After two nights, and four hours, of Democratic debates, it is now up to the pundits and spin doctors to convince Americans – the majority of whom did not watch the debates – which candidates won or lost.
Clearly, this was not your parents’ Democratic party. The stars of both debates were largely “non-traditional” candidates – women and ethnic and sexual minorities. The first debate was won by Elizabeth Warren, who combined facts with passion. There were also breakout performances by Julián Castro and Cory Booker. The second debate was won, hands down, by Kamala Harris, with strong performances by Pete Buttigieg and Kirsten Gillibrand. We also saw (older) white men boast about their parenting, and a non-white woman and a gay man leverage their military experience.
Still, there was some traditional gendered behavior too. There was a lot of interrupting and shouting over each other – predominantly, but not exclusively, by older white men. More than half an hour of the combined four hours of debate was wasted on mediocre white guys who poll less than one percent, and I’m not even counting the time wasted by moderator Chuck Todd pontificating rather than asking questions.
The clear losers on stage were “traditional” candidates – white men again – most notably Beto O’Rourke and Joe Biden. The main loser off stage was NBC News – not just for an embarrassing technical glitch with the microphones in the first debate, but also for the format of the debates. Together with the Democratic National Committee, NBC decided to invite far too many candidates and divide them by lot rather than support in the polls.
This mainly hurt Warren, who ended up in Wednesday’s second-tier debate, in which the candidates represented less than 25% of the Democratic vote in current polls (most of that support is for Warren). This denied her the opportunity to face her key opponents, Biden and Sanders, head-on.
That said, the large field also had some positive side-effects. It provided comic relief (Marianne Williamson), put climate change front and center in the first debate (Jay Inslee), and, thanks to Eric Swalwell, introduced the slogan – “pass the torch” - that will haunt Biden throughout the campaign.
Moreover, somewhat paradoxically, having 20 candidates made the Democratic party look less divided than the three (really two) candidates in 2016. Rather than being ideologically divided, let alone polarized, the Democratic party today is fragmented – devoid of a clear leader.
Partly for that reason, there was another unofficial, offstage winner: the Republican party, and Trump in particular. The debates saw Trump’s main challengers falter (Biden) or fade (Sanders), the second-tier perform strongly (Warren, Harris, Buttigieg), and some new challengers emerge (notably Castro and Booker). This increases the chances for a long, internally divisive, Democratic primary – allowing the Republican party to look stable and united in contrast as well as benefit from free opposition research as the Democratic candidates try to tear each other down.
The debates also gave disproportionate attention to the plight of non-Americans, notably asylum seekers at the southern border and undocumented immigrants throughout the country. While this is understandable and even morally admirable, given the Trump administration’s inhumane immigration policies and the salience of the issue at this moment, it provides an easy opening for Republicans.
Rather than being ideologically divided, let alone polarized, the Democratic party today is fragmented
This was only made worse by the moderators’ fondness for stupid “raise your hand” polls, like the one which asked candidates to raise their hands if their preferred healthcare system would cover undocumented immigrants. All did, and within seconds the internet exploded with rightwing pundits claiming that this proved Democrats care more about “aliens” than Americans. One of the people to weigh in, of course, was President Trump, who breezily tweeted: “All Democrats just raised their hands for giving millions of illegal aliens unlimited healthcare. How about taking care of American Citizens first!? That’s the end of that race!”
The other reason Republicans are probably pleased with the Democratic debates is that, except for healthcare, very few topics were seriously discussed that could challenge Republicans in the heartland or mobilize Democratic voters outside of the traditional progressive base. The debate barely touched on the opioid crisis, for example, and the issue was largely reduced to punishment of big pharma rather than discussion of how to help addicts and their families. It is depressing to see the Democratic party once again ignoring this clearly progressive issue, which affects almost half of all Americans in a personal way.
There was also no serious discussion of America’s crumbling infrastructure - a particularly ripe issue for big-government Democrats like Sanders and a huge missed opportunity, given that it is an election promise on which Trump has clearly failed to deliver. More generally, neither moderators nor candidates really addressed the broader issue of work, from the threat of automation (only Andrew Yang) through the highly salient issue of minimum wage to the explosion of the precariat in the wake of the Great Recession.
Finally, with the exception of Ohio congressman Tim Ryan’s pseudo-populist appeal to Trump voters in the rust belt, there was no discussion of the ever-growing urban-rural divide and the plight of rural America. Republicans will undoubtedly exploit this by continuing to accuse the Democrats of being the party of coastal elites and minorities, while presenting themselves as the voice of the implicitly white “real America”.
If the Democrats want to defeat Trump in 2020, they need to expand beyond relatively narrow progressive causes and start planning their messaging for the general election. Nothing less than the White House is at stake.
Cas Mudde is a Guardian US columnist and the Stanley Wade Shelton UGAF professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia