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A field of 20 Democratic presidential candidates was split into two groups of 10 for the first debate of the 2020 election, taking place over two nights.
A field of 20 Democratic presidential candidates was split into two groups of 10 for the first debate of the 2020 election, taking place over two nights.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

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4 winners and 2 losers from the two nights of Democratic debates

Kamala Harris was a winner. Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden ... not so much.

Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

The first Democratic debate of 2019, so big it had to be spread out over two nights, is finally over. We made it through! Take a moment to be proud of yourselves.

The entire two-night spectacle was chaotic, to be sure, but also substantive, with significant exchanges on issues ranging from race to health care to foreign policy.

But debates are ultimately selection mechanisms, evidence that voters are supposed to use to figure out which candidates they might want to elect and which ones they don’t. So the biggest question we’re left with is this: Which candidates and ideas ended up in a better place than where they started — and which ones are worse off?

Obviously, we won’t be able to answer those answers definitively for months or possibly years after this campaign. So consider this a rough cut, a first stab at trying to make sense of what we’ve been watching over the past two nights. Here, according to the best of my abilities, are the winners and losers of the first Democratic mega-debate extravaganza.

Winners: Julián Castro and Kamala Harris

Before the debate, there were basically three tiers of candidates in the polls. You had the top three in double digits (Joe Biden, trailed by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren), two runners-up around 6 percent (Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg), and then a whole mess of candidates near the bottom. By the end of both nights, there were only two candidates who seemed like they may have performed well enough to move up a tier: former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro and Sen. Kamala Harris.

Democratic presidential hopeful former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro speaks during the first night of the Democratic presidential primary debate.
Democratic presidential hopeful former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro speaks during the first night of the Democratic presidential primary debate.
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Castro’s extremely low poll numbers — he’s under 1 percent currently — were always a little odd. He’s a former mayor who was in President Obama’s Cabinet and also rumored as a potential VP choice in 2016. He had by far the most sophisticated policy platform on the high-profile issue of immigration. He’s done a lot of stuff and had ideas to offer but couldn’t seem to get traction.

From that standpoint, he couldn’t have hoped for a better night than the one he had on Wednesday. Castro’s bold idea on immigration — to decriminalize illegal entry — was taken up by other candidates onstage and then was endorsed by the vast majority of candidates on Thursday. He used his mastery of the issue to pounce on a fellow Texan, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, making O’Rourke look like an empty suit while elevating his own profile. (O’Rourke had a bad night in general, but Castro was the single biggest reason.)

It’s too early to tell what the effect of all this will be, but it seems like Castro’s numbers have at least a decent shot at going up; if they don’t, he certainly is looking like a more promising VP for whoever emerges on top.

Harris, meanwhile, needed to get out of her dead heat with Buttigieg — who is far from being her equal in national profile — and make it into the first tier. She did that brilliantly, dominating the conversation overall and delivering what feels like the biggest single moment of the debate: her takedown of Joe Biden, the frontrunner, on race.

Sen. Kamala Harris (R) (D-CA) and former Vice President Joe Biden (L) speak as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) looks on during the second night of the first Democratic presidential debate on June 27, 2019.
Sen. Kamala Harris and former Vice President Joe Biden speak as Sen. Bernie Sanders looks on during the second night of the first Democratic presidential debate on June 27, 2019.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Recently, Biden had been immersed in a controversy about his fond recollections of working with segregationist senators. In his mind, this was a testimony about the time when the US government worked better because even people who disagreed could cooperate. But to a lot of Democrats, it sounded like nostalgia for a time when black people were systematically excluded from politics — and Harris pounced.

She slammed Biden’s comments, connecting them to his record of opposing busing as a means of immigration, and then revealed that she herself had been a beneficiary of busing. Biden’s answer was defensive and rambling.

It’s a particularly strong attack line because Biden needs black voters, who currently support him at relatively high levels, to maintain his lead over Harris and the rest of the next tier of candidates. Harris may have made a plausible argument that they should abandon Biden and consider her instead; we’ll find out in the next wave of polls.

Winner: Bernie Sanders’s ideas

During the 2016 campaign, Bernie Sanders was seen by the Democratic establishment as a wild-eyed radical whose “democratic socialism” could never win with the American public. In the first debate of the 2020 cycle, Bernie’s policies dominated the conversation.

Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) speaks to the press after the second Democratic primary debate.
Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks to the press after the second Democratic primary debate.
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

The debate over health care wasn’t over whether the federal government should provide insurance, but over whether it should directly control the entire insurance market or merely a large chunk of it. There was no Bill Clinton-like conversation about how “the era of big government is over”; the candidates debated major expansions of the state on issue after issue after issue. Even on foreign policy, several candidates articulated Sanders’s critiques of America’s interventionist foreign policy.

The Democratic Party was primed for this kind of leftward shift for quite some time: The party’s voters have shifted profoundly to the left over the past two decades. Here’s some striking data from a November piece in the Atlantic:

On economics, three-quarters of Democrats say that the government doesn’t do enough to help poor people, up from half in 1994. Two-thirds say that government should regulate business more, again up from half in 1994. Conversely, in 1994, two-thirds of Democrats believed that people could get ahead if they were willing to work hard. Now only half do. The percentage of Democrats who believe that corporations make too much money is up 12 points. But the movement is not uniform. While the portion of Democrats who say that the government should do more to help the poor, even if it requires taking on debt, rose from 58 percent in 1994 to 71 percent in 2017, it is still below the peak of 77 percent, in 2007.

The party’s representatives, however, had not sufficiently moved with its base, as the attempt to functionally coronate Hillary Clinton in 2016 proved. Sanders’s emergence during that campaign brought the left-wing sentiment base in the party to the fore, showing that there really was massive demand for bolder progressive ideas like Medicare-for-all.

Sanders’s 2016 presidential run appears to have played a major galvanizing role here, opening up space for a genuinely left-wing shift among Democratic leaders that produced a crop of progressive 2018 stars like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. In July 2018, YouGov asked self-identified Democrats whether they wanted candidates for the midterm elections to be “more or less like Bernie Sanders.” Fifty-seven percent said they wanted more candidates like Sanders; a scant 16 percent said less.

You saw a response to this underlying reality tonight. The candidates weren’t fighting to claim the mantle of “electable” centrist — more on that in a bit — but rather competing to define themselves as the most aggressive and authentic progressive. That’s one hell of a win for the Sanders movement.

Loser: Bernie Sanders

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) look on during the second night of the first Democratic presidential debate on June 27, 2019.
Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) look on during the second night of the first Democratic presidential debate on June 27, 2019.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

It’s not that Bernie Sanders had a bad night on Thursday per se. He did fine, delivering his signature arguments in the characteristic style we’d come to expect. He largely shrugged off attacks from gadfly fringe candidates trying to attack him, and didn’t make any gaffes of note.

But as the profile of Bernie’s ideas rose, it seemed that Bernie the candidate lost a little bit of his luster.

The key to Sanders’s rise in 2016 was running as a foil to Hillary Clinton. He ran to her left nearly across the board, filling voter demand for a more progressive alternative to a candidate that a lot of them didn’t love or particularly trust. He assembled a coalition of diverse young voters and older white progressives and ended up with a strong showing.

But thanks to Bernie’s success in paving the left-wing way, his 2016 voters now have a lot of different options. All the candidates today are fighting over who will be best at moving beyond Obamacare and toward government-run health care. Sen. Elizabeth Warrenwho performed strongly on Wednesday night — has similar strong anti-billionaire credentials and a more specific and expansive set of policy proposals. And if the economy isn’t your first priority, and you’re more moved by the party’s shift to the left on like immigration and race, Castro, Harris, and Sen. Cory Booker all came across as strong alternatives.

Two months ago, Sanders was at 23 percent in the RealClearPolitics national poll average while Warren was at 6.5 percent. Today, Sanders is at 16.9 percent and Warren is at 12.8 percent. She’s clearly pulling away some of his support on the party’s left flank, showing how the widespread adoption of his ideas is hurting him this time around. It’s hard to imagine that this debate will turn things around on its own.

Loser: “electability”

One of the big themes in the meta-conversation surrounding the debate was the notion of “electability.”

Rank-and-file Democrats are overwhelmingly preoccupied with a concern about who can beat President Trump in 2020, for understandable reasons. However, there’s real reason to worry that their judgments about who’s “electable” are based less in cold reason than in biases about what kind of person America might be comfortable voting for — that “electability” is used to justify the notion that the party should nominate a straight white guy because he’s a straight white guy.

My guess is that this is one of the reasons Biden had been performing so well in polls prior to the debates. But if there’s one thing the contest showed, it’s that stereotypes about who would be able to out-compete Trump might not be as ironclad as people think.

The truth is that Biden looked bad on Thursday. He didn’t have any compelling moments, got blown out of the water by Harris on race, and badly fumbled a question on his vote in favor of the Iraq War — a question he had to know was coming. And there are rumblings of discontent from his staff.

It’s really hard to know which candidates would be more likely to beat another one. Polling data isn’t always predictive, particularly once you add in the Electoral College — see 2016 — and you can’t exactly redo an election as a controlled experiment.

That’s what too much of the electability conversation had been so far. Biden’s poor performance, and strong showings of candidates deemed less electable like Warren, suggests that people should be a little more humble in their claims about who can beat Trump.

Winner: social justice

Social justice, identity politics, wokeness — whatever terminology you want to call the modern left-wing approach to issues relating to historically disadvantaged social groups, it dominated the stage on both nights.

Candidates didn’t just broadly reference minority rights and social equality on Wednesday; they discussed specific causes near and dear to the hearts of progressive activists. Booker mentioned the high murder rate among black trans individuals; Castro used the social justice code phrase “reproductive justice” and redefined the immigration policy debate around concern for the undocumented.

On Thursday, the old guard’s views on race — Biden’s concession to white anxiety on busing — got obliterated by a black woman. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand centered her pitch on her work in the Senate on gender equity. The first-ever openly gay candidate in a major debate (Buttigieg) took the stage as an utterly normalized candidate, receiving no questions posing his sexuality as a potential problem for his candidacy.

Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) speaks to the press after the second Democratic primary debate.
Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) speaks to the press after the second Democratic primary debate.
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

A great number of commentators, spanning the spectrum from reactionary right to center left, have argued that the Democratic Party has gone too far on these sorts of issues — that left-wing “identity politics” are turning off working-class voters and pushing them toward Trump. This claim, which has limited support in the data, is commonly presented as brave truth-telling despite being widely shared by many professional writers today.

Yet despite the ubiquity of the anti-social justice warriors in public discourse, there was no evidence of their influence on the debate stage on either night. No one, not even Biden, put up much of a fight on these fronts. The Democratic candidates seemed to largely ascribe to the notion that all politics is identity politics, and that there is no way to seriously take into account structural inequalities without speaking to the particular situations of oppressed groups.

The Democrats haven’t become the party of overreaching, immature college activists — the parody of social justice activism often offered by its opponents. But the 2020 primary field is, at this point, taking the spirit and ideas of the identity-focused left seriously.

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