We all have a tendency to analyze political debates as theater. This is not unreasonable, since they are theater. But unlike theater, the debates are part of political campaigns. There are actual votes, actual primaries, ahead. And so while it’s interesting, as a kind of drama critic, to judge the performance on the various candidates, it’s often harder to do the more important thing: to anticipate what effect a debate will have on the actual course of a dynamic electoral campaign.
Sometimes one is tempted to throw up one’s hands at the confusion on stage and exclaim, as a poetical critic, that
…we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
That could be the verdict on Wednesday’s Nevada debate: Lots of clashing to no great effect. But for what it’s worth, here are my guesses on what effect the debate may have had on the Democratic race.
Bernie Sanders: He entered as the frontrunner and probably leaves as an even more solid frontrunner. He made his arguments effectively, didn’t get attacked too much, and may have expanded his support a bit.
But I don’t know that he expanded his support to those not inclined to care for his basic worldview or political style in the first place.
And it may be that some of the glancing attacks he suffered will stick in some undecided voters’ minds. So while Sanders entered the debate as a finalist in the Democratic race, and leaves perhaps as a somewhat stronger one, the big question is how much he is succeeding in expanding the quarter of the vote he won in Iowa and New Hampshire. He’s probably doing so some. But how much? The answer to that question remains, I think, uncertain.
Mike Bloomberg: He didn’t do well. But how much will it matter? This seems to me one of the biggest question about the effects of last night’s debate.
Will the 70 percent or so of the voters available to non-Sanders candidates decide that, contrary to the gauzy ads, the real Mike Bloomberg isn’t impressive and isn’t worth supporting? Or will they decide he’s not a great debater but was a good mayor, is close to where many of them are on lots of issues, and has the money and record to take on Trump.
Maybe it takes a real New York billionaire to beat a New York pretend billionaire, even if the real billionaire isn’t a better debater than, say, the non-millionaire 38-year old mayor of America’s 39th largest city? Or maybe voters will decide that they are better off going with a fresh face or someone more in touch with middle America? I assume the debate may have inclined some voters in the latter direction, but presumably not so many as to doom Bloomberg. At least not yet.
Which brings us to the remaining four candidates. Their fate hangs in the balance in Nevada. The order of finish could end the campaigns of one or more of them, or could, possibly, elevate one of them. How are their fates likely affected by voters’ judgments of the debate?
I suspect the most likely outcome is that voters’ judgments about Biden, Warren, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar will be mixed. In which case no one will clearly emerge. In which case a muddled group of alternatives to Sanders will move on to South Carolina. And if South Carolina too is more muddled than not, it may well be the case that on March 1, Bloomberg will remain the main alternative to Sanders, and desperate moderates will turn their eyes to him despite his not-great debate performance.
But it is also possible that the debate helped sort out this muddle. Here are four summary judgments.
Joe Biden: He had a slightly better debate than most of those he’s had in the past, but did nothing fundamental to change the downward trajectory of his campaign. And if he doesn’t win second in Nevada, which I don’t think he will, I believe he’s effectively finished.
Elizabeth Warren: She did some damage to others, especially Bloomberg. But Sanders’ strong showing is the most important thing that happened to the Warren campaign, and since Sanders remains strong or even a bit stronger, it seems increasingly hard to see a path for her to catch him.
Pete Buttigieg: He probably won the most debate rounds on points, scoring various small victories over different opponents. But all in all, I doubt voters turned off the television thinking he’s the person to supplant Bloomberg as the alternative to Sanders or the person who should be on stage as the opponent to Trump.
Amy Klobuchar: She may—may—be the candidate who, despite the just animadversions of the theater critics about aspects of her performance, won the debate. Not as theater but as an actual part of the campaign. I don’t think it’s out of the question that she could surge in Nevada as she did in New Hampshire.
She may not have remembered the name of the president of Mexico—but don’t we have a tradition of nominating candidates who don’t remember various foreign leaders’ names? Klobuchar probably needs to be a clear second in Nevada just to survive. But my contrarian, likely-to-be-wrong, suggestion is that she just might get it. In which case she would have a chance to do well enough in South Carolina to seem like an alternative to Bloomberg on Super Tuesday.
This is a long shot predicated on another long shot. But it’s also not out of the realm of the possible.
Of course the most likely outcome is that muddle through Nevada and South Carolina, that moderates turn to a flailing (if wealthy!) Bloomberg as an alternative to Sanders, Sanders prevails, and we end up with a Sanders-Trump race where we’ll
…hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.