Politics Chat: Democrats hold first presidential debate

By Aristophanes, Hermes and Dolos


Editor’s Note: The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity, grammar and style.


Aristophanes (Ari): Twenty Democrats took the stage in Miami across two nights for the first primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign.

Ten candidates debated on Wednesday, with the other 10 debating on Thursday.

On the first night:

  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts
  • Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas
  • Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey
  • Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota
  • Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington
  • Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii
  • Former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland
  • Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro
  • Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio
  • New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio

On the second night:

  • Former Vice President Joe Biden
  • Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont
  • Sen. Kamala Harris of California
  • South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg
  • Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado
  • Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York
  • Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper
  • Rep. Eric Swalwell of California
  • Spiritual author Marianne Williamson
  • Entrepreneur Andrew Yang

So what did you both think of the first debate of the 2020 election? Has anything about the primary changed?

Hermes: In the first night, Elizabeth Warren easily outshined a class of relatively mediocre competition, but Julián Castro proved he is a legitimate contender by essentially running Beto O’Rourke off the road.

In the second night, Kamala Harris showed her toughness and was not afraid to go after the front runner, Joe Biden, in a way that’s clearly going to siphon off quite a bit of his black support.

Dolos: I’ll certainly be watching the polls closely over the next couple of weeks, but I think night one gave us a new candidate to pay attention to: Julián Castro.

Hermes: The second night was much better TV, but the first night was probably the more productive debate.

Dolos: I agree with Hermes that Castro effectively leapfrogged O’Rourke.

Ari: I agree with everything Hermes said, except one thing: Joe Biden looked bad in night two, but how much are voters going to care? Is it really going to siphon off quite a bit of his black support? I’m skeptical.

I think Biden is almost Trump-ish in his ability to withstand negative criticism, at least so far.

Hermes: Trump looks defiant in the face of criticism, like him or not. Biden just looked weak and knew he was getting his tail handed to him.

Dolos: Good question: I think back to 2008, when Hillary led among black voters until Obama started to gain momentum, then things shifted fairly quickly. I think a similar thing could happen this time around, particularly if it’s Kamala who emerges as Biden’s chief rival.

Ari: That’s a good theory of the case for Harris. I think she definitely had one of the best performances in the debate.

Dolos: When she came after Biden for praising segregationists and for his stance on integration school bussing, she made a very moving point about how she had been personally affected by those policies. She captured the room in that moment and I think really dented Biden.

The question, of course, is whether it’s enough to hurt his poll numbers.

Hermes: I agree. I believe Kamala emerged as a front runner, even if she was already doing well to begin with. Biden is certainly the most Hillary-esque candidate as President Trump is trying to get Biden to be the nominee, since he can run the same playbook as last time.

Ari: I guess one question I have is: How much are Biden voters paying attention to the race right now? Or are Biden voters just the type who lean toward the most well-known, recognizable candidate?

Dolos: Good question. I think more than usual. There’s data to suggest that more people are more highly engaged than in past cycles.

Hermes: Well, among other polls I have seen, Biden leads among likely voters who say they haven’t followed the race that closely, which is not good news when Warren is leading among the most engaged.

Biden’s large lead thus far has a lot to do with name recognition, even if he got a big boost after declaring.

Dolos: I was supporting Biden until I proposed to my girlfriend!

Get it? Because I became “engaged.”

Hermes: Oh, now I get it.

Ari: I didn’t get it either until Dolos explained it.

Now I feel dumb.

Hermes: Same.

Ari: But anyway, what Hermes said, I think, is a good indicator that maybe some of Biden’s voters will start to switch to other candidates as the race goes on, as they learn more about the alternatives. But I think it will be a long, long slog.

Hermes: I just think old, white guys are the least electable demographic among Democratic voters this election cycle.

Ari: I think Harris has a better shot at taking down Biden than Warren does. Change my mind.

Dolos: That’s probably right!

Hermes: I agree. Warren hasn’t really focused on being on the offense either, but that is certainly a smart political strategy when you don’t need to go offensive to get noticed.

Dolos: Nate Silver often makes a point that I agree with, that Kamala Harris has the largest potential coalition in the field.

Ari: As mentioned earlier, Harris may eventually start to eat into Biden’s support among black voters. She’s a good “consensus candidate.”

Dolos: She’s progressive enough to win over the left, even if she sin’t their first choice, but moderate enough to not frighten centrists the way Bernie and Warren might.

Hermes: I agree.

Ari: She’s in the middle of the party, with the ability to unite both the lefties and the moderates. Her main opponents right now — Warren, Bernie, Biden — can’t really say the same.

Dolos: And let’s not forget, black voters are a huge part of the Democratic primary voting bloc.

Ari: Yes.

Hermes: Which is why Buttigieg is in trouble right now.

Ari: Harris can do well in South Carolina and Nevada, both early primary states, as well as California, her home state, which is delegate-rich and placed earlier this year than it has been in past primary schedules.

Dolos: Speaking of, that was one of the more tense moments of night two, when Swalwell came after Mayor Pete for his handling of a police shooting in South Bend.

Hermes: Swalwell’s one goal was just to attack the front runners, and he probably failed his own expectations.

Dolos: And Ari makes a good point: California is voting on Super Tuesday!

Hermes: So is Tennessee, a state I could see Harris doing well in.

Ari: I’m not sure what to think about Buttigieg as a candidate.

Dolos: But with Mayor Pete, did you like what you saw from him? I thought he spoke well on issues like the GOP’s co-option of religious language, but I do think this narrative of being dismissive of minorities in his own community will continue to dog him. Has he hit his upper bound?

Ari: Buttigieg is an excellent public speaker, for sure.

Hermes: I think he still has a bit more growing to do before becoming president. The lad’s just 12 years old.

Ari: He is the youngest candidate in the field, right?

Hermes: He and Swalwell are the same age.

Ari: *Youngest serious candidate in the field.

Dolos: That’s practically half as young as Biden.

Dolos: And even younger than Marianne Williamson, who I wager is as old as the planets themselves.

Ari: I’m not sure if Buttigieg has what it takes to go the distance.

Hermes: He doesn’t, but I think he has built up his brand to run again or even go for another office this year.

Ari: He may do well in Iowa. He may do well in New Hampshire. But can he maintain any momentum beyond that?

Dolos: It’s tough because he probably thinks he can’t win statewide in Indiana. But I wish he were running for Senate or governor there.

Hermes: I don’t blame him, but if he isn’t offered VP he sure should try to run for something else.

Ari: I mean, he might be able to win statewide in Indiana. But it would be very, very tough.

Governor might be a better bet for him than Senate, because gubernatorial races tend to be less tied to partisan voting patterns. And Indiana is very red.

Hermes: I mean, so is running for president.

Ari: But Obama won Indiana in ’08. Joe Donnelly won Indiana’s 2012 Senate race.

Dolos: Buttigieg has certainly raised his national profile. If he isn’t named VEEP, which maybe he could be, he certainly has the national profile now to have a big donor base if he runs for another office.

Ari: I believe he can use his presidential campaign funds to run for another federal office, too, if I’m not mistaken?

Hermes: Warren took her Senate funds and threw it into her presidential campaign, so yes.

Ari: Indianapolis is blue. If Mayor Pete ran statewide, he’d also carry South Bend (his hometown), I’m sure. That’s a good starting position.

Dolos: Well, that settles it. Buttigieg for Senate, 2022!

Although he has said in the past that he sees himself as an executive rather than a legislator.

Hermes: His House district will have an open seat, I think.

Ari: But if a Democrat wins the presidency in 2020, 2022 will be a bad year for a Democrat to try to take on a Republican incumbent senator!

Do we want to talk about Warren? She had a great debate performance, I think.

Dolos: I have a plan to talk about Warren!

Hermes: Like I said, she was clearly the best/the winner in the first night. I want to see her go up with the big guns.

Ari: I would like to see Warren v. Biden in the next debate.

Hermes: She would end his candidacy… lol

Ari: Or maybe even Warren v. Sanders, because they have some overlapping support.

Dolos: That’s what was so interesting. Nobody really came after her on night one, which makes sense.

Ari: Was Warren hurt or helped by being in night one?

Dolos: I honestly don’t know. I think the two candidates the people coded as doing “well” in the first debate were Warren and Castro. I think he certainly benefited from being on a thinner stage, but her case is less clear.

Hermes: According to FiveThirtyEight, they were. Castro gained 14.5 percent overall approval rating, while Warren gained 8.1 percent approval. But Castro also had more ground to gain.

Dolos: I think it would’ve helped for Warren to have Biden or Bernie there to draw contrast with. That said, I think she came off as the most well-prepared, thoughtful person in the room.

On night two, nearly all the candidates had a tough time making an impression.

Hermes: She clearly was well-prepared, while Beto was a deer in the headlights. And that is because there already was so much unintended combined star power.

Ari: Before the debate, I was leaning toward Warren being helped by being in night one. Now I’m less sure. I think Harris had an opportunity to go after Biden, the front runner, directly by being in night two, which she utilized to her advantage. Warren could have done the same (albeit from a different angle), but she never had the opportunity. Not to say she didn’t do very well in night one — because she did.

Dolos: I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again: Beto has a very nice sounding voice, but his speaking cadence is terrible.

Hermes: I felt both candidates did well based on the hand they were given.

Ari: Is Beto ever going to recover in the polls, or is his candidacy doomed?

Hermes: He is screwed.

Ari: I think I agree.

Hermes: He needs to quit and run for the Senate, which is what his supporters think, as well.

Ari: I think Buttigieg and Beto are in a similar “lane,” and Beto will have a hard time taking that lane back from Buttigieg.

Hermes: Pete is the shiny new toy. Beto is yesterday’s news.

Also, it’s easy to look charming when you’re going up against TED CRUZ.

Ari: I was going to say the same thing.

Hermes: I think he could re-create that charm against John Cornyn, who is less disliked but not really that much more liked.

Ari: But then he risks becoming a perennial candidate.

I’m not sure what Beto should do next, honestly.

Hermes: Does running for president not make him one?

Ari: It’s at least a different office.

Hermes: I also think Beto has unique advantages over someone like Rocky De La Fuente, for example: he could actually win.

Ari: Well, yeah. But imagine if he runs for Senate against Cornyn and loses. Again. Which, given that it’s Texas, he probably would. How does he look then?

That would be: losing a Senate election, losing a presidential primary, then losing another Senate election.

Hermes: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Dolos: Yeah, losing two Senate races in a row would be rough. Maybe he gets a Cabinet look.

Hermes: Don’t lose.

Dolos: It’s hard in Texas!

Ari: Maybe. What Cabinet office, though? And to be blunt here… why would a Democratic president pick Beto for a Cabinet position, anyway?

Hermes: Maybe just lie low for a while? I don’t know.

Dolos: Well, like the Democratic electorate, I think we’ve spent enough time on Beto for now.

Ari: Let’s talk about Bernie. I think Warren is going to start eating more into Bernie’s support. There’s some indication that she already has. He suffers from similar drawbacks to Biden: simply being a well-known candidate, and therefore the default pick of the ill-informed.

Hermes: I agree. He was second to Biden among low-informed voters.

Dolos: What struck me about the debate, though, was how few people really went after Bernie, compared to the way they went after Biden.

Hermes: Bernie has also had the same message for 30+ years.

Dolos: A few times candidates even remarked on how they agreed with him on certain points.

Ari: An anecdote: I was talking to someone the other day who doesn’t really follow politics very closely. Bernie is the only Democratic candidate she was aware was running for president. She didn’t even realize Biden was in the field.

Hermes: Warren was actually very complimentary of him and refused to take the bait.

Dolos: However, I don’t think he had a signature moment on Thursday that stuck with voters. He just sort of kept being Bernie, which doesn’t seem like it’s a recipe for growth.

Hermes: I agree. He needed to attack an actual candidate instead of the “billionaires” and Wall Street.

Dolos: One note though: Don’t point out that you’re as old as Joe Biden, man! I know we can all see it, but still!

Hermes: He has done a good job, in my opinion, of looking less unkempt.

Ari: Bernie’s path, I think, is hoping the field stays very large for as long as possible. He has a solid base, but little room to grow. His ideal is that Biden’s support declines and is split somewhat evenly among the other candidates — enough so that he might be able to maintain a plurality.

Hermes: I feel like, fair or not, Bernie’s peak opportunity was 2016. He seized on it, but it was not enough. That being said I think he still has a decent chance to win the nomination this time.

Dolos: Bernie’s campaign was great at being a left alternative to Hillary Clinton. And much to his credit, he moved the party to the left in many ways! But now the same schtick isn’t going to get it done.

Ari: Or he might benefit if Warren self-destructs. But I don’t think I see that happening.

Hermes: The only bad thing people say about Warren is old news and a non-issue: misleading people about her Native American heritage (or lack thereof).

To get Warren to self-destruct, you’d need to try something with that, but even then it has a good chance of backfiring.

Ari: I genuinely think she learned a lesson from that debacle and is unlikely to take the bait from Trump again. Although that issue could come back to haunt her in a general election — you know Trump will make a big deal out of it if he can.

Hermes: I think people have learned last time about taking Trump seriously about criticism like that. But the whole “Pocahontas” thing is certainly why I was skeptical to jump on her bandwagon in the past.

Dolos: Compared to Bernie, Warren is savvy, prepared and looks much younger. She also calls herself a capitalist, which may be meaningful.

Ari: Trump was effective at using “Hillary’s emails” against his last general election opponent, another mostly non-issue that I think is actually similar to Warren’s Native American heritage thing.

Dolos: What honestly has impressed me about Warren is how she changed the narrative from “DNA test Pocahontas debacle” to “I have a plan for that.”

Hermes: ^^

Ari: But you know who else had a lot of plans? Hillary Clinton.

Hermes: OK, but she was just rehashing Obama’s, not coming up with her own. At least that is how it is perceived.

Ari: I’m not sure that’s being completely fair to Clinton.

Hermes: Was any of it fair to Clinton? Even if I am the one who made the point, it’s all old news.

Ari: Warren is like if Bernie and Hillary combined into a single candidate, which is both good and bad.

Hermes: That’s fair.

Ari: So to wrap this all up, I want to ask one last question. If you were going to write one single headline for both nights of debate, what would it be?

Hermes: “Harris, Warren show they’re in it to win it”

Ari: “Biden falters, Harris soars during first Democratic presidential debate”

Dolos: “Harris takes aim at Biden, Castro flashes potential in two-night Democratic clusterf**k” ■


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