What did the Democratic debate tell us?

Photo: Tony Tur/Courtesy of Adrienne Arsht Center

By Patrick E. Waldinger

Photo: Tony Tur/Courtesy of Adrienne Arsht Center

What did the Democratic debate tell us?

By Patrick E. Waldinger
Patrick E. Waldinger, assistant director of debate and a lecturer in the University of Miami School of Communication, provides his analysis of Wednesday’s Democratic presidential debate.

On Wednesday night the first official debate of the 2020 election kicked off in Miami at the Adrienne Arsht Center. Ten Democrats squared off in the first debate, with another 10 debating tonight. Having so many candidates provides unique challenges and opportunities in the debates. 

A crowded field meant answers were kept to a minute or less. The short answer format requires a strategy to answer questions directly and with passion. It also becomes clear when candidates do not actually answer the question. You can see how this helped some candidates – Warren, Castro, de Blasio – and hurt others – O’Rourke, Ryan, Delaney. 

In such a crowded field, many are trying to get noticed. The three in the middle – Booker, Warren, O’Rourke – minimized direct challenges, whereas, those on the ends were more aggressive in their strategies. Frontrunners do not have an incentive to engage in direct confrontation, since creating controversy can alienate supporters. The results for each candidate are mixed, but the overall strategy was sound. 

The 10 Democrats seem to agree much more than disagree. Moderates in the field attempted to stake out their positions but not by attacking those on the far left. Even when the moderators attempted to foment disagreement, there seemed to be nuanced explanation, rather than heated debate. Even memorable moments were tame within the current political discourse.

Since these are not debates, in the strict sense, it is difficult to determine exact winners and losers. However, some candidates seemed to raise or lower their fortunes, relative to their starting positions.

Winners:

Elizabeth Warren – As the frontrunner, she was center stage and answered the first question of the entire debate, regarding the economy, with charisma. Her second half was not as strong and something she will need to work on during the upcoming debates. 

Julian Castro – He was very prepared with policy details and did a great job of communicating them effectively. His strategy was to wait for his issue – immigration – and really go full force, even directly confronting O’Rourke. He will have to adjust to others preparing against him in future debates. 

Bill de Blasio – A case study in maximizing the opportunity. Even though he was at the end, he used the little time he had effectively. He articulated a clear vision for the party and the country, albeit a little vague on details. If he rises, he will have to address more policy specifics. 

Losers:

Tim Ryan – If there is a clear loser, it was Ryan. He got into a debate with Tulsi Gabbard, a veteran, about Afghanistan, and said the Taliban carried out 9/11 – the most severe gaffe of the night. Even before that, he looked like a deer in the headlights. His message about Democrats connecting with workers is sound advice but likely needs to be carried on by someone else. 

Beto O’Rourke – His Texas Senate campaign propelled him into the spotlight. He is known for town halls, but in the debate, when pressed for specific policies, he seemed a bit flustered. His style of stories and general inspiration does not fit with the quick format. He will have to adjust his strategy for the debates if he wants to continue. 

Jim Delaney – Being on the end of the stage, Delaney had to fight for air time. However, Delaney often interrupted which made him seem irrelevant when the moderators dismissed him. When he did get a chance to speak, his pragmatic appeals failed to capture the audience. If he gets to continue in the debates, he will have to make a stronger connection to the audience in the limited time. 

Despite the microphone problem, yesterday’s debate was quite good.  Expect tonight’s debate tone to be different and we might expect to see more fireworks. What to look for: Bernie Sanders will likely struggle with the time. How will Joe Biden handle being directly challenged? Kamala Harris, a former prosecutor, will look to shine. Pete Buttigieg, who appeals to anti-establishment voters, is a wild card and makes this must-see TV.