Tonight’s Different Dynamic

TPM Illustration/Getty Images
June 27, 2019 8:49 p.m.

One thought about how tonight’s debate may go.

Last night’s debate was fairly positive and policy substantive. I actually found it refreshing – maybe because Donald Trump came up surprisingly little. But it’s important to note a key dynamic at play. Elizabeth Warren was the only one on the stage with any significant public support. All the rest are either truly flatlined or pretty close to it. That meant there was little reason to attack anyone or ‘draw contrasts’. These people all desperately need to find any people to support them. Showing they’re better than someone else or that someone else sucks is a luxury or irrelevancy until they can get some group of people to think they should even be in the race.

The big exception illustrates the pattern. Julian Castro seems to believe that there’s a Texas/Southwestern “lane” that pits him against Beto O’Rourke (he may well be right). He went into the evening with a clear strategy to show he’s better on a key policy than O’Rourke and that O’Rourke is kind of wishy-washy and clueless. Mission accomplished.

Tonight’s debate has a very different dynamic. Four of the five top contenders (Biden, Sanders, Harris and Buttigieg) are on the stage.

Biden is sitting on the biggest bundle of support.

Lots of people need some of that support for themselves. There are two ways to get it. One is to show Biden is simply disqualified as a candidate who can represent the Democratic party in 2020. So there’s his whole long record of decades of service supporting various policies the Democratic party has now abandoned. Maybe he’s just too old. Whatever. The point is just to show he’s not acceptable.

The other is to pierce Biden’s aura of electability. Electability, the person who can beat Trump, is hugely important to most Democratic voters. How and whether you can figure out who’s electable is another question. But if you could figure it out that person would be a prohibitive favorite. That’s what Biden has at the moment or at least has had. Right or wrong, he’s persuaded a lot of people he is that person. He’s a known quantity. He’s reliable. Many Democrats think he’s the best shot to win. Polls have tended to back up that assumption. I don’t think Biden will fall out of the lead into that aura of electability is disrupted or others show they’re just as capable of beating Trump.

The other issue is Sanders. He’s now in a struggle to be the left candidate. He’s fallen almost to a tie with Warren. She’s rising and he’s at least stagnating in support terms. His challenge is that Warren isn’t on the stage with him. It’s not a good place and gives him lots of reasons to go on the attack, something that usually comes naturally for him. The key point is that the trend for him isn’t good right now. He needs to change the dynamic.

The relevant point is that lots of people on the stage have an incentive to go after each other tonight. That factor was almost entirely absent last night.

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