The First Debate: The Winners and Losers

With the first round of Democratic debates now written into the history books, it is clear that over the course of the two night event between twenty candidates that there were several people who clearly managed to break out, and other candidacies which failed to reach expectations or simply imploded. Prior to the debates, former Vice President Joe Biden had a clear double-digit lead over the rest of the pack, with Senator Bernie Sanders taking up a distant second. After that in third place is Senator Elizabeth Warren, whose rapid rise in the polls was due in part to Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s recent return to South Bend, Indiana, amidst a crisis with the police shooting of an African-American man, with the police body camera turned off. These four candidates had everything to win, and everything to lose over the last two nights. Buttigieg’s campaign was riding on doing well, his performance make or break for his candidacy. Biden had the most to lose, being the clear target as the front-runner. For the countless other candidates it was a night to make a lasting impression for the few minutes they might be able to speak on a crowded stage, perhaps the only chance they might have as future debates have stricter entry requirements.

Although the results are still being debated, and with the first polls recognizing the impact of the debates not set to be released until after July 4 Weekend, there were upon watching several clear things. First, although criticism of President Donald Trump are expected, the candidates appear to be generally moving in the direction of debating policies. Most people across the country either hates or loves President Trump (Although he is generally far more disliked than liked), and so the value of attacking him will not be gaining any new supporters. Instead, issues like Medicare for All, DACA, gun violence, foreign policy, racial justice, LGBT+ issues, civil rights, and much more, were discussed on stage. This debate proved that despite fears of the Democratic Party moving too far to the left that all of the candidates have their own solutions to the various problems facing the country. whether they be socialist solutions, capitalist solutions, or a marriage of the two differing economic philosophies. Although most of the candidates generally agree on the end result and values they have, their paths to reach those end results are different.

Below are my observations from watching both nights of the debates. Some of them are notes I took as I was watching, and others are after a day or two of reflection. As a general note, I am a social democrat who believes that picking and choosing the best of both capitalism and socialism is the best way to resolve many of the issues in this country. I am also a supporter of Mayor Pete Buttigieg, although I generally like most of the field and I am open to other candidates. For me, former Secretary Julian Castro, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, and businessman Andrew Yang were other candidates I previously and still do at some level support. Obviously not all twenty candidates will be discussed, but instead those who clearly won the night, who clearly lost, and who largely remained in place or made enough of an impact to warrant any type of mention.

The Winners

  • California Senator Kamala Harris was the undeniable winner of both nights, wielding command over the debate stage and being the only major candidate to truly undermine former Vice President Biden’s campaign so far. In addition to being an island of stability and maturity amidst the turbulent and chaotic seas of the second night of debating, she destroyed the former Vice President on the issue of busing, and his support of allowing local communities to decide on the issue. Her discussion of race was frank, eloquent, and humanized an issue that so many Americans have had trouble coming to terms with. Biden argued that civil rights issues such as busing should have been up to the community, while Harris rightfully discussed how civil rights should not be up to the municipalities or the states, but to the federal government. On other issues as well she was clear, concise, and gave specifics in areas that other candidates failed to. In the end, Harris was the clear winner of both nights, potentially undoing the campaign of the front-runner
  • Former HUD Secretary and former Mayor of San Antonio, Texas, Julian Castro did very well in the first night, and in a debate dominated by the presence of Senator Warren he managed to make the case for his candidacy before the most people he possibly could. In addition to successfully sparring against former Congressman O’Rourke and made a coherent argument for immigration reform and railed against President Donald Trump’s immigration policies with specific policy proposals, and took command of the stage when bringing into discussion his proposal to repeal Section 1325 from the United States Code, which made it a felony to cross the border illegally, instead of a misdemeanor as it had been prior to 1929, and was rarely enforced until recent years. He also should get credit for being the only candidate on either night to take a deep dive into LGBT+ issues, saying that transgender rights are vital to this country. Of all of the performances in the first night, he managed to break out as O’Rourke floundered and Warren played it safe
  • Mayor of South Bend Pete Buttigieg managed to survive what was for any candidate an extremely trying week for his early campaign that threatened to topple his position in third place among a field of twenty-five Democrats. Last night, however, he managed to explain how dealing with the crisis of a police office shooting a black man with his badge camera turned off could translate to the experience of dealing with a crisis at the White House. He proved to be resilient in the face of growing criticism, and discussed serious issues facing people who had voted for President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, only to vote for President Donald Trump in 2016. Buttigieg hopes to recapture those voters by making it clear that the issues impacting the coasts such as climate change, automation of jobs, and even civil rights can impact people in the Midwest. He also managed to leeway his own experience as the only veteran on stage during the second night, and one of only two veterans running for the Democratic nomination alongside Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard. Through these arguments, Buttigieg managed place himself in a position as a fighter not just for progressive causes, but also for middle and working class voters in the Midwest who could win back states like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania in 2020 should he win the nomination
  • New Jersey Senator and former Newark Mayor Cory Booker was of the winners the least to make a large impact. He spoke passionately about having a national reckoning on both the issues of race and gun violence, especially in his own city of Newark. Although much of him doing well has as much to do with Senator Warren largely remaining quiet during the second hour of the debate and her decision to play it safe, and as a result taking a leading position among the three highest polling people on stage next to Warren and O’Rourke, he managed to show how his executive experience as the mayor of a large city and his experience as a member of the United States Senate can benefit the nominee of the Democratic Party. Most importantly, however, Senator Booker’s charisma was front and center, as well as his genuine desire for change and how violent crimes impact even his neighborhoods. It is very clear that he not only maintained his position in the upper tier of candidates, but that he managed to possibly increase that standing

The Losers

  • Former Vice President Joe Biden had been and as of now is still the front-runner for the Democratic Party’s nomination for President of the United States in 2020. However, in his first debate since jumping into the race, he effectively fell short of almost all expectations, and very likely squandered his massive lead this early in the race. In addition to touting the policies of the Obama administration, calling it the “Obama-Biden administration” as if he were a Co-President instead of a Vice President, Biden also was forced very early on into a defensive position by Senator Harris, who took an opportunity to dig into his nearly fifty years of history and baggage on issues ranging from segregation, busing, immigration, and others. Although Harris dug into him the most, others hit him on issues such as abortion, the deportation of three million undocumented immigrants under the Obama administration, the bailout of Wall Street at the height of the Great Recession. Although this is most certainly not the end of his candidacy, for the first round Vice President Biden was sucker-punched and failed to go on a counteroffensive
  • Former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke was the true definition of failing upwards, whose Quixotic campaign for the White House came about after losing a close race against Senator Ted Cruz of all people in the 2018 midterms. Although he is young, comes from an increasingly purple state, and has some degree of charisma, he was wiped out on the debate stage during the first night. In the very first question presented to him on a proposed tax rate, he avoided the question through speaking Spanish poorly, and then was destroyed by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio of all people on healthcare. Although O’Rourke rightfully called for a mix of Medicare for All and keeping private insurance in place, his retreat from the podium after being attacked was a horrible look. Things were only made worse when fellow Texan Julian Castro further dug into him on the issue of immigration, where again O’Rourke failed to materialize a counteroffensive. Although a lot of candidates on the stage simply lost by virtue of not being able to break out in a crowded field, the former Texas Congressman is likely the first to be so grievously wounded that his candidacy is dead on arrival
  • Businessman Andrew Yang was of the more obscure candidates a favorite for a lot of people, myself included. His outside the box proposals for resolving the issue of the increasing automation of our economy that could leave millions of jobs in the dust was extremely forward-thinking. Although his proposal for a Universal Basic Income (UBI) was laughed at by many as a new handout, many economists fear that the wave of automation coming will lead to an ever-growing population that is unemployed or forced to work in a more freelance economy. It is enough of an issue that multiple countries are exploring or even experimenting with the concept which would radically transform our society in the same way the industrial revolution did nearly two centuries ago. Yang himself had a poor debate night, appearing flustered when he appeared to zone out through the first question presented in him, and his lack of a necktie, although casual and somewhat refreshing, did not do him any favors. He barely skimmed over UBI, and instead delved into broad platitudes about working with others, the opposite of what attracted so many to his campaign. UBI could have gained traction early on, but like climate change, it might take several more years or even decades before people realize the seriousness of the coming crisis. Unfortunately, Yang was running a campaign better suited for 2040 rather than 2020, and it is unlikely that this first impression to most people will stick

Honorable Mentions

  • Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren in the last few weeks surpassed Mayor Buttigieg for third place in national polls, but with the collapse of Vice President Biden and Senator Sanders’ inability to really expand his base might do her favors. She gets credit for keeping calm and collected, yet balancing that with a sense of urgency on the issues facing this country. To many she is an alternative to Biden and Sanders, a third choice that does not have the long and controversial history of the former, and the broad platitudes of the latter. Despite these advantages, she did not break out in the same way Castro or Booker did in her debate, instead holding her ground in a crowd of mostly one-hit wonders or political has-been candidates who will disappear by the next debate. One would wonder if she could have performed better had she been on stage with Vice President Biden and Senator Sanders, taking the place of Senator Harris in hitting them hard on the issues, but we can only hope that the next debate might see that combination
  • Author and Californian Marianne Williamson was the most unusual candidates on stage during the second debate night, standing at the end with no substantive policies except harnessing love in 2020 in the same way President Trump harnessed hate in 2016. She often interrupted other candidates with an unusual and long-forgotten Mid-Atlantic accent whose most famous modern speaker is the fictional character Frasier Crane from Cheers and Frasier. Her social advocacy over the decades, however, is worth mentioning. She helped to provide psychological assistance to victims of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s, and set up Project Angel Food in 1989, which delivers 12,000 meals a week to people suffering life-threatening illnesses. She is also extremely deep into spirituality and love, and oftentimes is the embodiment of the stereotypical California mental health guru who uses bath salts and candles. Her only real blind spot is her strong position against vaccinations, which did not come up during the debate. Although an interesting figure and of all of the minor candidates the most fascinating, her debate experience did not provide much of values. Despite this, her name recognition is improving as a result of that performance
  • New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is many things. As a resident of the New York metropolitan area it is difficult to escape weekly news about him. The public corruption issues within his administration, scandals involving the NYPD, NYCHA, and other programs that benefit donors. He only survives by virtue of maintaining the successes of the Bloomberg administration in the city, with his only real accomplishments being the end to “stop and frisk” and other smaller changes to policy in New York City. To the rest of the nation, however, de Blasio is a relative unknown. He is outside of Senator Sanders probably the most left-wing, which could appeal to younger Americans not familiar with his leadership, but the only major breakout moment on the debate stage was successfully routing former Congressman O’Rourke on healthcare, and talking about the issue of race, being the only father to an African-American son on that stage. When talking about race and the need to have “The Talk” with his son, he managed to encapsulate the issue of race relations in this country. For the brief time he was on stage he did well, but there is no doubt that any future appearances or rallies will probably crush what little momentum he gained
  • Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders did not have a good night, but he did not have a bad night. Instead, he managed to repeat his usual stump speech about the millionaires and billionaires and the upper ten percent having the same wealth as the bottom ninety percent, a speech that anyone who could remember the 2016 Democratic primaries could remember. Although Sanders should certainly earn some credit for bringing issues like Medicare for All, economic inequality, and the United States’ lagging behind other modern industrial nations on a multitude of issues, as well as reviving an interest in politics for young people, his debate performance did not meet expectations. With more candidates now touting much of what he argued for in 2016 and his largely failed response to the issue of gun control during the second night of debates, he failed to gain any traction despite being in second place. Although he will likely maintain a position in the upper tier of candidates by virtue of a strongly loyal base of supporters, he cannot expand that due to the multitude of other good candidates
  • New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand managed to revive a campaign that she failed to initially take off the ground when she announced her candidacy several months ago. However, she has managed to create a niche for herself during the second night of debating as a candidate for civil rights issues and feminism, all of which is valuable. She touted her work on leading the charge to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and on tackling the issue of sexual harassment and assault in the military. Although she very likely saved a campaign that was never really gaining any traction, the multitude of other candidates touting much of the same and more truly limits where she could go in the polls. Instead, it is very clear that she is hoping to concentrate on a group of key issues that could take her to future debates where she could attempt to expand her base of supporters. Overall, she had a good night and far exceeded any expectations set for her

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About Me

Nicholas Cipollo is a historian and political activist from Long Island, New York, who has studied American history. He earned his MA in History from Long Island University and has a focus on the American homefront during the Second World War.


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