By Jim Ellis
July 1, 2019 — The first Democratic candidate forum is in the books, and the question being posed is how the various performances over the two-night process will affect the candidates’ standing.
On the first night, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), really the only top-tier candidate on stage, seemed to dominate the proceedings and clearly scored with her hard left base … a constituency she must wrest away from Sen. Bernie Sanders in order to become a major threat to win the nomination. Some post-debate polling suggests that Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) is the lower-tier candidate who significantly improved her standing from the first night group, but she still may not be able to break through to the top.
The general consensus for the candidate performing the worst on the first night, even though he rated his own performance as an “A”, was former Texas congressman, Beto O’Rourke. His attempt at answering questions in Spanish did not seem to be well delivered or received.
The second night, Thursday night, the center stage seemed to go to a pair of candidates, California Sen. Kamala Harris and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Sen. Harris scored points in bringing the out of control group to order early, and then directly confronted former Vice President Joe Biden on his busing position from decades ago. Even Biden’s explanation of him opposing the Department of Education’s policy was fumbling and incorrect. The votes they were discussing occurred in 1975. The Department of Education didn’t even come into existence until 1979.
Mayor Buttigieg needed a strong performance to solidify his early rise in the polls, and it appears he delivered. He seemed to successfully diffuse the point about the police shooting in his home of South Bend by simply admitting that he failed to do the job. There wasn’t much to say on the topic after that, and none of the other candidates brought it back after Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA) made a follow-up point that he should have fired the police chief.
Now, we will see how the candidates fare in post-debate polling, and whether their strategies change.
With the TV ratings in for both nights of the debate – the first night drew 15.26 million viewers, and Thursday night’s headliners drew about a 15 percent larger audience, roughly 18.1 million viewers – things could begin to change. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Biden’s lead begin to dissipate – he already has been showing cracks in some places – and Harris and Buttigieg regaining some of the support they looked to be losing in the most recent polls is probable. O’Rourke may have a difficult time of ever rebounding into the top tier, and Sanders likely did little to change his base of support.
Many believe Sanders has a ceiling and cannot break through to gain a majority. If that proves true, it will be curious to see whether or not he falls in behind the nominee or even thinks about going his own way as an Independent candidate (since he actually is, after all, an Independent party senator from Vermont who caucuses with the Democrats but who filed as a Democratic candidate to run for the 2020 presidential election).
With 11 more debates to go, and five more this year, the impressions of this first forum will likely soon fade. But, marks were made in this two-night forum and points established. The candidates now have a foothold as to where they can begin to formulate a final nomination victory strategy.