Debate Losers & Winners: Who Did Best, Who Flopped

Getty Here are the debate winners and losers.

It’s just one debate, you might be tempted to say. However, in a field as crowded as the Democratic primary’s, some candidates may not be able to shake off bad first impressions.

When all was said and done, over two days of the first Democratic presidential primary debate in Miami on June 26-27, 2019, the field was winnowed down to these general categories:

The surging: Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg, Julian Castro, Elizabeth Warren
The not quite surging but not falling either: Cory Booker, Jay Inslee, Bill De Blasio
The falling: Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Beto O’Rourke, Tim Ryan
The “it’s probably not going to happen” folks: Marianne Williamson, Michael Bennet, Eric Swalwell, John Delaney, Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar, John Hickenlooper
The debate wasn’t great but still could generate an offbeat following: Andrew Yang, Tulsi Gabbard

You can read our round-up analysis of the winners and losers from day 1 here.

If you had to single out one candidate who lost the most and one candidate who won the most over the course of both days, Kamala Harris probably lands in the winner column and Joe Biden in the loser column. Biden has been leading in the polls, and Harris took it to him in a defining moment likely to play well for her on the left. He ended up pretty bloodied, metaphorically speaking, if not completely down for the count. It’s important to remember that a month is a lifetime in politics. Time will tell how much of a debate bump candidates get. However, it’s clear that the first debate hurt Biden and helped Harris. It set her up as his biggest threat when it comes to securing the nomination.

Pete Buttigieg and Julian Castro distinguished themselves as people to watch. They also positioned themselves well as potential VP picks (Harris-Buttigieg? Biden-Castro?) They were intelligent, passionate, and they broke out. Elizabeth Warren showed she can’t be counted out yet (can you imagine the Kamala Harris-Elizabeth Warren debate? It’s about time they get on the same stage.)

Here’s the tale of the tape when it comes to winners and losers from Thursday’s debate. This isn’t meant to be an endorsement of a candidate’s position on the issues (or lack thereof). Rather, it’s an analysis of performance and advantage gained or lost. Some might argue that, when Democratic primary candidates score shots against each other (and not Trump), they help Trump. Thus, there’s an argument that he was a winner of the debate (especially if you buy the argument that Biden is the candidate best positioned to beat him.) However, how one breaks down on that point, is probably a matter of political preference.

It’s become the party of Bernie Sanders’ policies (now normalized on the left), and some might argue that a Democratic Party pulled to the left will make it harder for the eventual Democratic nominee to get some of the more moderate Trump voters back in places like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Thus, if you are a conservative, you might be inclined to think the Democratic Party lost. If you’re not a conservative, you probably think otherwise on that point.

Marianne Williamson: Loser

You can’t count out kooky just because it sounds like a long shot. After all, a reality TV star was elected president. But Williamson didn’t quite get the timing of a presidential debate, and her waxing on about Trump and love just seemed kind of …weird. She’s a self-help guru who was Oprah’s spiritual adviser, so what do you expect.

Then, people started digging up her old tweets. From 2011, there was this gem, “Everyone feels on some level like an alien in this world, because we ARE. We come from another realm of consciousness, and long for home.”

In fairness, she’s speaking a different language (that of a new age, celebrity-friend, self-help guru from California.) It might work at cocktail parties in LA, but it didn’t really work here. People on Twitter did have a lot of fun with it all, though. “Young souls don’t get Marianne Williamson. In a few more lifetimes you will understand,” was one of the nicer comments on Twitter.

However, there’s just so much fodder. Marianne Williamson tweet from 2009: “Yin is feminine, earth; yang is masculine, sky. When God is seen as He, the soul is seen as She. Just archetypes. Spirit impregnates soul.”

Joe Biden: Loser & Kamala Harris: Winner

Let’s put these two together because their success and failure in the debate was correlated. Harris made it look like she’s the central challenger to a nominee Biden. (She also had a heckuva line when she said, “America does not want to witness a food fight. They want to know how we are going to put food on their table.”)

Biden’s vulnerabilities on race were already well-known. At least when it comes to a Democratic primary crowd, he has a lot of old votes to explain that come from times past.

He’s the frontrunner based on the polls, so it was inevitable that someone would go at him on that topic. However, it wasn’t inevitable that it would be so successfully orchestrated, at least to a liberal audience.

“I do not believe you are a racist,” Kamala Harris said, directing her comments toward Biden. “…But I also believe and it’s personal and …it was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country… you also worked with them to oppose busing…and, you know, there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day and that little girl was me. So, I will tell you that on this subject it can not be an intellectual debate among Democrats. We have to take it seriously. We have to act swiftly.” (See a fact check of Harris’s busing and integration claim here.)

His answer raised new questions. It sounded like he was arguing for states’ rights even in the face of injustice. “Do you agree today that you were wrong to oppose busing in America? Do you agree?” Harris asked.

Biden added, “I did not oppose busing in America. I opposed busing ordered by the Department of Education.”

“There was a failure of states to integrate public schools in America,” Harris continued, her prosecutorial experience showing through.

Biden seemed like a guy on a witness stand with an implausible alibi in the face of that withering prosecutorial-style attack. He tried to defend his record on race by listing things he’s done, but he didn’t answer Kamala’s emotion and personal story with enough empathy or emotion of his own.

Biden seemed tired. There were times that it seemed like he lost his train of thought. He bizarrely stopped speaking in mid-sentence. A moderator wasn’t clear if he raised his hand on a question about healthcare for undocumented immigrants. Worse than being on the defense, he just seemed…old and underwhelming. It’s worth remembering that, in the last two elections, and then some, voters elected a person who promised change (just cast differently.) He’s the old guard. And now a debate meme. He weirdly looked weirded out when Bernie’s hand flailed near him in the debate.

It’s hard to count Biden out because of one debate. After all, his polling leads have been pretty significant. Some people are seeing a different outcome: “The video of Kamala attacking Biden on bussing will be part of Joe Biden Presidential Library highlighting how his running mate attacked him in the first primary debate,” wrote one Twitter user. But it wasn’t a good day for the former veep.

On top of it, Eric Swalwell (!) urged him to pass the torch, saying, “I was six years old when a presidential candidate came to the California democratic convention and said it’s time to pass the torch to a new generation of Americans. That candidate was then-Sen. Joe Biden. Joe Biden was right when he said it was time to pass the torch to a new generation of Americans 32 years ago, he’s still right today.”

Pete Buttigieg: Winner

pete buttigieg

GettyDemocratic presidential candidate Mayor Pete Buttigieg on June 8, 2019 in Des Moines, Iowa

Mayor Pete of South Bend, Indiana has been a “thing” for some time since he started to break out in the primary crowd. However, he showed during the debate that he’s not just a novelty or good with a quip; he’s a serious, thoughtful guy with interesting takes on policy. He seemed really confident on a stage this large for a small-town mayor (it was easy to forget he’s the mayor of a community of just over 100,000 people.)

He fielded a tough attack on a police shooting in his city. Some people think that created a vulnerability, especially when he didn’t answer a question and shot a glare at the guy asking it (Swalwell).

Could he win it all? It’s at least possible. And that’s a win.

Bernie Sanders: Loser

Bernie came across like a grumpy grandpa who tells the same story over and over again every Thanksgiving. It was interesting the first time…

His positions are no longer the novelty they used to be because everyone else has pretty much adopted them among his opponents. In a way that’s a victory for him because he set the agenda and conversation. However, he’s starting to feel so…2015. Of course, in a divided primary field, without the impediment of super delegates, maybe his loyal following can bring him through… if they don’t pick a fresher choice.

We’ve seen this Saturday Night Live skit before.

Undocumented Immigrants: Depends on Your Perspective

Democratic presidential candidates (L-R) former tech executive Andrew Yang, South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) raise their hands during the second night of the first Democratic presidential debate on June 27, 2019 in Miami, Florida.

Government healthcare plan should include undocumented immigrants? All of the candidates raised their hands yes. This will be controversial.

Donald Trump would argue that this helps…Trump. “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!” he tweeted.

The video of the candidates raising their hands is probably going to be the first GOP campaign advertisement out of the chute when there’s a Democratic nominee.

Andrew Yang: Mixed

He barely got a word out. But at least he made Google Trends. Since he made the stage at all, it’s hard to see it as a loss. Since he didn’t break through, it’s certainly no win.

The Rest of Them

Who else was on the stage again?