It was always going to be difficult for any single candidate to “win” the first 2020 Democratic presidential primary debate. Everyone onstage was only going to get 10 minutes or less to pitch themselves, and all but one ― the relatively well-known Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren ― needed to spend much of that time introducing themselves and the most basic elements of their platforms to Democratic voters.
Of the 10 candidates onstage, six of them ― Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro and former Maryland Rep. John Delaney ― are polling at 1% or even lower, and essentially had nothing to lose. Three others are on the fringe of the top tier: Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker. Warren stood alone in the top tier.
And compared to tomorrow night’s contest, where a showdown between Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former Vice President Joe Biden is sure to dominate headlines, few of the candidates onstage had clashed in the past. There was some fear of cringe-worthy moments when little-known candidates would try to go viral, but instead, the biggest screw-up came from NBC’s sound technicians.
The result was a jumble of a debate that is unlikely to dramatically shake up a remarkably stable presidential race that has seen little polling movement since South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg surged into the top tier in March.
But we learned a few things from the two-hour showdown. Here are five takeaways from Wednesday night’s debate.
A struggling Castro stood out.
Castro, a candidate who has been mentioned as a future president since before he even entered the Obama administration in 2012, has struggled in the race so far. He raised less money in the first quarter than Marianne Williamson, a little-known spiritual guru. The 2018 breakout of O’Rourke meant Castro wasn’t even the only Texan in the race. He struggled to qualify for the first debates and was in danger of becoming an afterthought.
Of the lower-tier candidates, Castro ended up with the most speaking time, and he used it to reinforce ground he had begun to stake out in the race. He’s unveiled bold plans on immigration rights and criminal justice and aggressively pushed the other candidates to agree with his plan to decriminalize illegal entry into the United States. He misstepped slightly by repeatedly referring to it as “Section 1325” ― voters typically aren’t familiar with individual provisions of the U.S. code.
“We see all of this horrendous family separation. They use that law, Section 1325, to justify under the law separating little children from their families,” Castro said to a round of applause. “And so I want to challenge every single candidate on this stage to support the repeal of Section 1325.”
But his answer there, at another point when he talked about the importance of combining racial and economic justice, and a third moment when he nodded to the transgender community when answering a question about abortion rights all showed his ability to appeal to an activist class that has the power to shape the narrative of the campaign. Whether that translates to a broader increase in financial support or polling is yet to be seen. One potential early indicator? Google searches for his name spiked 2,400% during the debate.
There was little appetite to go after the race’s leaders.
In the opening moments of the debate, moderator Savannah Guthrie gave Booker and Klobuchar clear opportunities to go after Warren, asking them both about issues on which they’re in disagreement with the Massachusetts senator ― Klobuchar on health care, and Booker on naming specific companies to pursue antitrust actions against. Neither took the bait. That set the tone for a debate with relatively little sparring of any type, and almost no shots aimed at the leading candidates. Biden’s name was never mentioned and Sanders was brought up only a handful of times, even though Booker has criticized Biden and Delaney has slammed Sanders in the past.
This reflects an everlasting dynamic in presidential primary politics: Attacking an opponent with a large fan base is risky because the opposing candidate’s supporters will turn on you and likely write you off as a candidate. It’s possible candidates on Thursday night will be more willing to battle Sanders and Biden when they’re onstage ― but so far, there’s been little appetite among the lower-tier candidates to directly challenge the polling leaders.
Warren seemed to dominate the early moments of the debate, and the opening question about the economy set her up nicely to delve into some of her most populist messaging. She later faded into the background and ended up speaking less than both Booker and O’Rourke. As the leading candidate in the debate, her primary goal would be to avoid mistakes that might damage her standing, and she did that.
Warren fended off a Bernie-world critique on health care.
When moderator Lester Holt asked the candidates if they were in favor of eliminating private health insurance plans, only Warren and de Blasio raised their hands. That decision might prove fateful for Warren. In recent weeks, Sanders allies and staffers have been publicly questioning her commitment to passing “Medicare for All.” But Warren delivered a forceful answer and seemingly put an end to that potential line of attack.
“I’m with Bernie on Medicare for All,” she said. “Look at the business model of an insurance company. It’s to bring in as many dollars as they can in premiums and to pay out as few dollars as possible for your health care.”
But affirming her support for one of Medicare for All’s most controversial provisions could hurt her in a general election, should she become the party’s nominee against Trump. Moderate and establishment Democrats have warned for months that Medicare for All becomes significantly less popular among general election voters once they learn most versions of the plan would eliminate private insurance.
O’Rourke was a punching bag.
While the front-runners were spared, the former congressman from Texas was not. Castro, de Blasio and others were unafraid to go after O’Rourke aggressively. Castro’s challenge to support the decriminalization of illegal entry to the U.S. was most directly aimed at his fellow Texan, who has been both a political rival and a political ally, depending on the moment.
Castro continued his aggressive posture in the post-debate spin room. “I find it very ironic that a senator from Massachusetts and a senator from New Jersey are the ones who understand this border policy and this law better than Congressman O’Rourke,” he told reporters of his fellow Texan.
But while a Castro-O’Rourke clash may have been inevitable, de Blasio’s criticism of O’Rourke seemingly came out of nowhere. While O’Rourke was defending his decision not to support the elimination of private insurance as key to promoting “choice” within the health care system, de Blasio interrupted him without prompting.
“Private insurance is not working for tens of millions of Americans when you talk about the co-pays, the deductibles, the premiums, the out-of-pocket expenses,” he said. “It’s not working.”
The willingness of the two lower-tier candidates to attack O’Rourke may reflect that he was in a Goldilocks position: well-known and popular enough to generate headlines, but not so popular that attacking him carried significant political risk. When O’Rourke speaks at town halls in Texas and Iowa, he often emphasizes that he’s there to learn from attendees instead of teaching them something. But on the debate stage, that style came off as indecisive and unsure.
Trump got off easy.
The Democratic Party generally knows the case it wants to prosecute against President Donald Trump in 2020, and it’s a case similar to the one it successfully made while taking back control of the House of Representatives in 2018: He’s making your health care more expensive, cares more about the rich than the middle class, and has failed on his promises to clean up Washington. The 10 Democrats onstage Wednesday night didn’t make that case, for the most part.
It’s natural for the candidates and moderators to focus on the differences, however slight, between the Democratic candidates. It’s key to helping Democratic voters decide who to nominate to challenge Trump.
But going after Trump more aggressively would’ve made an easy applause line, both for the audience in Miami and for viewers at home. And it’s rare for Democratic politicians to get two hours of national airtime without interruption from Republicans. Only Ryan and Klobuchar consistently mentioned the president, and that was primarily as a way to emphasize their perceived electability and ability to beat him in the Midwest, their shared home region. Inslee named him as the country’s greatest security threat. But most of the debate’s most memorable moments involved splits within the Democratic Party. Warren, for instance, never mentioned the president.
Thursday night could see more direct attacks on Trump. Both Sanders and Biden have occasionally tried to look past the primary to focus on the man they will eventually need to defeat in November 2020.