Former vice president Joe Biden and Senator Kamala Harris were both in the hot seat Wednesday as they defended their records and proposals in the second night of the second round of 2020 Democratic presidential debates.
While this pair will dominate the headlines, the real drama was among the seven on the stage who have not yet qualified for the next round of debates.
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.
Two candidates on the stage — former Housing secretary Julián Castro and New York entrepreneur Andrew Yang — are on the bubble. Both have met the donor thresholds and are on their way to hitting the poll thresholds but have yet to do so. Yang, for example, needs just one more poll.
But for the five others on the stage it was a do or die moment. (Note Senator Kirsten Gillibrand was explicit in her closing statement that she needed donors to make the next debate stage.) And where candidates stand relative to qualifying for the next debate — outside of Biden’s own performance as a frontrunner — is a huge factor for grading most candidates.
Just like the Tuesday night, the grades below 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.)
Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado (Not yet qualified for the next debate.)
Bennet did what a candidate entering the debate with 1 percent in the polls needed to do: he created digital moments for his team to promote. The problem, however, is while he said things about schools and racism that most Democrats would agree with, he didn’t offer any reason why they should vote for him instead of others.
Bennet could have had an interesting moment in framing himself as the moderate option if Biden falls. But he didn’t do that and despite his nice digital moments it is hard to see how he doesn’t drop out in the next few weeks.
Former vice president Joe Biden (Qualified for the next debate.)
Biden probably did what he needed to do to keep his frontrunner status, but did nothing make activists and donors feel better about him being the obvious Democrat who should take on President Trump next year. From his first remarks on stage where he called the 54-year-old Harris “kid” to mangling what sounded like a call to text his campaign, Biden’s problem is no longer that he is too moderate — it’s that he simply is not in fighting shape.
Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey (Qualified for the next debate.)
There was no overwhelming winner of this debate, but there was a winner and his name is Cory Booker. He used every moment well to remind people why Booker is a nationally known name and one of the most sought after speakers by Democrats around the country.
It was Booker, not Harris, who had the best blow to Biden when they discussed criminal justice. Booker attacked, defended himself deftly, and used inspiring rhetoric that will help him climb in the polls. Booker already qualified for the next debate, but now we’ll see if he takes a run at fourth place in polling with Harris after this performance. It wouldn’t be surprising to see if he has the best 24 hours of fund-raising of his campaign after what happened.
Former Housing secretary Julián Castro of Texas (Not yet qualified for the next debate.)
Castro was among the three or four who had a decent night. He was succinct, married the personal with the policy and took on Biden. That said, Castro is on the bubble for the next round of debates, and he needed to do a bit more to ensure more polls will get him over the 2 percent hump. It is unclear whether he did that. He could be fine for qualifying, but it would be understandable if he wished he did just a tad bit better.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (Not yet qualified for the next debate.)
He was not supposed to be relevant in this debate given he is ranking near the bottom of the contest, but he was because he deftly forced his way into conversations and (sort of) made Biden engage with him. He’ll walk away glad he got as much screen time as he did, but Biden had an easy time swatting him down several times and it was not a good look when he was in the hot seat for not yet firing the police officer involved in Eric Garner’s death.
Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii (Not yet qualified for the next debate.)
It is doubtful that Gabbard will make another presidential debate, but she went out with a bang. There wasn’t a history-defining moment in this debate, but her attack on Harris’s record as prosecutor was the best moment.
Without a doubt the exchange will have a lasting impact for Harris. As for Gabbard, she was the most searched name on the debate stage according to Google. For a person who isn’t well known, she will take it.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (Not yet qualified for the next debate.)
Like Gabbard, Gillibrand has to have mixed feelings about her performance. On the one hand she perfectly executed her rationale for running and was poised. On the other, she needed a huge moment to have any chance at continuing in the campaign and that didn’t happen.
Senator Kamala Harris (Qualified for the next debate.)
After such a blow away performance in the first debate (this column gave her an A++ grade) the question was whether or not she could repeat the performance. The answer: she could not. Interestingly, Harris seemed to benefit from media framing that she was among the “top two” on the stage though in reality she polls somewhere between the top three (Biden, Senator Elizabeth Warren and Senator Bernie Sanders) and a few points above Booker.
But her performance was very uneven and it began from the start when she had trouble explaining and defending her newly-released health care plan. Then she apparently didn’t see Gabbard’s hit on her coming even though Gabbard has been making this case against Harris for months.
Harris now needs to pay more attention to Booker than Biden.
Governor Jay Inslee (Not yet qualified for the next debate.)
Inslee gave a lot of reasons for progressives to say “right on” on his single-issue campaign on climate change — admittedly a big issue. But it is hard to see anyone moving their vote to him.
New York entrepreneur Andrew Yang (Not yet qualified for the next debate.)
The most improved award from the first debate to the second goes to Yang. Granted the bar was low since NBC largely ignored him when they hosted the debate last month. But he was able to explain his big idea about universal basic income and directly tie it in to most answers without it being kitschy.
Yang is one poll away from qualifying for the next debate, and in terms of what he needed to do, he easily will get another poll showing him getting at least 2 percent of support.