Well, that was exciting. In the first round of Democratic debates, if they proved nothing else, the Democrats proved that they’re not going to just stand around on stage like the Hall of Presidents at Disney World. But there is a caveat there for the contenders as well. Last Friday morning, an Iowa Democrat who watched the debates said that she was both disappointed, as well as a little disgusted by the Animal House food fight she had witnessed the previous two nights. So the contenders may want to comport themselves with a little more dignity the next time around.
The debates last Wednesday and Thursday nights accomplished two major objectives. First, they laid a clear line of demarcation between a pack of 4-5 solid front runners, and a large herd of also rans lagging far behind in the dust. And second, they turned the competition for the front runners into a much closer horse race than appeared to be the case in pre debate polling. To keep this thing shorter than the Encyclopedia Brittanica, I’m going to take a quick look at the top 5, where they are, and what figures to come next in the month before the July debates.
Joe Biden – Biden laid an egg Thursday night, and it wasn’t from any golden goose. Biden’s camp can spin his performance until his head pops out of the dirt in China, and nothing can change that. But where does he go from here.
Biden has two problems coming off of his performance. The first one is familiarity, simply put, everybody knows “Joe.” His record is clear, his policies are ephemeral, and his stump speech is standard. There is very little that he can do for the next month except to make more appearances in person, keep plugging away, and cram like hell for the next debate, when a stronger performance can turn the tide for him.
The second problem is harder to fix. From day one, Biden’s strongest selling point has been his electability, that theoretical concept of invincibility against Trump. But last Thursday night, Kamala Harris disassembled him on stage, and wrapped him back up in the original manufacturers packaging. If she could do that to a 78 year old male Democratic opponent, why couldn’t she do it to a (7)3 year old Republican one? Biden’s proposals are not particularly inspiring, if he loses the electability edge, he’s got nothing left to sell.
Elizabeth Warren – Last Wednesday night Elizabeth Warren did exactly what I said she should do. She stayed benignly above the fray, taking no incoming hits, and pushed her talking points. To be perfectly honest, I’m a wee surprised that Warren didn’t get a bigger polling bounce from her performance, but cest la vie, no damage done.
To my eye, Warren seems to suffer from a problem that may turn out in the long run to not be a problem at all. Warren’s speaking style, and her speech content, seem to make her a much better “retail” politician than a televised debate politician. Warren seems to excel in smaller crowds, where she can present her story, and her solutions personally, making eye contact and posing after the event for selfies, than she does coming through the impartial and impersonal eye of the camera. As long as Warren can stay busy on the stump, and make that personal connection, word-of-mouth enthusiasm from attendees should help her to grow her base. She could also benefit from a little more engagement in the next debate, where her intelligence and personality can shine a little more.
Bernie Sanders – Bernie is suffering from a few problems in this cycle that were not present in 2016. First, like Biden, Bernie is now a known quantity. Absolutely nothing has changed for Bernie from the 2016 campaign to the 2020 campaign. Shit, even Chevrolet finally had to update the styling on the ‘Blazer.
Second is Bernie’s campaign speaking style. Bernie only seems to have one style, loud grievance. Sanders continues to bellow out loud complaints against the top 1/10 of 1% with absolutely no positive message, at a time when most voters are tired of a president who constantly complains at the top of his lungs. That may be fine in a one-in-one pissing contest with Trump, but it’s not working out so well in a field of other candidates with equally good ideas, some of them originally Bernie’s, but with better modulated voices.
Third, and I can’t believe I’m actually saying this, but Bernie is suffering from a lack of enthusiasm. In 2016, running against an unpopular opponent, Sanders was able to use his radical agenda to generate incredible enthusiasm from younger, more liberal, but also more traditionally tuned out politically supporters. Unfortunately for Sanders, in 2020 there are a host of issues that are driving Democratic enthusiasm, everything from Trump himself to migrant detention, from abortion to climate change, and some of those things are more important to some Sanders supporters than free college and Medicare-for-all.
That is graphically shown in the campaign’s just released second quarter fund raising. In 2016 Bernie was the king of grassroots fundraising, and it was a point of pride in his speeches. Sanders just announced that he raised $24 million in Q2, an awesome number. But it has to sting when a 37 year old, gay Mayor from South Bend, Indiana pulls in $24.8 million, toppling the king from his throne. Looks like there may be a new sheriff in fund raising town.
Kamala Harris – Kamala Harris hit a grand slam home run last Thursday night, and it showed up in the polls. Polling not only shows Harris hurtling from mid level second tier into the top tier, multiple polls have showed her not only surpassing Sanders, but Warren as well. one can only imagine that her Q2 fund raising total is going to be a joy for the campaign to announce.
But Harris has to be careful not to be pegged as a one-trick-pony. She blew Biden out the door with the busing statement by personalizing it, and while the campaign can fund raise off of it with cute t-shirts, she can’t use it again in a debate. It’s kind of like seeing The Crying Game, the ending loses its shock value after the first time.
Mostly, what Harris should be doing now is hammer the campaign trail like a ten penny nail. And she definitely wants to hit home heavily on her racial equality platform, but on a wider basis. Polling shows that she took a chunk out of Biden’s support among African Americans, and the more support she can eat away between now and the next debate, the easier it will be to climb the mountain. She has already boosted her electability quotient with her casual dismemberment of Biden on stage.
Pete Buttigieg – Last, but by no means least, there’s good ol’ Mayor Pete. Buttigieg’s Q2 fund raising haul has to be music to the ears of his campaign, allowing them to finally blk up on staff in early primary states, with the caveat that most of the best quality people have already been snaffled up by other campaigns. Buttigieg’s problem is that his fund raising is monolithic, coming almost exclusively from better educated, more affluent, younger white voters.
The problem for Mayor Pete is that he can’t win the nomination, much less the general election without considerable African American support, and if his numbers with that group got any lower, he’d need a miners helmet to find them. Even before the shooting of an unarmed black man by a white officer, Buttigieg was in the toilet with the African American community, That has to change. The Reverend Jesse Jackson seemed willing to cut Pete some slack at his Rainbow PUSH gathering, complimenting him for his ownership of the problem, and his attempts to correct it, but Jesse’s word will only get you so far.
To my mind, this is not a problem that Buttigieg can solve nationally, it’s one that he will have to fix in his own back yard. He is going to have to skip the campaign trail when necessary to stay home and deal with this problem, and dealing with it is going to mean making some serious concessions. If Buttigieg can rehabilitate his image within his own African American community, the word will spread nationally bia the grassroots. If he can’t, than as far as I’m concerned, he’s pretty much maxed out his popularity.
The true wild card here, and it’s a card that the NC will hold close to its vest until the last possible moment, is the line ups for the second round of debates in late July. It is inconceivable, using a random draw, that the match ups will be the same. Perhaps Warren gets a crack at Biden herself, or draws Harris and Buttigieg, while Biden gets Castro and the human incivility machine DeBlasio. That dynamic makes it highly likely that the second debates will have as many surprises as the first. But one thing is clear. Candidates in the second tier on the stage no longer need a moment i the spotlight, they now require a big bang creation moment to break through to the top tier. If not, they’re toast.