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2020 Dems: The Debates Aren’t Going to Save You

Can a brilliant debate performance save a stalling candidate? Are the front-runners a flub away from falling back to the pack? It’s complicated

Democratic presidential hopefuls (fromL) US author and writer Marianne Williamson, former Governor of Colorado John Hickenlooper, US attorney and entrepreneur Andrew Yang, Mayor of South Bend, Indiana Pete Buttigieg, former US Vice President Joseph R. Biden, US Senator for Vermont Bernie Sanders, US Senator for California Kamala Harris, US Senator for New York Kirsten Gillibrand, US Senator for Colorado Michael Bennet, US Representative for California's 15th congressional district Eric Swalwell, participate in the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, Florida, June 27, 2019. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP)        (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season hosted by NBC News on June 27th, 2019.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — The conventional wisdom that followed the first Democratic presidential debates looked something like this:

Kamala Harris: dominant. Julián Castro: ascendant. Joe Biden: eviscerated.

Harris and Castro were deemed the victors of round one of the DNC Battle Royale 2019. Biden was the clear loser and he knew it: The former vice president waved the white flag onstage in Miami when he cut himself off mid-answer and told the moderators, “My time is up. I’m sorry.”

Yet a month later, the Democratic primary field looks a lot like it did going into the first round of debates. Harris’ support in the polls doubled in the days after the debate but has since tumbled downward in RealClearPolitics‘ polling average. Castro remains stuck at the 1-percent mark despite his strong performance. As for Biden, he suffered a post-debate dip but has recovered and is now comfortably at the front of the pack, double digits ahead of everyone else — that is, right where he was before his first disastrous performance on the debate stage.

What does it say about the Democratic debates that field has stayed largely unchanged after the first round? It raises the question: Do these debates even matter? That is, do they have the potential to change the primary in any meaningful way?

Yes, but not nearly as much as the candidates or the media would have you believe.

First, a bit of context about these 2020 debates. What we’re witnessing in this Democratic primary is a new phenomenon. There isn’t much precedent for a crop of candidates this large, with such clearly defined tiers, and with so many strong, viable candidates at the top.

Julia Azari, a political science professor at Marquette University, says that it’s not unusual to have a bunch of fringe and lesser-known people try to qualify for a presidential debate. What’s new this time around is the thick middle tier of Democrats — former Obama cabinet secretary Julián Castro, Sens. Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand and Amy Klobuchar, former congressman Beto O’Rourke — who are plausible candidates but haven’t taken off.

Azari adds that the relatively crowded top tier of contenders — Biden, Harris, Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren — is a new phenomenon for the Democratic Party in the post-1972 era of the modern presidential primary. “If you remember, in 2008, everybody freaked out that both Obama and Clinton were still in the race and both good and qualified. Like ‘Oh my god, what do we do?'” Azari tells Rolling Stone. Today, it’s possible to imagine any of the four candidates currently at the top of the heap clinching the nomination.

The thick middle tier and the number of viable frontrunners — at least at this point in race — makes it hard to look to past primaries for clues about the current one. “We’re in pretty new territory,” Azari says. “We know from the research that debates can change people’s minds, but we don’t know how it applies to a field like this one.”

With that in mind, two questions loom over the second debate this week: Can a second-tier candidate move into the first tier? And is there room in the top tier for a Klobuchar or a Castro?

At this point in the race, with 10 candidates onstage each night, what most voters tend to do is choose a candidate they like and compare the rest of the field to their pick, says William Benoit, a communications professor at the University of Alabama-Birmingham and an expert on debates. The challenge for a middle-of-the-pack candidate, Benoit says, is to perform well enough in the debates that you become the first choice for enough people to claw your way into the top tier of candidates. In the soundbite-and-Twitter era, the obvious way to do that is to engineer a “moment” — an attack, an argument, etc. — with a top-tier candidate. In other words, don’t be surprised to see Beto take on Bernie or Castro confront Biden.

But even the sugar-high rush of a viral moment on the debate stage doesn’t last. Castro’s clash with O’Rourke over immigration policy at the first debate is a useful example: Castro’s campaign capitalized on his performance by hauling in a bunch of small-dollar donations, pushing him past the DNC’s donor threshold for the third and fourth debates, even though he saw a brief bump in the polls. “It’s worthwhile to be at least a little bit skeptical of rapid, news-driven swings in the polls,” was how FiveThirtyEight‘s Nate Silver recently put it. “By contrast, slow-and-steady gains or losses in the polls — say, Warren’s gradual improvement over the past few months or Sanders’s gradual decline — are often more durable.”

For a top-tier candidate such as Harris, Azari says, the debates can also be an opportunity to help voters make that crucial intellectual leap of: Can you see this person as president? It’s a question that feels especially urgent in this presidential election, when it’s hardly an exaggeration to say that the fate of the country and even the planet is on the line. “That was really where Harris stood out” in the first debate,” Azari says. “It’ll something I’m looking for again: Was that a one-time thing or are we going to see that dynamic again?”

Finally, of course, there’s the media’s spin on the debates. Unwilling to evolve beyond a rudimentary winners-and-losers model, the journalists and pundits who cover the debates will raise up some candidates, criticize some, and more or less ignore the rest. The candidates who get the most “buzz” can channel it into publicity, donations, and maybe enough support in the polls to qualify for the third and fourth debates this fall. 

Even then, this week will be the last we see of several Democratic contenders on the debate stage. A masterful performance won’t rescue a middling campaign any more than a disastrous one will sink an otherwise strong contender. For obvious reasons the TV networks and talking heads like to hype these debates as inflection points, do-or-die moments, the stuff of history. In reality, the early debates mean less for the candidates than they do for the viewing public, who are trying to wrap their heads around a Democratic field as diverse and unwieldy as this one.

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