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Scorecard: Grading the candidates after the Democratic debate

Highlights from the first night of the July Democratic presidential debate
Ten presidential hopefuls, including senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, took the debate stage in Detroit Tuesday night. (Mark Gartsbeyn / Globe Correspondent)

The second round of the 2020 Democratic presidential debates kicked off Tuesday night, showcasing the party’s political spectrum through candidates on its left, such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, who battled lesser-known, more moderate hopefuls who struggled for airtime ahead of a pivotal point in the race.

While the ideological framework can help voters get a better sense of where these candidates come from, the real test of the evening was whether candidates could create enough moments to build momentum.

Currently there are 25 Democrats running for president, but only about 10 are expected to meet the party’s requirements for the next debate in September. By Aug. 28, candidates will need to show they have at least 130,000 donors and reach 2 percent in at least 4 polls the Democratic National Committee has deemed credible.


When it comes to assessing each candidate, just like the first round of debates, grades are based on two criteria: The candidate’s debate performance, including the substance and resonance of their responses, as well as whether they accomplished what they needed in the context of their campaign. (Those who haven’t already qualified for the next debate have a much higher bar.)

Montana Governor Bullock (Not yet qualified for the next debate.)

Grade: A-

There are currently 25 Democrats running for president, and 13 of them are straight white guys. Among them, only former vice president Joe Biden, Senator Bernie Sanders and former representative Beto O’Rourke have qualified for the next round of debates. One of the questions going into this week was whether or not another white guy can use the debates to make the next round. So far the answer is yes: Bullock.

Tactically he got a lot of time to tout his more moderate positions. But unlike others, he appeared more credible as a red state governor. He did himself a lot of favors by drawing himself as a serious moderate with plans that contrasted the best against the most liberal visions of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, particularly on health care and on gun control.


South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg (Qualified for the next debate.)

Grade: C

As it stands in the race, Buttigieg has the big campaign money, but not much else. Other than a few moments he’ll be able to run Facebook ads with, Buttigieg didn’t really distinguish himself from the field. He wasn’t the most liberal, or the most moderate, or the most electable. Neither of the two debates he has participated in have really helped him.

Former representative John Delaney of Maryland (Not yet qualified for the next debate.)

Grade: B+

Tactically, Delaney was masterful in playing the clock: He leveraged his differences with others on stage to get more airtime explain his positions That said, even if a moderate voter likes what they heard from Delaney, it’s hard to see how they move from Biden (or now, maybe, Bullock). The bottom line is that this was the best moment of his presidential campaign. Many might have expected him to drop out after the debate, but he should stick around for another month and see where it goes.

Former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper (Not yet qualified for the next debate.)

Grade: D

He was forgotten by the moderators and probably the audience, but when he did get a moment to talk it was unremarkable. Remember, this is a candidate who had most of his senior campaign staff leave him after he didn’t take their advice to drop out.


Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota (Not yet qualified for the next debate.)

Grade: D

No candidate on the stage Tuesday night — who hasn’t already qualified — is closer to making the third debate than Klobuchar. She met the polling threshold and will probably find a way to get the donors she needs. But she didn’t help herself at all in this debate. She failed to create any contrasts with others on stage and didn’t take the opportunity to give a rationale on why she is running, beyond her pitch on winning a Midwestern state.

Former representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas (Qualified for the next debate.)

Grade: D

O’Rourke qualified largely as a legacy of his early boomlet days. These days, however, his fund-raising has significantly slowed and his poll numbers are dropping quickly. He needs to find a way to get out of his rut and this debate was just not great at all. He didn’t have a moment. He didn’t carve out something unique. He didn’t engage with others. He was basically irrelevant.

Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio (Not yet qualified for the next debate.)

Grade: B

Like Delaney, Ryan also probably had the best day of his campaign in this debate. He created a lane of the union guy from the rust belt. He was well versed on policy and wanted to engage in a serious way, even with Sanders on health care. It is probably impossible for him to qualify for the next debate given his standing today, but he should be proud of what he did.


Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont (Qualified for the next debate.)

Grade: B-

From the very beginning, Sanders established himself as the original progressive on the stage. After 20 minutes discussing the Medicare for All proposal, and being challenged by Ryan on whether he could deliver on the specifics, Sanders colorfully reminded Ryan that “I wrote the damn bill.”

Sanders had a much stronger debate performance than he did last month. Did he earn more support from Democrats? Probably not, but he, unlike others on the stage, has time.

Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts (Qualified for the next debate.)

Grade: A-

Warren had the best performance of the night. For all of those who wanted her to directly debate Sanders, well, sorry she wasn’t playing. But what she did offer Democratic voters were similar policy positions as Sanders, but presented in a much more polished way and as a woman.

Author Marianne Williamson of California (Not yet qualified for the next debate.)

Grade: C+

The thing about Williamson is that she entered the race already with a large fan base. Her performance, particularly when used a digital clip days later, may ignite that fan base in ways that it hasn’t been. She should be very happy with how she used her time, but overall her mannerisms and words may not have suggested to voters that she’s a serious option.