One thing the previous debates confirmed is that the debates really do not matter that much. It is hard to build on a good performance, and a bad performance does not necessarily mean the campaign is over. That said, the candidates who are struggling in the polls have less time and fewer occasions to impress party activists and donors. Going into Thursday’s debate, the front-runners needed to avoid mistakes and the lesser-knowns needed to distinguish themselves and reassure the supporters they already have. Overall, the 2020 campaign moved sideways in Thursday’s debate.
So, here’s my take on how Thursday’s candidates did, ranked from 1 (best) to 10 (worst).
1. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.): Earnest and energetic. Warren’s overall performance, plus a well-organized and disciplined campaign, make her formidable. If more voters are hearing about her and tuned in to see what all the talk was about, they probably came away impressed. She is ascending and did nothing to diminish her momentum. By the way, Warren may have been the most compelling of all the candidates when talking about Afghanistan.
2. Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.): It was more of the same from Sanders. If you liked Sanders before, you liked him tonight. And it’s worth noting that Sanders is 78 years old and former vice president Joe Biden is 76, but there is rarely the suggestion that Sanders is too old. He doesn’t display any of the classic symptoms of someone who is losing his game.
3. Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.): Probably his best performance so far. Booker showed he was knowledgeable on policy and comfortable in the spotlight, yet his campaign is on life support. Booker needed to avoid disaster, and tonight he did much better than that.
4. Former vice president Joe Biden: Every day, in front of every audience, Biden faces a threshold question: Does he appear to be too old for the presidency? He seemed to have some slurred speech and jumbled thoughts, but he was certainly caffeinated. He even seemed determined at times. Biden is the front-runner, but he is not dominant.
5. South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg: He gave us more of his earnest “staff-guy” performance. It has some appeal, but not enough so far. There is no reason to think that tomorrow — or any other day during the campaign — will be any different.
6. Entrepreneur Andrew Yang: He seems confident and at ease — almost reassuring. But Yang’s clumsy giveaway of $1,000 a month to a random few fell flat. It sounded like he was initiating some sort of lottery gimmick rather than a plan for governing. He has a sensible, interesting style, but not one that accumulates votes.
7. Former housing and urban development secretary Julián Castro: Probably the best classic performer. He did fine, but nothing particularly memorable. He tried to take a cheap shot at Biden on being old and forgetful, but it did not land.
8. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.): Unfortunately for her, Klobuchar was unremarkable. Declaring success on bringing down the price of drugs was not credible. Her “I read the bill” line was meant to challenge Sanders, and it was a good line for a senator but not for a president. She comes across as authentically moderate, but she needed a lift tonight and did not get it.
9. Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.): Her droll monotone was occasionally interrupted by an overacting laugh. But as a first-time presidential candidate, she was tentative and rehearsed. She did nothing to encroach on the top three candidates. It is interesting that in the general election, being a prosecutor is a net plus, but among Democrats, it seems to be a net negative.
10. Former congressman Beto O’Rourke (Tex.): He got plenty of mentions from the other candidates for his well-received performance after the El Paso shooting, but that was probably a sign of weakness. Nobody is afraid of O’Rourke. The other candidates probably thought there was no harm in praising him on the way out the door.
So, the 2020 campaign continues on the same trajectory it was on before the debate. The race is tightening among three, maybe four candidates, and the rest are falling further behind. There is still plenty of time before voters have to decide, but money and momentum will soon shift toward the more-established campaigns.