Last night’s Democratic debates signaled the official start of the 2020 election. Sure, dozens of the Democratic party candidates have been campaigning for months, and incumbent president Donald Trump has already formally announced his re-election bid, but things do not truly start to set in until candidates start debating. Sort of like summer – it has been hot for months, but June 21 was technically the first “official” day of the season. Last night was 2020’s solstice.
Coming into the first half of a two-night debate lineup (since there are 20 candidates who qualified), there were a lot of unknowns, most of which being the candidates themselves. Many people know the familiar faces of Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Beto O’Rourke, and maybe even Amy Klobuchar, but the majority of the people at home watching were hearing and seeing some of these candidates for the first time.
Here are the candidates who participated in the first debate:
- Mayor Bill de Blasio (New York City)
- Sen. Cory Booker (New Jersey)
- Julian Castro, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary
- Former Rep. John Delaney (Maryland)
- Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii)
- Gov. Jay Inslee (Washington)
- Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minnesota)
- Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (Texas)
- Rep. Tim Ryan (Ohio)
- Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Massachusetts)
Strategically speaking, the two biggest winners from last night may be Julian Castro and Tulsi Gabbard. While every candidate (for the most part) had their moments, and some of the bigger names may have had more complete nights, Castro and Gabbard came in as unknowns – both polling at or less than 1 percent – and each left as candidates that viewers are at least now aware of.
Castro established himself as the leader on immigration policy, getting the first question related to the polarizing topic to which he provided a firm and articulated answer. Then, the former secretary muscled up on O’Rourke, whom Castro accused of “needing to do his homework” on the issue. According to Google Trends, Castro’s search numbers increased by 2400 percent during the debate.
Gabbard found a way to stand out through her experience in the military, as she established firm footing as a non-interventionist, and had a viral quip to Rep. Tim Ryan, in which he either misspoke or goofed the difference between the Taliban and Al Quaeda.
“When we weren’t in there, [the Taliban] started flying planes into our buildings,” Rep. Ryan said. To which Rep. Gabbard responded: “The Taliban didn’t attack us on 9/11; Al Qaeda attacked us on 9/11.”
Tulsi Gabbard finished the night as the second most searched candidate on Google during the debate
Of the four big names – Booker, Klobuchar, O’Rourke, Warren – Sen. Booker probably had the best night. He spoke for over 11 minutes, more than any other candidate, and was the most searched for on Google during the two-hour run time. Booker also took the lead on gun control, saying, “If you need a license to drive a car, you should need a license to buy and own a firearm.”
Sen. Warren has been surging in the polls over the past month, and had a strong night, in her own right. She certainly did not do anything to disrupt her growing popularity, and perhaps most importantly, was not attacked by any of her colleagues, despite being the highest polled candidate on the stage. She was able to convey her message, spoke the third-most at 9 minutes 31 seconds, and was the fifth most searched for on Google; which is serviceable given that most viewers were already familiar with her.
If nothing else, Wednesday night established that Warren is highly prepared, steadfast in her beliefs, and a formidable foe for current front-runners Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, who will both be participating in the second debate on Thursday.
Time will tell how these “winners” of the first debate do in subsequent polling over the coming weeks.
Major Moments and Takeaways
The topics of discussion in the first debate were wide-ranging, including gun control, healthcare, the economy, immigration, climate change, abortion rights and foreign policy. Because the debate cup was literally running over with topics and candidates, there was not nearly enough time spent in the “weeds” of policy debates. For the most part, the candidates had similar talking points, and there was not much room to stand out. This comes to be expected, as these first debates are usually little more than introductions to the candidates, with shallow policy verbiage.
Coming in, many were anxious to see the disagreements between the candidates as it relates to healthcare. Sen. Warren is closer to Bernie on Medicare for All, while Sens. Booker and Klobuchar have kicked around quasi-compromises of a public option, where Americans would have the option to buy in to Medicare or keep their private insurance plan; similar to public schools and private schools – where everyone has access to public, with the option for private.
As it played out, this actually became a bit of non-issue. Klobuchar, often regarded as one of the most moderate of the candidates, actually professed her support of Medicare for All in the long term, but prefers the public option in the short term as a pathway to get there. Fans of theatrics may have to wait to see if Bernie and Biden spar more dramatically on this subject on Thursday.
Every candidate found an agreement that healthcare is a basic human right, and each seemed to be leaning further to the left on the issue – and most others, respectively. This is important, as many political analysts believe that the public option would be a much more digestible and “electable” stance during the general election. We may see some sway back to more moderated stances once a Democratic candidate is picked, obviously, depending on who it is.
Speaking of Klobuchar, one of her only big moments on the night was a rebuttal to Washington Gov. Inslee. Inslee asserted, on abortion rights, that he was the “only candidate here who has passed a law protecting a woman’s reproductive rights in health insurance…we have one candidate who advanced the ball,” to which Sen. Klobuchar disputed, “I want to say there are three women up here who fought pretty hard for a woman’s right to choose.”
Also of note: more Spanish was spoken on the debate stage than any other in history. O’Rourke, Booker and Castro all delivered lines in Spanish at various points in the debate.
Rather than the pack leaders, O’Rourke was the frequent punching bag on Wednesday. Mayor De Blasio was the first to take a crack at the Texan, interrupting O’Rourke with a quip of “Why are you defending private insurance?” while Beto laid out his healthcare plan which is under the umbrella of a public option. This in addition to Castro interrupting and challenging O’Rourke on immigration.
Interestingly, no talk of marijuana came up during the debate, where many Democrats are either for full-on legalization or, at the very least, decriminalization. We should expect this one to come up at some point, with Sen. Booker mentioning his post-debate disappointment that it was not discussed.
All-in-all, it was an okay debate. Certainly not salacious or prolific, but it gave some lesser-known candidates a platform to shine, which a few were able to take advantage of.
The second Democratic debate, on Thursday, will feature:
- 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
Images courtesy of candidates