Democratic debates didn't knock out frontrunners — but Kamala Harris got a big boost

Democratic debates didn't knock out frontrunners — but Kamala Harris got a big boost
© Getty

Debate coverage is as or more important than the debate itself. More people see the media accounts after the event than the debate itself. The media spin on the debate was focused on California Senator Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisHarris on 2020 endorsement: 'I am not thinking about it right now' Panel: Is Kamala Harris a hypocrite for mulling a Joe Biden endorsement? The Hill's Morning Report — Dems detail case to remove Trump for abuse of power MORE taking down former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenDes Moines Register endorses Elizabeth Warren as Democratic presidential nominee Sanders faces lingering questions about appeal to women voters George Conway: Witness missing from impeachment trial is Trump MORE Thursday night and to a lesser degree, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke taking himself down Wednesday evening.

Harris took control of the debate early during the proceedings Thursday night when she tried to stop the squabbling among the candidates saying “America does not want to witness a food fight, they want to know how we’re going to put food on their table. Then she threw a meal in Biden’s face.

Biden was the man who wasn’t there Wednesday night. Thursday he was the man who wishes he hadn’t been there. Rep. Eric SwalwellEric Michael SwalwellMartha McSally fundraises off 'liberal hack' remark to CNN reporter Enes Kanter sees political stardom — after NBA and WWE Swalwell pens op-ed comparing Trump impeachment to XYZ Affair MORE of California softened him up with an old quote by a young Biden saying it was time to pass the torch to a new generation. Swalwell opened the door and Harris slammed it shut on Biden. She took the former vice president down on his opposition to busing as a young politician. 


One of the ironies of this campaign in the era of identity politics is that a white candidate, Biden has a commanding lead among black primary voters when there are two black candidates — Harris and New Jersey Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerSenate Dems to Pompeo: Comments about NPR reporter 'insulting and contemptuous' Black caucus in Nevada: 'Notion that Biden has all of black vote is not true' The Hill's 12:30 Report: House managers to begin opening arguments on day two MORE — running against Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaKaine: Obama called Trump a 'fascist' during 2016 campaign Former NYT correspondent rips Democrats' 'selective use' of constitutional violations Obama portraits leaving National Portrait Gallery to tour museums across the country MORE’s vice president. This is crucial in South Carolina which is one of the key early primary states. Biden has a big lead there where a majority of the Democratic electorate is black. 

Thursday night, Harris went after Biden to fracture his support among black voters. Harris dominated the debate last night because she effectively weaved her own story into her attack on Biden’s opposition to busing. She told Biden that she had been one of the black children who had benefitted from the busing that Biden opposed. She clearly took advantage of her opposition research because Biden told a Delaware newspaper in 1975 that “I oppose busing.”

Most Democrats want a candidate who can defeat Trump. After Harris’ takedown of Biden Thursday, some Democrats must think that she’s the nominee to can knock Trump down a peg or two next fall.

The strange thing is that Biden should have expected the attack on his busing record from Harris, the only black candidate on the stage Thursday. But despite his decades of experience, he stumbled defending himself. That kind of hesitation from a frontrunner smells like blood in the water to the other Democratic candidates. 

But there are traffic bumps for a candidate like Harris who is a relatively moderate candidate running for the presidential nomination of a party that has a strong liberal base. She took some of the air out of her own balloon when she reversed her position in favor of abolishing private health insurance the next morning on Morning Joe.


In primary politics, taking both positions on an issue is as bad as taking the unpopular position on an issue. Just ask Biden after the flak he took for his flip on the Hyde Amendment prohibiting federal funding for abortion. 

Going into the debates, there were five prime time players in the Democratic race and 15 other debaters who haven’t made much of an impression on the Democratic electorate.

The big question is whether any of the top five candidates performed poorly enough to drop out of the first tier. The answer is no. The five first-tier candidates — Biden, Harris, Vermont Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersKaine: Obama called Trump a 'fascist' during 2016 campaign Des Moines Register endorses Elizabeth Warren as Democratic presidential nominee Sanders faces lingering questions about appeal to women voters MORE, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenDes Moines Register endorses Elizabeth Warren as Democratic presidential nominee Sanders faces lingering questions about appeal to women voters Sunday shows preview: Lawmakers prepare for week two of impeachment trial MORE and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegDes Moines Register endorses Elizabeth Warren as Democratic presidential nominee Candidates weighing using private jets to get to Iowa Biden nabs endorsement from Iowa Democrat in swing district MORE — are still on the leader board. 

Sanders has a strong base that will keep him in the race despite a strong surge by Warren. She was the only top tier candidate on the stage Wednesday, and she solidified her status as one of the major Democratic presidential candidates.

Buttigieg held his own Thursday night but his performance was overshadowed by the kerfuffle between Harris and Biden. But more than anything else, Thursday was a good night for Harris and a bad night for Biden.

If Harris was the big winner of the debate marathon, O’Rourke was the big loser. He had a bad night and certainly nothing happened Wednesday night that would vault him back into the upper ranks. Early on he was a shining media star, but he has been in decline ever since.

The other question is whether any of the others made a strong enough impression to advance to the front rank. Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian CastroJulian CastroJayapal: 'We will end up with another Donald Trump' if the US doesn't elect a progressive Sanders, Warren battle for progressive endorsements Biden says he would consider Castro, O'Rourke for VP, Cabinet positions MORE did well on Wednesday night and may lap O’Rourke on the leader board in the key early primary in their home state of Texas. But the aggressive Harris attack and the faltering Biden response sucked the oxygen away from all the other candidates and out of the media coverage of both nights of debate. 

Before the debate, Biden’s lead in early primary and caucus states was already slipping except in South Carolina where his support from African American voters was strong. A national poll conducted the day after the debate showed the vice president falling even more. The Morning Consult/Five Thirty Eight poll had Biden losing 10 points and Harris gaining 9 points.

But Biden was still strong in South Carolina before the debate where his support from African American voters was solid. Now, some of his support in South Carolina may shift to Harris in the aftermath of her stellar debate performance. The odd man out is the other black candidate Booker who has trailed Harris all through the campaign.

It probably won’t do him much good but Swalwell exposed the generational gap in the Biden and Sanders candidacies that the younger Democratic presidential contenders could exploit.

Voters desire for new fresh leadership won’t help O’Rourke or Swalwell but it could be a big advantage for Harris, Buttigieg or Castro. Time will tell. Let’s be patient while the candidates marinate. 

Brad Bannon is a Democratic pollster and CEO of Bannon Communications Research. He is also the host of a radio podcast “Deadline D.C. With Brad Bannon” that airs on the Progressive Voices Network. Follow him on Twitter @BradBannon.