Who Won the First Democratic Presidential Debates?

GSPM’s Todd Belt analyzes the 20 candidates’ display of policy and personality on the crowded debate stage.

Todd Belt
Todd Belt, Graduate School of Political Management professor and program director, spoke with GW Today about the first Democratic presidential debate. (Photo courtesy of GSPM).
July 01, 2019

By Tatyana Hopkins

The first Democratic debates of the 2020 presidential election season took place over two days last week. Twenty candidates were divided evenly to take the stage Wednesday and Thursday, sparring on policy issues related to health care, immigration and civil rights.

Todd Belt, Graduate School of Political Management professor and program director, shared his thoughts with GW Today, as the Democratic National Committee plans its second set of debates set to be held July 30 and 31 in Detroit.

Q: Who were the winners of each round? 

A: The first night was split among Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), former Housing Secretary Julian Castro, and Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.). Ms. Warren was the highest-polling candidate on the stage and had the most to lose, but she performed very well. She was given ample time to explain her policy ideas, and she took advantage of it. Mr. Castro distinguished himself as a sort of elder statesman in his approach and really burnished his immigration policy chops. Mr. Booker’s answers were strong and authoritative, and he made the most of his chances to show empathy for voters undergoing social and economic struggles. 

The rest of field that night failed to distinguish themselves and will have a lot of work to do to qualify for the upcoming debates. Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (Texas) was particularly underwhelming, but he has the fundraising ability to make it to the next round of debates. 

The clear victor on the second night was Sen. Kamala Harris (Calif.). Although she started with a cheap applause line (that she would rescind the Trump tax cuts on day one – she can’t and she knows that), she built momentum throughout the debate, peaking with her criticism of former Vice President Joe Biden’s comments of his working with segregationist senators. Mr. Biden should have anticipated the critique, but he did not. Worse yet, his answer invoking the primacy of local control only served to remind viewers of how Jim Crow laws were institutionalized. Ms. Harris’s comment, “That little girl was me,” on busing was the most memorable moment of either debate. It is no wonder her fundraising skyrocketed after the debates, as did attacks from Republicans. 

Both Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg failed to inspire. Mr. Sanders continued the same themes from 2016, and Mr. Buttigieg attempted to own and explain policing issues in South Bend, but his emotionless explanation reminded many of Michael Dukakis’s famous failure in 1988 to passionately explain his opposition to the death penalty.

Q: Was there a strong sense of unity among the Democratic candidates? 

A: Democrats are nearly unified on the many issues they want to address—it is just how to solve those issues where they diverge. 

Q: What were some issues that the Democratic candidates clashed on? 

A: One of the big clashes was on the issue of health care. Some candidates want a government-run “Medicare for All” plan—and among those proponents, some want to do away with private health care insurers entirely. Other divergences include plans on how best to handle immigration policy, college affordability and whether to break up the big tech corporations.

Q: Are these debates likely to shift the landscape of the Democratic race? 

 A: Absolutely.

 Ms. Harris is going to get a lot of media coverage and campaign contributions, and as a result, should close the gap with Mr. Biden. 

Ms. Warren should also remain strong, and Mr. Booker should start ticking up in the polls, as well. This will likely be at the expense of Mr. Biden, Mr. Sanders, Mr. O’Rourke and Mr. Buttigieg.

Q: How strong is the Democratic field?

A: The Democratic field certainly includes some less-qualified candidates and one wholly unqualified candidate—Marianne Williamson. But the field also includes a vice president, U.S. senators and several others with executive branch experience. 

To date, it looks like the strongest candidates are the ones with the most experience, so I don’t think that will be an issue moving on to the general election.

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