The 20 Democratic presidential candidates who descended upon Miami this week for the first debates were looking for a breakout moment.
Only a handful of them were successful. A few had a night they’d rather forget altogether. And for most, their trajectories won’t change in the near future.
After the biggest two nights of the Democratic primary so far, here is whose political stock is rising — and whose is declining.
Harris was having a strong night even before her affecting and effective denunciation of Joe Biden’s past positions on race and legislative compromise. But her pointed exchange with the former vice president — she said he was wrong to praise the civility of former segregationist-supporting senators — was the most memorable moment from either night’s debate.
The California senator’s reminder that she was once a young girl who benefited from the busing policy Biden once opposed laid bare the primary’s stark generational divide — and established Harris as the polling front-runner’s foremost critic.
It’s little surprise that Harris was the top trending search on Google for the entire country. The only question left now is whether the senator — whose position in polls has been stagnant lately — sees an immediate bump in support.
Candidates who draw 1% support in polls rarely make an impression during debates. But the often overlooked former secretary of Housing and Urban Development (and race’s only Latino) seized the spotlight Wednesday, when he proposed a sweeping change to immigration law that immediately received a response from his rivals on stage. (Moderators also asked candidates during Thursday’s debate about it.) Later, he even got the better of fellow Texan Beto O’Rourke, telling the former congressman he needed to do his “homework” on immigration.
Interest in Castro surged during the debate, according to Google, in what was easily the best moment of a campaign that had previously been ignored by most Democratic voters.
The opening half-hour of Wednesday’s debate made one thing abundantly clear: Warren was the candidate to watch, at least for that night. Moderators focused on her almost exclusively in the early going, asking her as many as four questions before some of her rivals even received their second. When other candidates were asked something, they were often responding to one of Warren’s policy proposals.
The attention faded as the night wore on — indeed, rivals like Cory Booker ended up talking for longer. But Warren’s status as a front-runner, bolstered by her recent rise in the polls, had already been cemented, especially for many voters just starting to pay attention to the primary now.
Amid all the back-and-forth among the candidates, it’s easy to lose track of the bigger picture: The Democratic Party has moved left, and fast.
Policies that were once confined to Bernie Sanders like single-payer healthcare are now mainstream, with fellow top-tier candidates like Warren and Harris both saying they want to get rid of private insurance altogether. The party has also shifted left decisively on immigration, embracing Castro’s proposal to make crossing the border illegally a civil instead of criminal offense and mostly agreeing that illegal immigrants shouldn’t be deported if they hadn’t committed other crimes.
At other moments, the candidates also articulated far more aggressive positions to combat gun violence and support abortion rights — issues that even in the party’s recent past would have elicited more cautious responses. Progressive activists might eventually end up with a presidential nominee more moderate than they like, but it’s clear that even if they lose the battle, they’re winning the war.
Since entering the 2020 primary as the clear front-runner in April, Biden has largely avoided drawing major attacks from his Democratic rivals. That all changed on Thursday.
Harris put the former vice president on the defensive over the course of a several-minute exchange on race and busing issues, a moment that is sure to live on beyond the debate. Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado criticized Biden for a spending deal he struck with Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell in 2012. And California Rep. Eric Swalwell repeatedly said that it’s “time to pass the torch” — a reference to Biden’s decades-long career in politics.
Biden’s team expected the leader in the polls and fundraising would have a target on his back. Still, the Harris attack in particular represents the most serious test to his popularity among Democratic voters of the campaign.
Perhaps no candidate was in need of a breakout moment this week more than O’Rourke, who has struggled to recreate the enthusiasm behind his underdog 2018 Texas Senate campaign. He didn’t get one.
Instead, the former congressman evaded several questions from the moderators and faced blunt criticism from Castro for refusing to support the repeal of a law that criminalizes illegal border crossings and from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio for defending private health insurance.
For O’Rourke, it was a stark reminder that standing out in a crowded primary field is much more difficult than doing it in a one-on-one general election. He’s proven to be a strong fundraiser, but in order to keep the money flowing, there’s even more pressure now to show he can break out of the low single digits in the polls.
Speaking time was tough to come by for the three governors running for president. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee spoke the least of any candidate on stage Wednesday. Only three minor candidates — tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang, self-help author Marianne Williamson and Swalwell — spoke less than Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper during Thursday’s event. And Montana Gov. Steve Bullock failed to qualify for the debate altogether.
The challenge for all three White House hopefuls is raising their profile. The Miami debate didn’t do much to help.
BILL DE BLASIO
Any bump de Blasio may have experienced from a stronger-than-expected debate performance Wednesday dissipated in a matter of hours. The New York City mayor quoted Argentine revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara during a union rally at Miami International Airport the next day.
Guevara, who became one of Fidel Castro’s top lieutenants, is reviled by Miami’s Cuban exile community. De Blasio, who has sat near the bottom of the polls, apologized for not understanding the history but not before his remarks made headlines across Florida and nationally.