Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.
If you thought the Tory leadership debates were poorly formatted, difficult to understand, and involved more arguments than an average family game of Monopoly, look away now. The Democratic leadership debates simply aren’t for you.
Last week, the first two debates took place – two platforms on consecutive nights featuring the 20 Democrats who qualified, having met the fundraising threshold and with national polls putting them above two per cent of the vote.
Much like our own leadership debates, the dominant theme was candidates talking over one another and overwhelmed hosts struggling to keep the peace. The format is more rehearsed in the United States, and so viewers are perhaps more accustomed to it, but there were still few moments of real clarity. In such an open setting, there was little sign of real scrutiny for any one of the candidates’ plans. As well as cross-talk, there were plenty of awkward moments.
In such a busy and hectic setting, it becomes difficult to identify who created any real impact. Despite that, three moments stood out:
In a crowded field, Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren broke through the noise and established themselves as major players
The most memorable moment from the first round of debates was Senator Kamala Harris’ assessment of Vice President Joe Biden’s record on civil rights.
“I do not believe you are a racist”, she began, putting the Biden campaign on the back foot on an issue that will now become even more important throughout this campaign. The Democratic membership crave a progressive candidate who will take the left-wing fight to Donald Trump, and whilst Biden’s experience is his strongest asset there remain questions about his legacy on progressive causes like civil rights and the environment.
Even in the debate, a flustered Joe Biden rejected what he described as a “mischaracterisation across the board”. In taking the fight so directly to Biden – the clear frontrunner – Harris has established herself as one of the best placed candidates to challenge his lead.
The polling proves the Harris campaign strategy has had an immediate effect, as Biden’s frontrunner status is dwindling. He fell 10 points in the latest CNN/SSRS poll released after the debate to 22 per cent, whilst Harris gained nine points, jumping into second place at 17 per cent. Amongst a key voter demographic in the Democratic primary, Biden’s support with non-white voters fell from 30 per cent to 25 per cent, while Harris’ leaped from four per cent to 19 per cent.
Among those who watched or followed news coverage about the debates, 41 per cent said Harris performed best, compared to 13 per cent for Warren and ten per cent for Biden. Biden has suffered an overall 10-point decline in support since the last CNN poll in May. Meanwhile, Harris has risen by nine points and Warren by eight points.
It remains far too soon to suggest this is a three-hose race, and there remains intrigue and excitement amongst the Democratic membership in the likes of Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders, and Cory Booker. But after strong performances in the first debate, Harris and Warren have positioned themselves as the candidates currently most likely to challenge Joe Biden’s lead.
As the front-runner, Biden will continue to be the target of all his rivals
Boris Johnson pursued a carefully crafted ‘submarine strategy’ during the early stages of the Tory leadership contest. As the front-runner, he was always going to be the primary subject of criticisms from those further behind him in the race, and Biden is now suffering from the same tactics.
There is no suggestion that Biden will consider a ‘submarine’ approach. Instead, we can expect as much public visibility as possible, in key early-voting states like Iowa and New Hampshire. But like Johnson, the former vice president is finding life as the front-runner difficult. In the debate, he was the main focus of his Democratic rivals, who sought to punch questions around his policy agenda and past voting record.
With the first debates now over, the candidates will take to the stage again on July 30 and 31. In Detroit, the wide field of leadership hopefuls will once again focus their criticisms on Biden. Whilst the CNN polling gives cause for concern, the Biden campaign will be relieved by the 43 per cent of potential Democratic voters who say he has the best chance to beat Trump in 2020 – 30 points ahead of his nearest competitor, Sanders.
The Trump campaign will make hay out of the Democratic disagreements
The Republican Party appears deeply unified around Donald Trump as their presidential candidate – 89 per cent of Republican voters approve of the job he is doing. Permanently in campaign mode ever since setting foot in the White House, you get the feeling the President is never happier than when taking the fight to his political opponents on the campaign trail and at rallies in front of adoring supporters.
The Trump 2020 team will therefore look to capitalise on the personality and policy disagreements that were easy to see throughout the two nights of Democratic debates. Twitter-friendly snippets of criticisms between candidates favour the Trump style of campaigning. Eventually, the Democratic hopefuls will have to coalesce around whomever becomes the party’s candidate – despite having spent the debates doing their very best to undercut and undermine one another.
The second round of debates at the end of this month will provide an eye-opening opportunity to see if anyone can take the fight to Biden – and more importantly, Trump.