Overall Themes

All right, let’s set the scene around the debate. It began just a few hours after the impeachment hearings for the day wrapped up. The hearings ran longer than expected, and by the time the debate rolled around, many people paying attention to politics were a little tired out.

The other key context is that the debate happened in Atlanta, Georgia at Tyler Perry Studios. This is a venue where black voters are plentiful, and they were ready to hear from Democrats.

Okay, so what were the overall themes of the debate? I would say the key themes were experience and whether candidates could assemble a coalition of voters that would in fact win them the upcoming election. So those are the big themes as I see them—experience and coalition-building.

The other big feature was a notable lack of conflict. Unlike many of the other DNC debates this year, in which moderators provoked the candidates into specific conflicts, that happened very little last night. And in fact the shorter schedule—the two hours versus three-plus hours—seemed to have the moderators moving the action along before much conflict could develop. Yes, there were several key moments of disagreement, but those stood out sharply, because there was so little outright disagreement on display. There was WAY less of the shouting-match dynamic we’ve seen several times before.

So that’s the big picture. Let’s get into some key moments.

The Experience Issue

First up, let’s deal with experience. This came up repeatedly during the night. In the clip coming up, moderator Andrea Mitchell asks Buttigieg about his electoral history. Buttigieg suggests that the kind of experience he does have—in the Midwest, as a mayor, and in the military—is in fact important for the presidency. He’s saying perhaps traditional executive experience doesn’t matter as much as we might think.

And then Klobuchar comes in with multiple issues—she deals with double standards for women, highlights her own legislative accomplishments, and brings up the issue of building a coalition. In her view, the winning coalition includes moderate voters. Plus, she really has written a lot of bills that actually matter and stand some chance of in fact passing. We’ve talked about her bills on this show quite a bit, and one of them also came up later in the night.

And then Biden jumps in and does what Biden does: He explains that he has even more experience than anybody on the stage, legislatively and in the executive branch.

So in this clip, we get our first big look at the experience question, as well as part of the coalition argument. Listen in:


Okay, so one more way to look at that clip: We have three relatively moderate candidates with different backgrounds and different kinds of experience. They’re all saying they are electable because of that experience, and in some cases because of where they come from.

The Coalition

Now let’s get deeper into the coalition-building issue. In this next exchange, Harris is asked about Buttigieg and a mixup about a stock photo. She doesn’t seem to want to talk about that. Instead, she gets into the coalition necessary to win the election. Listen for that, and also listen for how Buttigieg responds at the end. The question comes from moderator Kristen Welker. Listen in:


Now, aside from completely agreeing, Buttigieg went on to talk about his faith. It was a good answer, but it was also an answer that didn’t change the discussion much. It was a low-conflict answer, like so many during the debate.

I want to play you one more clip on this issue of the coalition. In this one, you can hear Booker and Warren both objecting in real-time that the moderators were not allowing long back-and-forth exchanges.

I want you to listen to what is likely an attack that was planned in advance by Booker. And, frankly, at least it’s conflict, and it’s rooted in policy. Although the crack at Biden being high may not be well-received by Biden’s voters.

Still, Booker seems to be asking black voters why they support Biden in such large numbers, when Biden’s position on issues affecting black voters doesn’t necessarily match up with their positions on those issues. This began after a discussion of the wall on the US/Mexico border.

Listen in:


So, I want to clarify that little bit at the end. Biden apparently meant to say the first black woman elected to the Senate, that’s Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois, who has endorsed his bid for president. Now, Harris, who was standing right there on the stage is in fact the second black woman elected to the Senate. So, just clearing that bit up. Moving on.

Steyer gets Castro’s Housing Question

Yesterday, I reported that former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro asked a question on Twitter. He wondered whether this debate would be the first to actually ask a question about housing policy. Castro did not qualify for the debate, so he wasn’t there. So, of course, here comes the housing question.

In this case, moderator Kristen Welker put the question to Tom Steyer. Throughout the night, Steyer emphasized his focus on climate change, and he mentions it here too. But he also gets at the fact of housing as an issue of equality. That the location of housing makes a difference, and so does its cost and the manner in which it’s built. Listen in:


This was one example of a straightforward policy answer. But at the same time, there wasn’t any real debate on this issue. After Steyer finished his answer, Warren jumped in to agree, but also emphasize that redlining has increased segregation and prevented people of color from building wealth through owning homes. And that the federal government plays a role in that, by subsidizing home loans.

Then Booker jumped in to speak to his experience as a mayor and a tenants’ rights lawyer. He agreed with much of what had just been said, and added his own experience. And then before anybody else could get at the issue, the moderators cut it off and started a commercial break.

So while this was a set of reasonable and well-delivered responses, again, it was not much of a debate per se. This was a core theme of the night: A lack of major conflict.

And next up, let’s hear from Andrew Yang. He got the least talk time of the night, at just under 7 minutes. This does fit a pattern of Yang being at the bottom of the talk-time rankings. At the top last night was Warren with more than 13 minutes.

I suppose the good news for Yang is that of the little time he got, every response was memorable. He made several well-received jokes, and he responded to policy issues with clear and straightforward answers.

So I’m going to play a clip here of Yang responding to a question about paid family leave. To my knowledge, this is actually the first time we’ve heard this issue brought up in any 2019 DNC debate so far. Moderator Ashley Parker speaks first. Listen in:


And in case you’re wondering about the fact-check there, according to The Washington Post, multiple studies say the U.S. and Papua New Guinea are alone in the world in not offering any federal guarantee of paid maternity leave.

However, another study suggests a tiny handful of other countries are in the same boat, including Lesotho, Liberia, and Swaziland. I think Yang’s point still stands.

Closing Remarks

And now for my closing remarks. While I don’t have any viewer numbers yet, I suspect that this will be one of the least-watched debates of this primary cycle. For one thing, it was only on cable, and that tends to restrict the audience quite a bit.

But also, this is the same set of candidates we had last time, minus two from Texas. Furthermore, the news cycle is massively dominated by the impeachment inquiry, which makes it less likely—in my opinion—that your average viewer would stay up until 9pm in order to START taking in even more political news.

This was not a badly-run debate…it’s just a debate that might not matter very much. It was well-moderated, and it touched on issues that have not been brought up enough—I’m looking at you, climate change and housing and Saudi Arabia and paid family leave—but I sincerely doubt it moved the needle much. If you went into this debate liking a candidate, you probably left liking that candidate just as much. So I was left with a ho-hum feeling. Candidates gave pretty good answers to pretty good questions. But were those answers enough to shift support away from somebody else? I doubt it, though, of course, that’s what polling is for, so we’ll watch for that in the coming days.

The one candidate on that stage who is in severe jeopardy of not making the next debate is Booker. He currently has none of the required polls, though he does have the donors he needs. He has about three weeks to get four qualifying polls. If this performance, plus that Super PAC I told you about last week that he doesn’t approve of, but is advertising on his behalf, can’t get him another few percent in the polls, that will probably be the end of his campaign.

Well, that is it for one more episode of the Election Ride Home. I have been your host, Chris Higgins. You can always find me on Twitter @chrishiggins. Tomorrow we’ll be back to our regular format, and there is plenty of news to cover. There are some policies mentioned in last night’s debate that deserve a summary, so we’ll dig into those. And there’s, you know, some stuff happening in the impeachment inquiry. As always, thanks for listening, and I will talk to y’all tomorrow.