After the last Democratic presidential-candidates debate in Houston on September 12, I adjudged the event as having little impact on the dynamics of the race. Sure, some candidates may have marginally helped themselves (Elizabeth Warren, as always, and probably Pete Buttigieg, Cory Booker, and Beto O’Rourke) and others may have hurt themselves (Julián Castro and Kamala Harris). But the overall dominance of the field by the Big Three (Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Warren) was undisturbed.
In part, the lack of drama in Houston was attributable to the lack of friction between Biden and Warren during their long-awaited first debate appearance on the same stage. Yes, Bernie Sanders was aggressively hostile to Biden’s criticisms of Medicare for All (the topic that debate moderators appear to find endlessly fascinating, at the expense of all others). But no one seemed to exude a sense of urgency about the competition, and so needles did not move.
Or did they? Whether or not the last debate made any difference, the dynamics have changed thanks to Warren’s steady rise in the polls and other indicators of candidate strength. On the day of the Houston debate, Biden had a ten-point lead over Warren in the RealClearPolitics national polling averages, and Warren was virtually tied with Sanders. Now Warren is virtually tied with Biden, with Sanders more than ten points back. On the fundraising front, Warren, like Sanders, is relying on small-dollar contributions, and like Sanders did very well in the quarter than ended on September 30 (Sanders reported $25.3 million raised, and Warren $24.6 million; Biden was significantly behind at $15.2 million). And probably most importantly, Biden’s perceived electability advantage may be eroding, as Warren is doing much better than before in head-to-head trial heats against Trump (Biden’s average lead over Trump is now 6.9 percent; Sanders’s is 5.3 percent; and Warren’s is 5.2 percent). There’s really not a lot of distance separating the Big Three — or, if you prefer, the two co-front-runners — on this particular measure of electability. And Warren’s favorability ratio among Democrats is now, according to the Morning Consult tracking poll, at 68/14; Biden’s is 73/20, and Sanders’s is 73/19.
Add in the fact that Warren now leads in the polling averages for the first two contests, in Iowa and in New Hampshire, and you can see why she rather than Biden may have a bull’s-eye on her back in the fourth debate. Reinforcing that possibility is the fact that Biden is in such a delicate position thanks to the central role he and his son Hunter are playing in the impeachment drama that has gripped Washington. His campaign has already pointedly warned rivals not to bring up the subject in the next debate. And if they (or more likely the moderators) do “go there,” then the former veep may chew scenery as the victim of a Trump smear, or as the candidate so terrifying to Trump that he risked impeachment to promote the smear.
So all in all, if anyone is to become a target in Ohio, it may be Warren. But she won’t be an easy target. For one thing, she is a skillful debater (none of the other candidates, so far as I know, went to college on a debate scholarship) who manages to convey passion without attacking other candidates, and is steadily improving her already strong ability to get wonky while remaining relatable to regular folks. And she’s pretty good at generating zingers, as she showed at the most recent multi-candidate forum (as reported by The Guardian):
During the CNN forum on LGBT issues on Thursday, Morgan Cox, the chair of the Human Rights Campaign board of directors, asked Warren how she would react to a supporter who said: “I’m old-fashioned and my faith teaches me that marriage is between one man and one woman.”
Warren replied: “Well, I’m going to assume it’s a guy who said that. And I’m going to say, then just marry one woman. I’m cool with that. Assuming you can find one.”
That’s already gone viral.
Another problem with going after Warren is that the most savage GOP talking points about her are not about things Democrats are likely to touch with a ten-foot pole. Yes, she received extensive progressive criticism late last year for the DNA test she took the rebut conservative claims she had faked a Native American identity. But at this point, raising the subject just reinforces Trump’s interminably offensive “Pocahontas” labeling of Warren. The latest pseudo-scandal about Warren, a dubious claim that she made up an incident where she was “shown the door” as a teacher when she was pregnant, has aroused a some sympathy for her, particularly among women. No Democrat will bring that up, either, and if moderators do, then other candidates may well leap to her defense.
Perhaps one of the more “moderate” candidates who are lagging in the polls, such as Buttigieg, O’Rourke, or Amy Klobuchar, could bring out the old shillelagh of “too far left” for Warren or “too expensive” for her policy proposals. But they have to be careful about sounding like they are repeating Republican talking points. And such talk could tempt moderators into yet another endless discussion of Medicare for All and its effect on private insurance and tax rates — a discussion likely to give Warren and Sanders a disproportionate share of debate time.
Speaking of Bernie Sanders, no candidate’s standing is more threatened than his by Warren’s recent good fortune. And clearly, some of his supporters would like him to take her down a notch. But so far, both of these candidates have resisted various pressures to get them at odds with each other. And in the Ohio debate, Sanders may be less focused on Warren than on projecting sound health and renewed determination after his recent heart attack.
So to come full circle, could the real clash in Ohio be between Warren and Biden after all? As the candidate for whom everything’s coming up roses lately, Warren would seem to have little to gain by going on the attack at this point. And as noted above, Biden may have other fish to fry in dealing with — or perhaps exploiting — the impeachment saga. But sometimes unexpected things can happen in debates, particularly if a moderator springs a surprise or skillfully foments a fight. But all in all, the strongest debater in the field is the least likely to stumble, and stumbles by others could continue to frustrate those dismayed for one reason or another by Warren’s success.