Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Pete Buttigieg it was game over. There is still a lot of time left in the primary but the effects of the debates for these candidates will be felt for weeks and perhaps much more.
These first debates shuffled the top tier, with Harris and Warren gaining and Biden, Sanders, and Buttigieg losing support. Compare this to entering the debates, when it was Warren who had momentum, Biden and Sanders who were already losing support, and Buttigieg and Harris who were stalled in the polls.
Harris is the one who made the most of her debate performance. As it turned to the issue of race, the California senator insisted that she speak, as she was the only person of color on the stage. And when Harris spoke, she not only helped her cause by attacking Biden, she badly wounded his as well.
Coming out of these first two debates, could it be that the two strongest candidates to take on Trump in 2020 are women?
As the front runner in the polls, Biden’s support has always been soft, as it was largely based on his previous service as vice president and his two runs for president. The third run has already been plagued by the same problems as the first two, and this debate exposed him in one particular exchange with Harris. Biden’s long record and his inability to explain or apologize for his past positions, was witnessed by 18 million people – even more the next day from all the coverage. Polls in the wake of the debate have shown a 10-point drop for Biden while Harris has more than doubled her support.
Harris’ challenge to Biden exposed all of his weaknesses as a candidate and highlighted her strengths in one fell swoop. Her speech before the South Carolina Democratic Convention only days before the debate foreshadowed her debate strategy when she brought the house down going after Trump. Her surgical strike on Biden, raising his willingness to work with segregationists and his opposition to busing, made race an issue for him in this campaign. The fact that Harris as a child had benefitted from the busing policy opposed by Biden when he was a senator made a political hit personal and even more devastating as a result.
Kamala Harris’ performance was also an antidote for the treatment of Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas hearings, with Joe Biden as the common denominator. An African American lawyer who was badly treated during the Biden-chaired hearings, Hill has never gotten the hearing or apology she deserved. But, Kamala Harris’ challenge of Biden turned the tables on him 28 years later.
The challenge now for Harris is whether she can consistently perform like the candidate we saw Thursday night. There have been glimpses. But, for Harris to win the nomination, she must make that candidate’s appearance routine.
In comparison, Sanders and Buttigieg seem diminished in the wake of the debate. Sanders’ slide in the polls continues and his strategy to double down on 2016 points – anyone who followed the last presidential campaign recognized the Vermont senator’s debate performance – only reinforces that he is struggling to hold on to his base. The problem is it is no longer a one-on-one race where he serves as the sole repository of Clinton opposition. Rather, there were nine other candidates on stage with him and 13 more in the race. Given his standing in the polls right now, Sanders wouldn’t win the nomination. And it is hard to see how he increases his support in the primary let alone a general election if he is the nominee.
Buttigieg is still reeling from the tragic police shooting of an African American resident of South Bend, Indiana, and that was evident in the debate as well. Buttigieg can’t seem to find his footing in this matter, despite trying in a variety of settings and Thursday night was no different.
It is an important test for Buttigieg and it is one he has failed so far. It also brings to the forefront matters of race and his record. Buttigieg was already struggling to secure support with voters of color and this situation will make it worse. Buttigieg also uses his record as mayor as the rationale for his campaign to become president, and now that record is under scrutiny. Even his willingness to state in the debate that he “didn’t get the job done” when asked why the police department didn’t become more diverse under his tenure will haunt him. With his poll numbers stalled in recent weeks, the best Buttigieg can hope for in the wake of the debate is they stay there and he doesn’t lose more support while he tries to recover from his stumble.
Elizabeth Warren’s performance on Wednesday night boosted her standing and she did it with the same consistent, methodical march to the nomination that she’s displayed since entering the race. As the only top tier candidate on Wednesday night, her performance wasn’t as dramatic as that of Harris’ the next night. However, she came out of the gate hitting her message and hitting her stride on a range of issues and with a plan for each one.
With 490 days to go until Election Day we shall soon see if a wave of women voters will determine the fate of Donald Trump.
But it was her support of eliminating private insurance in that debate that forced the other candidates to react to her the following night. That is a theme in this campaign, as Warren has led the way on policy, plans, and forgoing big donors and fundraisers – and forcing the rest of the field to respond. That is exactly what happened Thursday night. Of the five top tier candidates, three now support eliminating private health insurance; Warren, Sanders, and Harris, though Harris seems to be equivocating a bit post-debate. If it had been only de Blasio supporting it – as it was in the first debate, until Warren raised her hand in support – the other candidates would not have felt the same pressure. But once again, Warren was first and the others followed.
Coming out of these first two debates, could it be that the two strongest candidates to take on Trump in 2020 are women? Both Warren and Harris demonstrated their ability to take on all comers, make their points, draw blood, and boost their standing in the process. Most importantly, they showed millions of people that they could successfully stand up to Trump. That is the most important factor to Democrats and many voters. So too is the ability to fix what Trump has broken. There’s no question they can do both.
With Harris and Warren on the upswing, they are the candidates to watch – and Trump is no doubt doing just that. If either one should become the nominee and defeat Trump, that would be the ultimate antidote to the 2016 campaign.
The signs are all there. Trump’s arrival to the White House has galvanized women politically like nothing else in recent history. The 2018 election results showed a record turnout and a record number of women winning office – a warning sign for the White House.
And now the arrival of Harris and Warren is yet another one. With 490 days to go until Election Day we shall soon see if a wave of women voters will determine the fate of Donald Trump. That would be a fitting ending indeed.