Channeling My Psychic Energy From Last Night’s Debate: The Key Takeaways

Quick takeaways from last night’s debate while I channel my positive psychic energy in preparation for returning to the campaign trail this afternoon.

Beware the instant pundit analyses that declares “winners” and “losers”.  First, as I noted yesterday, that’s not how most normal people view these events – if they view them at all.  (Tuesday’s debate only drew 8.7 million viewers, a 43% decrease from the 15.3 million who tuned into the June 26 debate.)   Although it is typical for cable news and media analysts to fit the debate into the horse race paradigm that dominates their coverage, normal people are just taking bits and pieces from the event as they try to begin arriving at a rough sense of what the candidates stand for and who they will support.  And the debates are just one bit of information that will guide their decision-making process.

In a related point, some candidates may experience a short-term polling impact in response to their debate performance, as mediated by the coverage.  Similarly, you will read about individuals “trending” on social media during and after the debate. (I’m looking at you, Tulsi Gabbard!) Again, read with caution.  As we saw in 2016, in a large field of mostly less well-known candidates, those in the second tier can often parlay a strong debate performance into a surge of support, only to see the subsequent scrutiny cut into some of that boost.  As I noted in my last post, Harris’ post-debate bump has mostly receded, and Biden – prior to last night – regained most of the support he lost (evidently to her).  And it’s hard to know why a candidate is trending – maybe it reflects people trying to figure out who this person is, and why she is warning about “dark psychic energy.”

As my adage goes, there is the debate you saw, and then there’s the debate the pundits would have you believe you saw.  Take everything your read on social media with a huge barrel of salt – many analysts have an ideological or political axe to grind, and in the absence of objective measures of debate performance, these underlying predispositions can bias their analysis in subtle ways.   How else do you explain the dozens of different takes regarding the debate’s “winners” and “losers.”  In short, believe the debate you saw – be skeptical of everything someone else tells you you saw.

In every debate I find myself impressed by the second tier (as measured by polling) candidates – not necessarily because I agree with their viewpoint, but because they effectively articulate it.  On Tuesday, it was Maryland Governor John Delaney, Montana Governor Steve Bullock and Ohio Representative Tim Ryan who made forceful cases against the progressive agenda pushed by Sanders and Warren.  Last night I thought Colorado Senator Michael Bennett, Washington state Governor Jay Inslee and Hawaii Representative Tulsi Gabbard were similarly effective.  But there’s a reason for these strong performances by second-tier candidates: they have the easier job.   They come into the debate under the radar, so no one sharing the stage with them is concerned with attacking their records.  That means they are free to train their guns on the top-tier candidates without having to fend off similar attacks.  No wonder they seem so articulate and poised compared to, say, Biden or Harris last night, both of whom endured a barrage of criticism from their opponents, egged on by the moderators.  (On a side note, I’m wondering if this exchange will come back to haunt Harris – see how she dismisses Gabbard’s attack.)

In 2012, Newt Gingrich’s presidential candidacy essentially ended in a debate prior to the Florida primary, when Mitt Romney used superior opposition research to, among other issues, gut Gingrich’s attacks on his financial investment in Fanny Mae and Freddie Mac by pointing out that Gingrich owned stock in these entities as well.  Last night we saw similar attempts to use opposition research to create “gotcha” moments, with mixed levels of effectiveness. First, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand tried to force Biden to explain an op ed he wrote in 1981 – 1981! – explaining his vote opposing a childcare tax credit, which she implied was evidence that Biden was against working mothers.  Needless to say, Biden disagreed with that interpretation.  Here’s the actual op ed

I leave it to you to decide whether this is a legitimate criticism of Biden’s views toward working mothers or opportunism by a candidate deliberately mischaracterizing an editorial from almost four decades ago in a search for polling traction.

A second noteworthy exchange came when moderators invited Tulsi Gabbard to critique Harris’ record as Attorney-General in California.  Gabbard was ready and didn’t miss her target. Here’s the exchange. The scope and detail of Gabbard’s attack suggests she did her homework, and was expecting this question. (Note: I wouldn’t be surprised if this information was fed to her by another campaign that saw advantages in Gabbard doing the dirty work for them.)  Part of the reason her critique might resonate more deeply than Gillibrand’s attack on Biden is that it was more detailed and articulated a line of attack that others have been making against Harris for some time now.   In contrast, I haven’t head anyone else make the case that Biden is against working mothers.

It’s hard to believe that Jane and Joe Q. Public really grasp the nuances of the various health care policies proposed by the Democrat candidates that has occupied center stage in the debates to date.  Do they understand the differences between Biden’s, Harris’ and the Sanders/Warren health care plans?  I don’t think so.   Do they need to understand the differences in order to make informed choices regarding which candidate to support?  I don’t think so.  Studies show that voters are very good at rank ordering candidates ideologically, even if they are not thoroughly well-versed in the details of their specific policies.  In this regard, I think most voters know that Warren and Sanders have a more “liberal” health care plan than Biden’s.  

What’s up with that flurry of closing statements citing candidates’ websites?  You can thank the Democrat debate rules for that – unless candidates get at least 2% in four separate polls AND receive contributions from at least 130,000 unique donors they won’t make the September debate stage.  Thanks to this, you can expect billionaire Tom Steyer to be soliciting money from you soon!  Candidates who don’t make the September debate stage cut are, essentially, finished because the media will use that as prima facie evidence that their candidacies are not viable, and will write stories accordingly.

I was on local WCAX again last night, doing a live postmortem of the debate. This is what happens when you watch Joe Biden for three hours – a pervasive inability to complete a full sentence. I may have to start drinking BEFORE going on live.

Your faithful campaign team is heading out to Cornish NH again this afternoon to attend a Marianne Williamson campaign event.  Williamson, the highest trending figure from Tuesday’s debate, is hoping to parlay her performance into a boost in polls and contributions in order to qualify for the September debate.  Here’s hoping we avoid any “dark psychic energy” on the road to New Hampshire.  Live tweeting begins at about 5:30, with the campaign write up to follow.


  1. Thanks Murray – the campaign events and debates are forcing me back to the blogging desk…..I’m trying to tell myself that’s a good thing!

  2. As someone who has been canvassing and phone banking for weeks now, I can confirm that many people had already come up with a top two or three candidates before the first debate even took place. The debates only seem to confirm their opinions, rarely change them.

    Many of those who haven’t yet decided don’t even want to watch the debates until the field narrows down. With 20 candidates over two nights, I can’t imagine any one candidate, position, or line would stick with you much if you didn’t go in with a preformed opinion. Just my 2 cents! And an obligatory disclaimer that these thoughts are not endorsed by the Warren Campaign 🙂

  3. Courtenay,

    I had a reporter tell me he didn’t watch the second debate because there’s still too many candidates on the stage – and he’s supposed to be covering the race! At this point, eigth candidates have qualified for the September debate (Klobuchar announced today), and at least two more are close. As the field gets whittled, the remaining candidates will have more time on stage to make their case, and perhaps more people will be tuning in as well. Already I see that the #Gravelanche has come to an end!

    Still waiting to get to a Warren rally….

    – mjd

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