vision 2020

Each Candidate’s Path to Winning the Presidential Debate in Houston

The first and second rounds of Democratic debates helped winnow the huge field. The third round in Houston will feature all ten qualifying candidates on the same stage. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Blessedly all on the same stage for the first time, the ten Democratic presidential candidates who qualified for the third round of debates in Houston on September 12 will, as usual, have some objectives in common, and others distinct from each other. In the former category, of course, they will all try to avoid gaffes or other missteps, and to rank high in the inevitable post-debate ratings of their performances. With ten of the lower-polling (and in some cases, fringe) candidates no longer among them, they will probably expect more equal treatment in questions from the moderators, and they will have a bit more time than in the first two rounds of debates to answer them (according to principal sponsor ABC: one minute and 15 seconds for direct responses to questions and 45 seconds for responses and rebuttals).

In terms of the big picture of the nomination contest, it’s worth remembering that all ten of these debaters have already qualified for the fourth round of debates in Ohio next month (so has billionaire activist Tom Steyer, with a couple of other non-September-qualifiers possibly making the cut). So this isn’t quite the existential challenge to stay alive we saw in the first two rounds among the lower-polling candidates, although we are definitely getting to the point where viable candidates need to start looking viable. “Potential” will only get you so far, and before long the domination of the polls by the Big Three candidates (Biden, Warren and Sanders) will lead media and donors to write others off if no one makes a move.

Beyond that, they may all have to come to grips with moderator efforts (which were so evident in the first two rounds of debates) to highlight and tease out differences on issues where Democrats are perceived as vulnerable, such as abolishing private health insurance and decriminalizing border crossings. For some “centrist” candidate, of course, this type of questioning could be a godsend, particularly with John Delaney not being around to hog the center of the spectrum.

Individual candidate objectives, as best we can guesstimate them, are as follows, in order of the poll rankings according to which they will be displayed on the stage in Houston:

1) Joe Biden

Biden needs to replicate his significantly more with-it July debate performance, complete with the ability to counterpunch he showed there, and avoid the stumbling and ineffectual Old Uncle Joe he displayed in the first debate in June, when he became something of a punching bag for Kamala Harris. As the front-runner, he has less to prove, but you get the sense he and his people are worrying about Elizabeth Warren’s slow-but-steady rise in the polls (and the very positive press she’s been getting).

This week his staff made a point of letting reporters know he planned to take Warren down a peg by criticizing all her “plans” as unrealistic. Given all the expectations surrounding this first direct encounter between Biden and Warren, such telegraphing has whetted appetites for intraparty bloodletting, so the veep needs to deliver. The impression that his debate strategy is to show aggressiveness (perhaps to counter perceptions that he’s too old and cautious) was reinforced by another staff gambit of attacking media coverage of his campaign as betraying ignorant elitist bias from child reporters who were still in school when Joe and Barack conquered America.

As always, Biden’s smartest move will probably be to parry any criticism of him by his rivals or the moderators as a criticism of Barack Obama. That should help keep the barbs a bit dull.

2) Elizabeth Warren

As the candidate most steadily on the rise, Warren doesn’t have all that much to prove in Houston. But her solid performance in the first two debates may have raised expectations that she will continue to be the best pure debater in the field. All other things being equal, it’s probably a good idea for her to let lesser candidates bear the burden of going after Biden, though if he goes after her, she needs to respond in a way that reinforces the impression that she’s replaced him as the Democrat who most represents what the party is becoming, while he’s a relic of an irrelevant (if not morally compromised) past.

Since she has indeed criticized some of the things the Obama administration did and did not do to deal with corporate power, Warren has to be careful not to walk into the trap of sparring not with Biden’s record but with that of his very popular ex-boss and patron. She’s beginning to get a bit of purchase with minority voters; this is no time to blow it. But she may not be able to avoid the scrap with Biden that the moderators will likely try to provoke (they will be side-by-side at center stage), and that the former veep seems to want as well.

3) Bernie Sanders

This is the first debate in which Sanders doesn’t come to the stage as Biden’s best-polling rival (though obviously he does lead Warren in some polls). He was solid, if predictable, in the first two debates. If possible, he needs to retake command of the progressive forces in the Democratic Party, a mantle he is in danger of losing to his friend from Massachusetts.

Perhaps because he is still loath to criticize Warren directly, the signals his campaign has been sending out lately focus almost obsessively on his “electability” credentials, as Politico reported this week:

“For so many people out there that are going to vote in this primary, the most important issue is beating Trump,” said Cohen, the co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s. “And for most people, the general idea that’s out there in the mainstream is that the person who is going to beat Trump is the centrist, Biden. But the reality is that in poll after poll after poll, Bernie beats Trump.”

Sanders hammered away at the same message minutes later: “We are defeating Trump in every national poll that has ever been done,” he told his army of supporters.

There’s no reason to believe he won’t keep doing that in Houston, though it might be smart if he did his “hammering” with a bit less volume. He’s still in a position to play the long game.

4) Kamala Harris

Harris’s campaign has been defined by candidate debates more than anyone else’s. She had a “breakthrough” moment in Miami that led to a (brief) polling surge and a general feeling that she was in a good position to emerge as an alternative to both Biden and Sanders — in part because she appeared capable of taking on Biden’s sketchy record on racial issues, exposing a big vulnerability of his. But in Detroit, she had more of a “breakdown” moment, getting tangled up on her complicated position on health care and taking some brutal hits for her record on criminal-justice reform as California’s attorney general. As my colleague Eric Levitz commented in rating her the biggest loser of the night:

Harris’s core strength in the 2020 race has been her exceptional poise and stage presence. In her closing statement, the senator tacitly acknowledged this fact, inviting Democratic voters to fantasize about how she would deploy her prosecutorial acumen against Donald Trump in a general-election debate. But by that point, she had spent nearly three hours undermining her own case.

To put it simply, Harris needs to regain her mojo in Houston, and dispel the impression that she’s a candidate whose time to shine has already come and gone. It would also help her to do or say something to improve her standing among the African-American voters who may break but could make her candidacy in South Carolina and beyond.

5) Pete Buttigieg

Mayor Pete is another candidate fighting the perception that he made a big splash for a while and then fizzled. He’s done nothing in the debates to damage his reputation for being exceptionally articulate and thoughtful, though he had some uncomfortable moments in Miami dealing with his kryptonite issue: alleged police racism in his city of South Bend.

Since then Buttigieg has filled out his policy portfolio (notably with a racial-justice agenda that he really needed) and spent quite a bit of the money he raised in his burst of fundraising prowess earlier this year on building a ground organization in Iowa. But he remains handicapped by the widespread perception that he’s a wine-track candidate who lacks broad appeal, or who needs more seasoning than two terms as mayor of a small city in Indiana. And it won’t do his candidacy much good if he does so well in debates that his name comes up often as somebody’s potential running mate.

6) Andrew Yang

With Marianne Williamson and Tom Steyer failing to make the cut, Yang is the only “non-politician” candidate who will be on the stage in Houston, which gives him an opportunity to stand out even more than he already does with his casual dress, laid-back manner, and unconventional message (combining a signature universal basic income program with provocative takes on robot-driven mass unemployment and apocalyptic climate change). He’s been polling well enough to be taken seriously, but not well enough to dispel the impression that he is something of a “novelty” candidate with limited if intense support (typified by the aggressive social-media warriors known as the Yang Gang).

While, like every other candidate, Yang could use a viral debate moment, he may also need to mix it up with other candidates a bit, if only to show electability-crazed primary voters he has the chops to go up against Donald Trump. It wouldn’t take more than a modest bump in the polls to earn Yang some of the media attention the Gang furiously believes he is being unjustly denied. That may be why Yang drew attention today to a HarrisX poll showing him at 5 percent nationally (unfortunately, HarrisX isn’t a very reliable poll, but he’ll take it). And then there’s this:

7) Cory Booker

Booker should serve as a warning to those who assume a strong debate performance will always produce a “bounce.” He did well in the Miami debate, and even better in the Detroit debate. He was poised with a strong campaign infrastructure, especially in Iowa, to take advantage of the buzz. And it got him almost nowhere. He’s been bouncing around at between one and 3 percent in the national polls for months: just enough to stay on the debate stage, but not enough to stand out from the crowd.

Perhaps more than any candidate, Booker might benefit from picking a fight with a rival or two, though the trap for him is that a fight might conflict with his image as the candidate of civility — even of love. He could also audition for the “moderate alternative to Biden” opening that will develop if and when the former veep really loses steam. Alternatively, Booker can just keep plugging along and hope to move up in the candidate ranks by sheer persistence and attrition.

8) Beto O’Rourke

O’Rourke has a narrow window of opportunity in Houston. Left for dead earlier in the year after the huge initial buzz over his candidacy faded and then turned negative, he seemed to get at least a temporary new lease on life via his reaction to the gun massacre in his home town of El Paso last month, as New York’s Gabriel Debenedetti pointed out:

He’s been a whole new Beto since then. In this new incarnation, he has ditched his (disorienting) carousel of policy emphases that saw him alternately go all-in on immigration, climate, and gun policy. Instead, he’s focused his policy talk on individual calls for aggressive action like mandatory assault-weapon buybacks. He hasn’t stopped visiting the usual campaign stops in Iowa and New Hampshire, but he’s cut back, and he’s now spending way more time in hard-hit communities or places where he can make a clear political point, like the Mississippi town devastated by ICE raids, the site of the old “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa, and a gun show in Little Rock … And he’s not talking much about himself these days. Instead, he’s talking a lot about structural inequality and discrimination, and about racism, and — more than anything else — about urgency.

He needs to very clearly convey this new message on the stage from Houston, where he should have a supportive home-state audience familiar with the exciting 2018 Senate race that made him an initially viable presidential candidate. He’ll have to earn that second look from a national audience, on a stage crowded with other candidates hitting similar themes.

9) Amy Klobuchar

If there’s any candidate who exemplifies the gap between potential and performance, it’s probably Klobuchar. She has a lot of on-paper credentials, including her sterling election record in a purple state, her proximity to next-door Iowa, and a strong position in the relatively uncluttered “moderate lane” of the crowded field. Her only black mark, allegations of cruelty to her staff, is probably a matter of indifference, or even a positive for many voters who aren’t that fond of federal employees. Yet she’s never made a move in the polls or won headlines, and her best credential right now is a poor sixth-place standing in Iowa with 2.5 percent in the RealClearPolitics averages.

She’s another candidate who could benefit from just one clear standout debate moment. One tack she could take is to invidiously compare her rivals’ many ambitious policy proposals with her own long but very practical list (mostly executive orders) of goals she believes she could implement in her first 100 days as president, with or without cooperation from Republicans. Just mentioning her agenda isn’t enough; she needs to make it clear her rivals aren’t living in the real world. That, and electability remain her untapped potential strengths.

10) Julián Castro

Castro is another candidate who by most accounts did well in both of the first two rounds of debates — though his performance in Miami was overshadowed by Kamala Harris’s clash with Joe Biden. He’s done well enough to stay on the debate stage, but continues to struggle in polls (e.g., a new Quinnipiac poll of his home state of Texas shows him with 3 percent, as compared to 12 percent for fellow Texan Beto O’Rourke, even though Castro is perceived to be running the better campaign).

Castro’s big challenge is similar in some ways to Booker’s, who can’t seem to get a hearing from African-American voters. As the only Latino in the race, Castro has a ready-made base constituency that his debating skills and interesting policy agenda might expand. Perhaps he should try to horn in on Biden’s capitalization of Obama administration credentials, while playing the generational card (he’s only 44) that only the departed Eric Swalwell tried to deploy against the three septuagenarians dominating the field.

Once the debate ends in Houston, preparations will be well underway for the fourth round of debates next month in Ohio, which could (yikes!) feature a return to multiple nights of debates. These candidates should exploit their time together while they can.

Each Candidate’s Path to Winning the Debate in Houston