The debate that didn't matter
What if they held a debate and no one cared?
Don't get me wrong: For political junkies like me, the Democratic debate in Los Angeles Thursday night was lively, enlightening, and at times highly entertaining. Going down from ten to just seven candidates was a big improvement, giving each more time to make their points and allowing for a greater range of questions to be asked. The moderators from PBS News and Politico did an excellent job of provoking discussion and sometimes heated exchanges. And the candidates themselves did well. Joe Biden didn't have any mental meltdowns. Andrew Yang got to display more of his intelligence and charm than in any previous debate. And even Tom Steyer got in a good line or two.
But none of it will matter. In that respect, all of the debates have been the same. I've watched them. My journalistic colleagues have watched, too, and expressed strong opinions about the performance of various candidates within them. A few million have tuned in to each as well. And the effect? Not much.
The biggest, most consequential moment in all of the Democratic debates so far was Kamala Harris's clash with Biden over busing in late July. The result? Harris doubled her polling for a short time before falling back down to Earth and then ultimately out of the race altogether.
Other than that? Elizabeth Warren rose steadily over several months and has now fallen back somewhat in the polls, but there's no reason to think her performance in the debates has been a big factor in those changes. The professional debate critics at major media organizations have repeatedly pronounced Biden an inarticulate, doddering dud, even as he's maintained his solid lead. Over and over again, Cory Booker has been called a rising star, the underdog who's overdue for a breakout moment. But the moment never came, and he didn't even make the debate stage this time. They've said similar things about Amy Klobuchar — and some said it again on Thursday. And it's true, she had a good night. Just like she did the last time, and the time before that. For all the good it'll do, which is not much. (She currently stands around 3 percent in the polls, which is 24 points behind Biden.)
The fact is that there isn't much evidence that the debates have made any significant difference to the shape of the race. Which, again, doesn't mean that those of us who are paid to watch, or who do so out of sheer, inexplicable perversity, weren't rewarded on Thursday night for our devotion to political competition.
The greatest heat of the night by far was generated by a pair of duels involving South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg — first with Warren and then with Klobuchar. Mayor Pete has surged in the polls over the past couple of months, and clearly some of the competition is becoming antsy to knock him down a peg. Warren went after him over a recent exclusive fundraiser at a “wine cave.” Buttigieg hit back hard, claiming that he's happy to receive support from anyone, because all Americans need to band together to defeat President Trump next November. Warren countered with a variation of her trademark left-wing populism, insinuating that if he takes money from the wealthy, he must be owned by plutocrats.
Klobuchar's beef with Buttigieg seemed to be motivated solely by irritation that he's managed to more than lap her in the polls when he has so much less political experience, including an extremely modest track record of winning elections. (As Nate Silver pointed out on Twitter, she may also have been inspired to go after Mayor Pete because polls often show that she's the second choice of a lot of his supporters in Iowa, where she needs to do well if she has any hope of staying in the race after the voting commences.) To Klobuchar's claim that there's no evidence Buttigieg can win a major political contest, the South Bend mayor mostly deflected with deliberative, gravely intoned expressions of civic earnestness.
These were interesting, illuminating exchanges that revealed new dimensions to those involved in them. But will anyone besides professional political tea readers care? I seriously doubt it.
Biden will stay in the lead. Warren will continue her slow fade. Bernie Sanders will keep consolidating his position as the great left-populist alternative to the frontrunner. Buttigieg will settle in as the fallback option for centrists if Biden has a complete meltdown. Klobuchar will still fail to light anyone's fire. Yang will remain the true wild card. And Steyer will continue to be the guy who bought himself onto the debate stage. (Perhaps Michael Bloomberg will eventually figure out a way to do the same.)
Another debate in the can. Maybe it's time to finally start voting.
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