By John Harashinski
July 12, 2019
Two weeks after the first Democratic primary debates, it still feels like Christmas morning to members of the Mock Convention Political Team. Fresh takes on the candidates have flooded our Twitter timelines and informed our research efforts, and we are excited for the Democratic nomination to occupy the nation’s political spotlight. To share the joy of political analysis, below is a recap of how we thought the debates went, what we paid attention to, and what we are waiting to see in the second round of debates later this month.
Big Takeaway: It’s Still Early
It is still incredibly early in the primary process. We have about a year to go until the Democratic National Convention - where the party delegates vote to formally nominate a Democratic candidate - and about seven months until the Iowa caucuses. Nevertheless, in this early stage of debates, the candidates’ strategies can be boiled down to two simple themes:
1) If you are already swinging high in the polls and doing well on the fundraising front, you need to sustain your momentum and assert dominance on the stage, hopefully carrying you all the way to July 2020 in Milwaukee.
2) If you are newly declared or have been stagnant for quite some time, you need to gain traction, likely at the expense of another candidate.
Our team paid special attention to these strategies during the debates and found that, as expected, the name of the game was all about momentum. However, there is plenty of time until the voters decide. Thus, it is important to remember that one candidate who seems unstoppable now may not be in the same position come January, especially with multiple debates left to go.
Considering these tactics, the political team analyzed the candidates’ performances during the first debate. The following two candidates seized the opportunity to capitalize on momentum and, in our opinion, played the best with the cards they were dealt.
Night 1 Strategic Winner: Julián Castro
Before the debates, Castro was the quintessence of a dark horse candidate. Castro had experience in two executive roles by the age of 44: Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Obama and mayor of San Antonio.Pundits were saying early on that because of Castro's Latino roots and strong appeal to the Democratic base he could gain a lot of traction in a race where he had the room to grow and show himself—certainly not the case in the current field of 24 presidential hopefuls.. He was barely polling around 1% before Wednesday’s debate and needed to make himself known.Speaking powerfully in two languages and driving home his own position on illegal immigration, Castro proved to be a candidate who could syphon momentum and shock the system heading into July. Through this distinct policy position, he was able to establish himself as a solid candidate, but more than that, he was able to steer the debate to his corner, putting pressure on the other candidates to support his position. Early polling indicates that Castro saw a nice bump, indicating that he may no longer be a dark horse candidate but rather a contender for 2020.Moving from someone who blended into the crowd to a candidate in his own right, Castro was a big winner in the first night of debates.
Night 2 Strategic Winner: Kamala Harris
Harris, the junior United States Senator from California, entered the first debate as a top dog. Even in January of 2017 political junkies floated her name around as the candidate to bear the Democratic nomination come 2020. However, her growth in the field was later stunted by a powerhouse candidate jumping into the race: Joe Biden. Biden undisputedly has been the leading figure for the nomination, at times leading in polls by double what the next-closest candidate had.Many thought that his nomination was inevitable after Biden centered his campaign around the working class and picked up an endorsement from the International Association of Firefighters.The second night of debates revealed how inaccurate that sentiment was, and Harris’ remarkable stage presence proved that this race is not over. She needed a breakthrough moment and she found it amidst Biden’s history with segregation. On the national stage, Harris tapped into her career as a prosecutor and attacked Biden with a powerful anecdote relating herself to the children that were affected by Biden’s position on post-school segregation busing. In doing this, she struck a nerve with Democratic voters concerned with race relations in America, and early polling indicates that this tactic worked to weaken Biden’s grasp and strengthen Harris’. Prior to her performance in the first debate, Harris came in the polls around number 4, trailing both Biden, Sanders, and Warren.Now, she is the second favorite in several polls.Needless to say, this jump is huge for Harris, which is why she is the big winner in the second night of debates.
What to Watch for in the Next Few Weeks
With the first round over, here is what to watch out for from the candidates over the next few weeks:
The second round of Democratic debates will take place July 30thand 31st. Expect plenty of action to occur between now and then, particularly in terms of fundraising numbers. The size of a candidate’s war chest is not a guarantee of success, but it can go a long way in helping to secure the nomination. While big donations are crucial, another marker of success for a campaign is the amount of small, individual donations made. These donations show a financial commitment from average voters and are a strong indicator of preference that helps quantify intensity of support.
While it is still incredibly early in the process, we would not be surprised if a candidate dropped out before the next debates. Following the first round, John Hickenlooper had a bit of a campaign staff shuffle; five of his top staffers quit the campaign.Staffers often leave a campaign when they know it is not going anywhere, and their exit may be sounding the alarms for Hickenlooper’s run. Likewise, candidates on the stage who saw virtually no gain in support, fundraising, or name recognition (i.e. Tim Ryan and Eric Swalwell) may also consider an exit. A thinning of the herd is inevitable, but it may come sooner than people think. (Indeed, the field already saw its first exit, as Richard Ojeda dropped out back in January of 2019).
***This synopsis was written prior to the exit of Eric Swalwell, a testament to the research efforts of the Mock Con team.
New Debate Lineup
The DNC caught plenty of flak for its debate lineup on the first night, succumbing to the same problem that the Republicans experienced in 2016: a varsity debate and a JV debate. Despite random lineup selection, the first night still seemed like a JV debate to many, as the only candidate on the stage consistently polling over 2% was Elizabeth Warren.The absence of heavy hitters gave a decisive advantage to those trying to break out of their 1% polling rut on the first night. Moving forward, the Mock Con team will look closely at the candidate lineup, which will be drawn on July 18th. Although the lineup is out of the candidates’ hands, it is absolutely a factor in their perceived performances.
No matter what happens between now and then, we will be tuning into the next bout of Democratic debates Tuesday and Wednesday, July 30thand 31st, on CNN. We hope you will, too.
See RCP average tracking chart 1 month out: https://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/2020/president/us/2020_democratic_presidential_nomination-6730.html