If the first debate was the engine starting on the 2020 election, the second was a boost of nitrous. Feathers were ruffled, tempers tampered and a couple of front runners may not hold those privileges much longer.
The second debate was destined to be more exciting than the first, regardless of political ideology. Four of the top five candidates were on the stage, including the front runner, former Vice President Joe Biden. The three major players underneath Biden in the polls were not merely trying to find footing so that people know who they are – they’ve accomplished that part. For the second debate, it was the king of the castle tactics, and Biden was on top of the hill.
The candidates who participated in the second debate were:
- Sen. Michael Bennet (Colorado)
- Former Vice President Joe Biden
- Mayor Pete Buttigieg (South Bend)
- Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (New York)
- Sen. Kamala Harris (California)
- Former Gov. John Hickenlooper (Colorado)
- Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vermont)
- Rep. Eric Swalwell (California)
- Author Marianne Williamson
- Entrepreneur Andrew Yang
Sen. Kamala Harris easily won the night, and she may have even won both nights of the debates. She was calculated, proficient in her answers and poised to take on Biden. By most accounts, the California senator also came off as warmer and with more humanity than her roots as a former prosecutor would suggest.
If some of the other candidates were taking potshots at Biden, Harris struck across the bow. And what has political analysts across the country swooning over her performance is how she did it – not with cheap soundbites (like Rep. Swalwell’s “pass the torch” attempt), but real criticism about race relations guised in dinner table-styled discussion.
The biggest moment of both nights belonged to Harris. She seized the opportunity to let Biden know that his recent comments of praise for himself for working with segregationists were “hurtful,” as a woman of color. She also questioned his record for opposing “busing” in his early career, as public schools worked to integrate after the decision of Brown v Board of Education. Harris spoke of a “little girl” in California, who was bussed to school every day, as part of the second class to integrate into her school. “And that little girl was me,” Harris said.
The tense exchange with Biden is drawing the most attention, but Harris also had another perfectly executed moment. Early on in the debate, when the first of many interruptions and disagreements broke out, Harris spoke over everyone and exclaimed, “Hey, guys, you know what? America does not want to witness a food fight. They want to know how we’re going to put food on their table.”
Harris was the second most searched candidate during the debate, and at one point was the top overall trending search topic on Google in the U.S. The most searched for candidate on the night was author Marianne Williamson, more than likely because: she was unknown coming in, and her performance was…interesting.
The performance Harris put on even gained her some local attention, from Little Rock’s mayor, Frank Scott, Jr.
Harris has politely taken control of the debate while passionately demonstrating her policy background rooted with her heart for people.
— Frank Scott, Jr. (@FrankScottJr) June 28, 2019
The other winner on the night who, if not for Harris’ performance, would be getting far more attention today was Mayor Pete Buttigieg. This would come as no surprise to his followers, but “Mayor Pete” brought an acute precision to all of his speaking moments, layered with a combination of thoughtfulness and pragmatism that made him appear like a seasoned veteran of Washington, rather than the mayor of South Bend, and the youngest candidate on the stage.
One of Buttigieg’s elevating moments was a direct attack on the Republican Party, speaking on the party’s “language of religion,” which Buttigieg asserted was now hypocritical because of the Trump administration’s family separation policy at the southern border.
“For a party that associates itself with Christianity,” Buttigieg proclaimed. “To say that God would condone putting children in cages, [the Republican Party] has lost all claim to use religious language.”
Buttigieg is a man of faith himself, as a member of the Episcopal denomination.
Worth noting, as an honorable mention of sorts, was Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. She may not have had the flash in the pan moments, but she was fairly consistent in her message conveyance all night long. And with the poor performances of the front runners, she could find some daylight for this consistency.
Former Vice President Joe Biden had a really rough night. Given his resume and experience in politics, that should come as a real surprise. Although this is his third time running for president, and neither of the other two accumulated much success.
Biden was, by most accounts, bested by Harris in their exchange. And overall, the perception of his strategy coming in was to just “shoot from the hip” on his record as a 30-year Washington veteran, both as a congressman and Vice President. This is not to say that it was all bad for Biden on the night – he had some moments – but it was hard not to sense a slight lack of interest in the process. He continued clinging to his same few stump-speech talking points and his connection to Barack Obama. It was, at the very least, a shaky start for the leader in the polls
At one point, Biden awkwardly and abruptly stopped talking mid-sentence, moderating himself in saying “my time is up.” Many are drawing grim metaphors from that line, insinuating that it was an unintended double entendre, and a representation of his campaign as a whole.
Sen. Bernie Sanders also had a rough night. As the candidate who has been second in the polls for some time now, he should have capitalized more on Biden’s performance. But for the most part, Bernie put in a pretty monotonous performance, filled with the same song and dance that he had in 2016.
Bernie’s worst moment was probably when he was asked what he would do, should he become president, if Roe v Wade was overturned. His final answer (after being given 10 extra seconds to actually address the question posed) was essentially, “Medicare for All.”
No matter the headlines, no matter the virality of the clips, this is not the end for Joe Biden. We are still a long way away from November 2020. But, if he continues to fumble his way through the debates, it will be. He comes in with the advantage of being a face that people know, but some of his colleagues will garnish similar recognition as the Democratic primary continues. He will need to step it up if he wants to remain the front runner, or even relevant at all.
The Democratic party as a whole has joined Bernie on the “left,” and that is making his schtick a little stale. To be fair, he has been saying a lot of the same things for years and is to credit for being the magnet that brought the party closer to him on topics like healthcare and college tuition. But that means that a lot of his competitors have fresher and more exciting versions of his original visions. 2016 was his coming out party, but he cannot continue to run as if it is still 2016, and win. He has to find something new to say, or stand for, that separates him. “Medicare for All” is not a crutch that he can fall back on for every policy discussion.
It is still really, really early. Bernie and Biden have been one and two in the polls for virtually the entire primary so far, but that does not mean anything. Sen. Harris, Sen. Warren, Sen. Booker, and Mayor Buttigieg emerged from these two debates as the probable “winners” overall, but that could all change in the next one, or the one after that. It is a long and arduous journey to run for President, especially with as many candidates as the Democrats have.
For some context, at this same time in the leadup to the 2016 election, the Republican party had a lot of candidates, and also had to establish multiple debate stages to accommodate the populous field. The Republican polling leaders at this point in 2015 were:
- Jeb Bush – 22%
- Scott Walker – 17%
- Marco Rubio 14%
- Ben Carson 11%
- Mike Huckabee 9%
Only one person on that list, Sen. Rubio, made it to the final stages of the primary. Donald Trump, who obviously would go on to win both the primary and the general election, was polling at around 1 percent.
Stay tuned, keep an eye on the polling changes in the coming weeks, but hold off on the cement – for any candidate – right now.