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Dem Debates Round 3: Halfway There with Half the Candidates

Updated: Sep 16, 2019

We're back at it! Our team has prepared analysis of the third Democratic Debates, which took place in Houston this past Thursday, September 12. This debate had a much smaller stage, at only ten candidates, compared to the first two, so keep reading to find out how the candidates did!

What We Loved This Time:

Surya: What. A. Night. This was my favorite Democratic Primary Debate of them all for the content, the emotions, the zingers, and the topics of discussion. The moderators asked relevant questions on topics that Americans want to hear about, from educational poverty to protectionist trade policy to delivering cost-effective universal health coverage. They also did better than previous moderators to call out candidates who beat around the bush and who were flat-out wrong sometimes. Good clash was established between candidates, making the debate interesting throughout. There were less identity politics and more policy, so I was very, very pleased.

Camille: Allocation of speaking time felt fairer on this night, as the moderators seemed to value the majority of candidates on stage. Having ten frontrunners makes it more clear as to why each candidate is unique and different from one another, whereas before many of the no-name candidates seemed to blend together.

Abigail: The battle between the top ten was definitely the most focused debate compared to the other two. From universal healthcare to immigration reform, both the moderators and the candidates attempted to conduct a goal-oriented discourse, helping audiences get a better view of which policy was most progressive, achievable, and immediate. Now that the Democrats have narrowed down in size, it becomes easier for voters to analyze which candidate will do well in a debate against our current President. This recent debate is a reflection of that. There was productive clash and a “no-nonsense” attitude upheld throughout the evening, and when the conversation strayed away from the intended question, moderators and other candidates were quick to bring it back. Overall, this was probably the most organized of the debates I’ve seen, and it looks like they will only get better.

And What We Were Iffy On:

Surya: I’m unsure whether or not it was wise of certain candidates to go after each other the way they did. Julián Castro and Joe Biden had a tense moment, while Amy Klobuchar sparred with Bernie Sanders for a bit. If Democrats want to establish unity, they need to do so by attacking the common enemy more than their teammates. However, this was not a glaring issue to me.

Camille: With ten frontrunners on stage, I expected the night to be more exciting. However, there were no breakout moments that had people talking like the previous two debates. The conversation on healthcare felt way too long. I saw no stars on the stage, and for me, this night only confirmed the idea that the democrats might be fighting for second place.

Abigail: Although this time the candidates did a great job getting to the point on topics such as healthcare and gun reform, what frustrated me was that almost everybody jumped around the subject of the trade war with China. Given the significant amount of time this issue had taken up in the debates prior to September 12, I expected those on stage to propose a clear plan on how to address this economic conflict. However, the candidates who spoke only talked about how President Trump wasn’t doing a good job of handling relations with China, instead of offering solutions themselves. I hope we get a more conclusive debate on US-China trade next time.

Commentary on the Candidates' Performance

Joe Biden

Surya: This was Joe Biden’s strongest performance, and it was just what he needed at this point in time. While so many Democrats were questioning his “electability,” he showed that he has both the defense and offense to take on Trump if nominated. He firmly stood his ground against both Warren and Sanders on healthcare and effectively defended his work done with Obama on a variety of issues. What helped him even more was praising others on stage and appearing as a unifying force for the Democratic party; I’m pretty sure that this will help him stay ahead in the polls, and makes a Biden nomination much more likely.

Camille: Joe Biden performed better than the previous debates, but you could tell that his stamina was going down as the night progressed. I want to blame his age, but it’s really himself as an individual that is letting the age affect his energy levels. Anybody watching the debates could simply look to the left of Biden and see that Bernie (78, 2 years older than Biden) was characteristically energetic. And even Trump (73) and Warren (70) continue to have that spark. What was up with the record-player comment? Age aside, Biden did a good job of reminding voters that he was Obama’s VP. With Obama’s popularity, this was very strategic. He also stuck to his “moderate” label by calling out Kamala’s plan to ban guns as unconstitutional. However, I saw that Biden, too, was running left, as he failed to wholly defend Obama’s record on immigration (which many moderate democrats still agree with).

Abigail: Joe Biden was taking heat from both sides of the stage tonight, and he handled it excellently. Not only did Biden defend his ground on the issue of healthcare, but also his past work with former President Obama. This is essential because while the others struggle to avoid questions about the execution of their healthcare policies, Biden doesn’t have to worry about these concerns, making his proposal for public option seem the most achievable. However, although the former VP did well in the crossfire between Warren and Sanders, he lacked the same sharp response on the topic of racism and the broken criminal justice system. What makes Biden stand out in these debates despite his generic policies is the sense of unification and unique middle ground he brings to the stage. If he keeps up this strategy for upcoming debates, a Biden nomination might very well become a reality.

Andrew Yang

Surya: Woah. Yang’s “big news” of a Freedom Dividend worth $120,000 for ten people was unprecedented and bold, even drawing acclaim from Pete Buttigieg as “original.” I saw it as what it was probably meant to be: both an attention grabber and a flaunting of his success. However, it was very “Trumpian” and may not play well with primary voters. Otherwise, I felt Yang gave a very average performance but didn’t stand out much (except for the discussion on education). If one thing remains the same, though, it’s that he consistently gets the least speaking time whether or not he’s polling higher than other candidates, which I still find to be disappointing.

Camille: I’ll admit right here and now that I have bias towards Yang and am unable to determine whether his pilot program proposal (of giving 10 families $1000/month for a year) was more on the gimmicky side or more on the innovative side. Yang got laughs from Kamala and Buttigieg, and that can either be interpreted as a validation of this move as unstrategic, or masked insecurity by said candidates. Per usual, Yang ranked last with barely 8 minutes of speaking time compared to the double digits of 8/10 candidates on the stage. Yang is currently 5th place in the polls, and I find myself unable to predict whether he can beat out the hotshot top 4 simply by having unique ideas.

Abigail: Honestly, Andrew Yang didn’t say enough for me to criticize. I had really hoped to see him fight for speaking time and shine a light on his interesting policy proposals, as there were many times throughout the debate where he could have done that. As we’re paring down the candidates, Yang needs to start expanding beyond the base of his Freedom Dividend policy and find other ways to fit in the realm of the discussion. His 1K/month proposal makes the base of his campaign and I personally really like the idea of it. But the problem is that because he sticks primarily to this one idea, it’s difficult for him to spark a conversation in areas such as climate change and immigration reform without straying away from his initial policy. Yang’s best tool is his knowledge of the current state of the American economy, he needs to fight for time in the debates and open up the conversation to something he can uniquely solve, instead of staying mute because many of the topics aren’t directly correlated with his Freedom Dividend.

Amy Klobuchar

Surya: I don’t see much of a future for Klobuchar’s run. She failed to stand out tonight as the moderate “voice of reason,” seeing as that was mostly Joe Biden’s role. It’s hard for Klobuchar to seem ambitious when she consistently casts a negative light on progressive ideals, making it seem as though she wasn’t ready to take on new ideas. And in my opinion, her “I read the bill” joke was a little cringy. I like hearing her talk about policy, but she didn’t do enough of that tonight.

Camille: Klobuchar’s strategists were wise in focusing her introductory speech on the fact that she was more moderate. With each presidential candidate running farther and farther left (including the beloved “moderate Joe”), this moderate approach should appeal to moderate voters. In my opinion, it’s where the democratic party needs to go. However, Klobuchar as an individual does not appeal to many Democratic primary voters, who tend to be less moderate. As a middle-aged white woman with significantly less vitality than Warren, I predict that she will not excite primary voters to be elected for the nomination.

Abigail: Senator Klobuchar didn’t stand out in tonight quite as much as she did in prior debates. This is partly due to the lack of questions the moderators directed at her, but nonetheless, there were many times where she could have expanded the conversation. Her only memorable moment was her response to Davis’ question about her commitment to breaking down systemic racism. I don’t expect Klobuchar to stay on the stage for too long.

Elizabeth Warren

Surya: Warren is 3/3 in debate performances so far, just as I expected. Her performance is always strong, except this time she encountered a little more resistance from other candidates. What was interesting to me was her decision to not directly attack Joe Biden on stage, though I feel that the majority of higher-polling candidates chose not to do so since he’s the frontrunner and is perhaps considering running mates. Warren also seemed a little dodgy as well, from not answering whether or not she would raise middle-class taxes to being unable to support her views on withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. However, I still think that she had one of the night’s stronger performances.

Camille: I noticed that Warren did not spar on Biden’s on any issues. This seems strategic, as it made her seem less combative and more presidential than the other candidates who were at Biden’s throat. Warren offers the energy that Biden does not, but it’s up to a breakout moment in the upcoming debates to make it past Biden’s high numbers.

Abigail: Senator Warren naturally exudes a spark of excitement whenever she starts talking about an issue; she’s compelling, fresh, and super popular amongst voters at the moment. However, despite her usual charisma, she failed to stand out tonight. She avoided answering the question on the rise of middle-class taxes as a result of healthcare for all, making her policy appear unfavorable to many, and tainting her image only thirty minutes into the debate. She did make a comeback by laying out her comprehensive immigration reform plan, which contrasted well with the other candidates’ murky policies. Although I don’t expect Warren’s numbers to rise significantly, they won’t be falling any time soon, meaning she has plenty of chances to polish up on the issue of healthcare and China.

Bernie Sanders

Surya: Bernie usually does a solid job in debates, but he doesn’t really stand out on a stage full of progressives who build off of his ideas or jazz them up a bit. He failed to attack Biden but made clear that he prefers rapid change over gradual transitions. I can’t say I was impressed with his performance, as nothing new was brought up or stood out much on his part. The only thing that may have hurt him may have been some of his statements on trade policy, but at that point, even I started falling asleep.

Camille: Sanders did a good job of defending his staple proposals on healthcare, minimum wage, and college. He maintained the message that he was the first one who fought for these ideas that many of the current candidates are clinging onto. Because he had no slip-ups, I predict that he will continue to have high polls.

Abigail: Bernie Sanders was the only candidate keeping me from falling asleep this debate. He brings a bit of feist and a sprinkle of pizzazz every time, and it cracks me up. Although Senator Sanders stuck with his usual game plan and didn’t bring anything too fresh to the table, his back and forth arguing with Joe Biden gave the stage what it needed: action. The sassiness aside, Sanders didn’t really stand out to me in terms of policy. He repeated mostly the same things said in the first two debates, and failed to offer voters a reason why his policies are unique and only achievable by him. Despite this, Sanders will still be up there in the rankings. If he wants to get ahead, he needs to be seen as a unifying force for the Dems, and exert the leadership that can be seen in Biden.

Kamala Harris

Surya: I’m 60% sure that Kamala is just trying to become Joe Biden’s VP nominee at this point. She seemed to lose her spark this debate and lacked any energy needed to be remembered. She’s had a tough time dealing with criticism of her background as the California AG, and seems like she keeps second-guessing herself on her policies. All she really did this time was attack Donald Trump as much as possible, seemingly avoiding any clash with others on stage. There were too many times when I felt she was purposefully trying to not attack Biden despite their differences, and others where she simply didn’t seem like she wanted to be on stage. Oops.

Camille: Kamala’s flame is burning out. I don’t mean that she lacks vitality, but after Tulsi’s savage murder of her criminal record in the last debate, I believe that Kamala’s popularity is on a rollercoaster that only goes down. In her opening speech, I found it particularly comedic that she went on about how she wanted to bring together Americans whether they were democrats or republicans… and then she mocked Trump for watching Fox News? Kamala’s campaign message has nothing to it except that her dad is Jamaican and her mom is Indian.