Image Credit: CNN
After 12 candidates, three hours, and over 25 000 spoken words, the fourth Democratic debate is finally over, and while many of the candidates will have simply been happy for the exposure, the race is increasingly becoming centred around the frontrunners: Senator Bernie Sanders, Senator Elizabeth Warren, and former Vice President Joe Biden. The debate, as focused as it was on the ‘big three’ in the race, drew criticism from a mounting wing of the party that argue that Democrats must slim down in order to present a sufficiently coherent message in the forthcoming election. As the Democrats remain locked in a 19-way battle to spearhead their 2020 effort, Donald Trump is building his campaign: a campaign that, with over $736 million so far, will likely be the the best-funded in American history.
In the meantime, the fourth Democratic debate was all about Elizabeth Warren. Polling at an average of 25 per cent in national polls, Warren has undoubtedly made herself a target, and she came under heavy fire from moderates on stage on Tuesday. Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar was particularly cynical of her Medicare-for-all plan saying that Warren was “making Republican talking points right here in this room” at a tense moment in the debate.
Despite this challenge, Warren’s polling average makes her Biden’s closest challenger. Sanders, steady at 15 per cent, is not even close. The debate on Tuesday highlighted the difference between the candidates: Warren appeared lively, with slick arguments associated with large debates, Biden once again appeared flustered, while Bernie stood out with carefully-prepared humour and flair. This debate once again highlighted what The Washington Post is now calling Warren’s “unique political teflon.” Despite concerted attacks from Buttigieg and Klobuchar, the Massachusetts Senator remains popular in FiveThirtyEight’s initial post-debate favourability ratings.
For Biden, this debate was yet another disappointment in a line of underwhelming appearances. In this debate alone, the Vice President confused “exponentially” with “expediently”, and mixed up Afghanistan with Iraq. Despite the lack of evidence, allegations about his son’s dealings in Ukraine also continue to vex Biden. His attack on the moderators for “elevating a lie” earnt him few favours on the night, and it is possible that Trump’s impeachment proceedings will keep Biden’s problems in the limelight. Nonetheless, his campaign’s popularity has remained consistent at 30 percentage points in spite of his lacklustre debate performances. Furthermore, Warren’s rise has not been at his expense: crucial if he is to maintain popularity going into the primaries next year.
Amongst the remaining field, few candidates stood out, for better or worse. Andrew Yang scored a clear win after his Universal Basic Income idea was discussed at length by Castro and Gabbard, who both signalled their possible support. Reaction to Pete Buttigieg’s combatative style was mixed. A poll in USA Today reported that his popularity was boosted by his aggression against Warren and Biden, but it remains to be seen if support remains consistent in the key state.
Most of the candidates from Tuesday are likely to proceed to the next debate, which has led to criticism that the field remains simply too large for adequate policy debate. There is simply not enough time to put forward their various agendas. Even Warren, the most frequent speaker in the debate, managed just 3 600 words of the 25 000 total. The Democratic party remains divided: not just on policy, but on how to strike a balance between giving smaller candidates sufficient time, and letting their current frontrunners adequately speak on policy. For now, that discussion is punctuated by a stark political reality: for American liberals, four more years of Trumpian politics would be simply unacceptable.