The Third Democratic Debate: Winners and Losers

From Left to Right: Klobuchar, Booker, Buttigieg, Sanders, Biden, Warren, Harris, Yang, O'Rourke, Castro // Credit: David J Phillip, AP.

The ten leading Democratic 2020 presidential hopefuls gathered at Texas Southern University on Thursday, September 12th. For the first time, all the qualifying candidates took the stage together, pitting the three leading candidates — Joe Biden , Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren — against each other. The seven other candidates on stage faced a critical challenge: perform well and maintain relevance further into the campaign, or falter and prepare to drop out. Here are the night’s winners and losers:

Winner: O’Rourke

Operating in his home state of Texas, Beto consistently delivered impassioned speeches on a broad range of issues with a special focus on guns and Trump. That central theme was exemplified by his constant rhetorical return to the white-supremacist shooting in his hometown of El Paso, culminating in the line, “Hell yes, we’re going to take away your AR-15s…” The performance will likely be enough to keep him relevant in the race through and beyond the next debate.

Winner: Buttigieg

While the South Bend mayor did not have as focused a message as Beto O’Rourke, he also performed well and came off as an appealing compromise between the progressive Sanders and Warren and the more moderate Biden and Klobuchar, especially on healthcare. He additionally provided excellent points on foreign policy given his credentials as an veteran of Afghanistan, and his closing remarks about coming out as gay cemented his authenticity. He may stand to soak up more support as other candidates drop out, but it’s still up in the air.

Winner: Booker

Booker might be Schroedinger’s candidate. On one hand, everyone knows Booker is running, but they might not have heard that much about him to really remember. This debate might change that for Booker. He energetically responded to questions regarding criminal justice reform, guns, foreign policy, and climate change. Most of all, he came out as the candidate most keenly aware of the issue of race in America. It is still unclear, however, if that’s enough to really lift his polling numbers.

Not a Winner: Biden

Depending on who you ask, Biden either performed excellently under pressure or simply exaggerated his age and out-of-date-ness. Early on, he withstood a combined attack from progressives Warren and Sanders on healthcare and an all-out-assault from Julian Castro. As the night went on, however, he came under increased fire for the failings of the Obama administration, specifically within the realm of immigration. His most memorable moment, though, was when he was asked about resolving the legacy of slavery in America by recommending that parents keep “the record player” on at night. All in all, the debate highlighted how much of a target Biden is, both ideologically and politically, though he was spared from any groundbreaking changes in the line-up.

Not a Winner: Warren

This could have been a big win for Warren on her road to overtaking Biden as the front runner. While she certainly did not perform poorly, she didn’t garner as much attention as one might have expected. After her initial salvo against Biden on healthcare (assisted by Democratic Socialist Bernie Sanders), she largely stayed low; however, she did put in excellent remarks regarding trade policy and her plan to fight climate change. This debate wasn’t her breakout moment over Biden, but it certainly keeps the path open for the fourth debate.

Not a Winner: Sanders

Sanders followed a similar path as Warren for most of the debate, working with her on promoting Medicare for All and fighting corruption in government. Overall, it was nothing that America has not seen before. While it (almost) worked in 2016, it is less certain if that will take him to victory this year given the presence of Elizabeth Warren — though neither has taken shots at the other yet. It appears that going forward, his fate may lay more in the hands of Warren and Biden than his own.

Not a Winner: Harris

Whether or not it helped her campaign, Kamala Harris certainly appeared to be enjoying her debate performance. She pushed through a long list of one-liners with a clear charisma, but commentators didn’t find them to be as funny. Her substance consisted mainly of addressing Donald Trump (both directly and as a topic) to try to solidify her claim to be the candidate to “prosecute the case” against the President and protecting against concerns over her tenure as a District Attorney in and the Attorney General of California. The debate won’t benefit her campaign as much as it might Booker’s, Beto’s, or Buttigieg’s, but she hasn’t crashed out either.

Loser: Klobuchar

The Minnesotan’s appeal to moderates might work in a general election, but it likely won’t make further ground in the 2020 primaries. While Klobuchar didn’t deliver sub-par responses or suffer any major gaffs, she was unable to thrust herself into the center of the debate. With Biden occupying the title of “king of the moderates,” Klobuchar needed to push to the center of debate. She did not do so.

Loser: Yang

Andrew Yang promised something unprecedented at this debate. What was his surprise? Bribery: giving ten families his “Freedom Dividend” for the next year as a pilot program for his flagship policy. The only problem? It’s probably not legal. In the debate itself, his business jargon makes it clear he’s in the wrong room. He may keep his current supporters but it’s highly unlikely that any way forward exists.

Loser: Castro

Julián Castro made Biden his number one target early on in an ill-founded attack on his healthcare plan that may have been cover for hitting the frontrunner on his age and forgetfulness. Being so early on and so explosive, it’s unlikely that many will remember Castro for doing anything else during the debate. Already polling lowest among the group, Castro’s campaign has no path to the presidency.