In some sense, everyone on Thursday’s 2020 debate stage was a winner. They made the cut for a primetime event on network TV while about half of their Democratic rivals for the White House did not.
But once under the glare of TV lights, not everyone performed the same.
These grades are based on how each candidate did, including the substance and resonance of their responses, as well as whether they accomplished what they needed in the context of their campaigns.
Former vice president Joe Biden
In the grand scheme of things, this debate won’t matter much. But for Biden, it was a big night. He needed to stop the bleeding and to show some fight. He did both.
Since he is the front-runner, there will be a focus on some of the weirder moments. Yes, he said nobody should be in jail for a non-violent crime — good for Wall Street executives and for thousands of others and totally against his own ’90s-era crime bill.
Yes, the attacks from Castro on whether he forgot something he said two minutes ago will get replayed.
Yes, he rambled and that will be discussed.
But that is what happens to a front-runner — and he established that’s what he is right now.
Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts
Warren has had the most consistent debate performances over the three rounds. Given her momentum, you can imagine that she had the words “do no harm” written on her hand. And she did no harm. She also didn’t do a lot to help herself, but that’s just fine.
Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont
The evening was being framed as a Biden versus Warren event, which raised the question: Will Sanders be left out? He wasn’t. But stylistically, while Sanders is normally grumpy, he appeared almost downright angry. His place in the top-tier is firm, but it’s hard to see how he won any new converts Thursday.
Senator Kamala Harris of California
Harris was reportedly getting a lot of pressure from her donors to have a breakout performance in this debate. She did not. She did have some good practiced quips. That said, she established she is the top candidate in the second tier and could one day join the top tier.
That day was not Thursday.
Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey
Let’s be clear where Booker is at: Andrew Yang has surpassed him in the polls. Booker has never had “a moment” in the campaign. The thinking is that if he ever did, he uniquely has the infrastructure in Iowa and New Hampshire to capitalize on it. Booker didn’t do anything wrong in this debate. But he just put more pressure on having a great moment in the next debate, which might be do or die.
South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg
Like Booker, he didn’t do anything wrong, but he also didn’t do anything right. The Buttigieg bubble has been fading for a while and he did nothing to stop the fading. We have no idea what the next thresholds will be for entry to the round of debates that come after the debate in October. But his performance Thursday puts more pressure on his next performance in order to stay in the game.
Former secretary of housing and urban development Julián Castro
Castro’s performance will be remembered almost entirely for his attacks on Biden. Did it work? Not really. It was a bit much. But he is in last place on the stage and needed to try something. Had he not gone after Biden, he would have been just as much of an afterthought as Senator Amy Klobuchar. Did he help his campaign? No. Did he get a higher grade for style? Sure.
Former representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas
O’Rourke’s campaign is flailing and he is trying to find his footing. Following the mass shooting in his hometown of El Paso, he made his campaign almost entirely about guns. When the spotlight was on guns, O’Rourke had a good moment — “Hell yes! We’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47!” However, the amount of kudos he got from other candidates signaled that they don’t see him as a threat. Other than the discussion of gun control, he was irrelevant. It remains unclear how he will turn things around.
Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota
Klobuchar has positioned herself as the other moderate besides Biden — not a bad place if Biden falters. However, Klobuchar didn’t really stand out as the other moderate, but rather as the debate’s afterthought. She didn’t use her limited time in the spotlight to differentiate herself, except as the most forgettable candidate.
Entrepreneur Andrew Yang
This could have been a breakout debate for Yang. It wasn’t. He started out Oprah-style: offering 10 people $1,000 a month. It won’t win him the presidency. His answers were wanting, and while he wasn’t reliant on a strong performance to grow his campaign, his time in the spotlight won’t help him get to the White House.
These candidates will do it again on next month, but under different circumstances. We already know that there will be a pair of debates instead of a single night because last week California billionaire Tom Steyer qualified to make the next debate round. With 11 candidates, the debates will go back to being two nights.
Others to watch are Representative Tulsi Gabbard, who needs two more polls showing her with two percent, and author Marianne Williamson, who needs three additional polls showing the same. That round of debates will be held in Ohio.