It’s difficult to truly measure the value of last week’s Democratic debate. Historically, fourth-round primary debates have featured a few politically established individuals responding to meaningful moderator questions, exchanging policy critique and pitching personal platforms to a party audience. Tuesday’s debate, antithetically, devolved into a surreal twelve-person free-for-all throughout which would-be party nominees routinely and loudly interrupted one another in poorly veiled attempts to scavenge as much screen time as possible. Still, the chaos that was this campaign’s fourth debate ultimately did provide a certain amount of clarity — new confrontation between unfamiliar candidates engendered unusually policy heavy dialogue, even forcing frontrunners like Elizabeth Warren to substantively defend their proposed programs and plans. Consequently, here are my winners from Tuesday’s Democratic debate.
Bernie needed a win, and he got one. After trailing Joe Biden for most of his campaign, Sanders has now also fallen behind Warren and is underperforming in many of the same states he won wholeheartedly in 2016. Even more distressingly, Sanders’ biggest liability — his age — became the focal point of political news when he was hospitalized following a heart attack. Glancing at his campaign before the debate, you’d have been forgiven for thinking the Bernie train might have finally derailed.
Fortunately, though, Sanders came out guns blazing. His debate performance his sharpest so far — more animated than even his younger colleagues, Sanders defended his Medicare-for-all plan with the tenacity of a mama grizzly protecting her cub. His execution and conduct were impeccable, and for that he deserves a place on the winners list.
Like Muhammad Ali in his prime, Warren absorbed hit after hit during Tuesday night’s debate. Ironically, however, this assault on her policies and political history served only to cement her status as a frontrunner. Effectively parrying challenges to her healthcare proposals, Warren went toe-to-toe with virtually every candidate on stage. This discernible realignment in candidate-on-candidate attention is telling, and Warren’s ability to effectively and concisely defend her campaign make her a notable debate performer.
Mayor Pete established himself as a true competitor at Tuesday’s debate. Pitching policy options to solve everything from Supreme Court politicization to gun violence, Buttigieg consistently won direct confrontations with each his colleagues. He transitioned effortlessly from countering Tulsi Gabbard’s pro-Assad military platitudes to reprimanding Warren after she failed to adequately explain how she’d finance her healthcare plan, seemingly never wavering or faltering.
Though less charismatic than many of his colleagues, Yang began his campaign with one, singular goal: promote the establishment of a universal basic income (UBI). The effects of this concentrated effort were on full display throughout the debate; even competitors like Julián Castro and Gabbard wholeheartedly embraced Yang’s plan. Though the entrepreneur is still a dark horse candidate, Yang’s single-minded dedication to his ideals — and his honed ability to turn any moderator question into a discussion of automation — have already changed the course of these debates.
It takes more than singular debate performances to win an election, of course — personally, I still haven’t given up on Cory Booker — but these short public relations events are indisputably indicative of campaign momentum and public perception. These debates, though not always fun and often frustrating, are vital moments of branding in a presidential campaign.
Originally published 10/21/19.