Moderate and progressive candidates alike will revamp their strategies with the conclusion of the second Democratic debate. Some will focus on getting their polling numbers up in key early states, others will try to court voters to donate to their campaigns in hopes of squeaking by the fundraising threshold for the next round of debates, and a solid chunk will formalize their exit strategy.
Big Takeaway: Lanes are forming
As primary nominating contests moved out of the hands of the party elites, occupying ideological “lanes” became a necessary tactic to secure the nomination. To put lanes into context, look to the 2016 Republican Primary. When candidates began announcing their runs, there were two main lanes: insider and outsider, which were then stratified among conservative and moderate candidates. Jeb Bush and John Kasich fought for the insider moderate lane, while Marco Rubio occupied the insider conservative lane. Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee fought over the outsider conservative lane, while Trump was the sole occupant of the outsider moderate lane. Over time, these lanes often condense, boxing out some candidates in the process. In the example of the 2016 Republican primary, the lanes condensed from four lanes into two lanes: Trump and not-Trump.
Likewise, we are starting to see four lanes appear within the Democratic Party with two approaches. The first category is more obvious: moderate and progressive. The next category is a little more subversive: a candidate poised to beat Trump, or a candidate to embody and promote liberal ideals. The current field is displayed in the matrix below.
Within the matrix, candidates will flow between their positions and fight to occupy their lanes. This matrix represents an initial illustration of how these lanes are forming, specifically after the previous round of debates. Interesting to note is that Biden is the sole occupant of a moderate that voters believe can beat Trump, as noted by the latest NBC/WSJ poll. The candidates who fill these lanes are subject to change, but from this point out, the lanes will likely stay as is in the lead up to the early contests.
Night 1 Winner: Elizabeth Warren
On Tuesday night, Warren reminded everyone that she is a force to be reckoned with. This comes as no surprise to analysts, but what undecided Democratic voters and political junkies alike were waiting to see was how she would face-off with Sanders. Warren’s position next to Sanders on stage gave viewers a side-by-side comparison of the two candidates. Following nearly identical policy points, one candidate needed to out-gun the other and show how they would be the better option for the progressives. In the first few minutes of the debate, we got our answer. In the healthcare segment, while Sanders was faltering on a comeback to some of the moderates on the stage about Medicare for All, Warren jumped right in, surpassing her colleague on the stage and defending the plan with vigor and calculated statements—something Sanders has struggled with in the previous debates. This instance is not to say that Sanders did poorly, but in that moment, Warren took the flag of the progressives from Sanders and carried it all the way to the finish. Her intensity and pointed remarks to John Delaney around the eightieth minute of the debate showed that she can not only explain her policies well, but that she can go on the offensive when pushed to do so. Warren’s tenacity is exactly what she needed to land her in the number two slot moving forward. I would not be surprised to see her sail up in the polls—eclipsing Sanders and moving into striking distance of Biden.
Night 2 Winner: Joe Biden
Heading into Wednesday evening, the questions surrounding Joe Biden resembled questions surrounding Ronald Reagan leading up to his October debate with Walter Mondale in 1984. “Can the president—or former Vice President— still be sharp on his feet despite his age?” When Reagan was attacked with such a question, he famously quipped back that he would not make age a part of the campaign, nor exploit his opponent's “youth and inexperience” for political purposes. The question was laid to rest and Reagan sailed on to an easy victory. Biden entered a very similar situation, yet as opposed to one candidate going after him, he had a stage of nine with their crosshairs set. Biden was in a pivotal position; if he slipped up and fumbled again like he did in the first debate he could jeopardize his position as the clear leader of the pack. But if he managed to fend off the attacks and stay sharp, he could cement his spot against Trump in the general election. Despite multiple attacks from Harris, Booker, Castro and even de Blasio, Biden stayed on his toes and parried most of them off even when Gillibrand questioned his op-ed from 1981 (which you can read here). This attack strategy from other candidates continues to shed light on Biden's achilles heel: his experience. However, his campaign staff clearly burned the midnight oil leading into the debates as Biden was prepared every which way to defend against any potential attack and slip into the offensive with plenty of opposition research in his back pocket. The second Booker launched into Biden’s record on crime, Biden was ready to hit back with facts about Booker’s tenure as mayor of Newark. With a month and a half until the next debates, I would not be surprised to see Biden retain his position as a clear favorite, if not increase his lead, not to mention be better prepared to sling back at candidates with the skeletons in their own closets the next time they question his experience.
Something which needs to be mentioned: Harris’ slip
Biden would not have been the clear winner of the second debate if it weren’t for Kamala Harris’s rough night. While Biden was not phenomenal, Harris performing poorly is better for Biden than Biden doing really well. Harris was not fully prepared for another candidate to bring up her record as a prosecutor, especially by a low polling candidate like Tulsi Gabbard. From the outside, it may seem strange that a low polling candidate would attack a second/third favorite for the nomination as opposed to the leader, but remember that Chris Christie followed the same tactic in the 2016 Republican Primary—he set his sights on Marco Rubio instead of Trump. Gabbard did the same, throwing stones at Harris for her record on marijuana convictions countering an interview she gave admitting she used it, along with a claim that she covered up evidence that would stay the execution of a prisoner on death row. Biden later pounced on Harris, turning the tide from defense to offensive.
Remember, it’s still early
It is still way too early in the primary process to make a solid call on what is going to happen. Debates in the fall with a higher qualification threshold - almost double all of the metrics candidates in the summer debates had to meet - give opportunity for more discussion on policy as opposed to sound bites. But most importantly, the fall debates offer the potential to have ten candidates qualifying as opposed to twenty. The field will shrink in the coming weeks, a reduction sure to make the race more interesting as support groups and donors consolidate. Whether that winnowing will make it easier for the Mock Convention team is yet to be determined, but no matter what happens, we are up for the challenge of making the 27th Convention one for the history books.
Click here to read our review of the first Democratic debates. The third set of Democratic debates will be held on Sept. 12 and Sept. 13 in Houston.