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Debates narrow field of Democrat candidates

In the quest to defeat Donald Trump, the Democratic party has enlisted the largest and most diverse group of candidates in history. Once topping at 27 “major” candidates, the field has shrunk to a still unprecedented 18. The campaign so far has essentially been a race to see who can get attention from the party’s base of supporters before 2020. All have had the opportunity to win over the public, partly through qualifying for televised debates. Am I the only one who has noticed that the debates are too long, too overcrowded, with too much free speaking time left to irrelevant candidates? No.

General election and primary debates have played a key part in our political custom since the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 were held in Illinois. Debates are such powerful campaign tools that, in the few minutes of time a candidate has the opportunity to speak, elections are often won and lost; researchers often note the first debate of 1960 as being vital to Kennedy’s win over Nixon which, coincidentally, were the first to ever be broadcast.

In the 2020 race so far, two of the four Democratic debates were so packed that they needed to be broken into back-to-back nights to give the 20 qualified candidates time to speak.

With at least one debate scheduled to take place every month until May, the winnowing of participants we’ve seen so far is set to ramp up. Despite the number of debating candidates being reduced from 20 down to 12, the race is actually somewhat static. Since June’s first debate, the race to represent an increasingly younger party has mostly remained between three top candidates all above the age of 70: Former Vice President Joe Biden and senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. For Biden and Warren in particular, the debates so far have seemed to have had the largest impact.

Biden was and is the most popular Democrat nationally. According to RealClearPolitics, after the latest debate on October 15, 27.2% of voters said he was their first choice to win the Democratic nomination. With Warren and Sanders following respectively at 21.8% and 17.3%. In spite of his current lead, the debates have generally lead to a bad news cycle for the front runner.

Most impactful was his first appearance in June when he faced attacks on his age and record. Sen. Kamala Harris, in a contentious moment, went after him on his stance regarding the use of busing to integrate schools. By pressing critiques of his civil rights record, she attempted to pull away his mostly older, African American base. Following the debate, Harris did quickly benefit as she momentarily jumped into second place, but her momentum didn’t last. She soon fell down to fifth place where she stands today.

So while the debates have so far failed to break Biden’s lead in national polls, there are signs his campaign is struggling as his lead in early states has either dipped or completely disappeared.

In complete contrast to Biden, the debates have been essential to Elizabeth Warren’s rise. Taking over Bernie Sanders’s role as the leading progressive, she’s managed to come within 6% of the VP’s national lead thanks to viewers of her great debates. Her surging popularity led to her also receiving the majority of criticism and attacks in October’s debate. The upside of which was that she got the most speaking time in the process. With strong performances, Warren made inroads nationally as well as in the first three voting states of Iowa (where she’s statistically tied with Biden), New Hampshire (is winning) and Nevada (down by 4%). Appearing to be giving Biden a run for his money in these early contests, Biden’s campaign has gone on to preemptively say that he doesn’t really need to win them to clinch the nomination. This, perhaps, is acknowledgment his numbers will continue to get worse as Warren’s strength increases.

With more debates scheduled, stricter qualifications for who will be on stage are set to shake up the race further. November’s debate alone might see four candidates be pushed out. Of those individuals, Former Secretary of Housing Julian Castro has said that failing to make the stage would be the end of his campaign (in addition to failing to raise his own campaign goal of $800,000 by Halloween).

As the Democratic field continues to shrink with each debate, all leading candidates will inevitably face heat from both sides of the aisle. As their leaders insist that more unites them than dives them, it will be interesting to see which of their friendly fire attacks Trump is inevitably able to use to his benefit in the general election next year.

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