Democrats’ debate divisions open the race to new (or old) faces
America is divided — and so is the Democratic Party. Last night’s debate was less about the individual performances than the flexing of the various wings of the party and the tilt toward the left in the primary, despite an electorate that I believe is more moderate than its new leaders.
Ultimately this debate reflects two fundamental weaknesses of the field. I think there is no one so far who has shown they are likely to consolidate a majority of the party, and so the most likely outcome is more debates with fewer candidates but a convention that will be decided by super-delegates and political deals. And the flip side of this weakness is that the likes of Hillary Clinton, Michael Bloomberg, John Kerry and perhaps even Michele Obama have got to be thinking of getting in and trying to transcend the moderate and liberal wings of the party. They all are watching Biden, gauging whether he is strong enough to pull off a comeback or so weak that the nomination will likely fall into the hands of Warren. After this debate, they still are on the fence and the party is just as divided as ever.
Debates operate against expectations and so, from that vantage point, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is the clear winner — he was supposed to be completely out of the race following a recent heart attack. I am not sure why people want to be president so much that they are back into the fray so soon after such an event, but Sanders was determined not to be counted out just yet. And the announcement that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), and perhaps her entire “Squad,” will be endorsing him brings him back into the game with a burst of enthusiasm from the youth-dominated “justice” wing of the party.
It was predictable that Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) would be the center of attacks given the Biden-Trump explosion. Attacking Biden became the equivalent of supporting President Trump, so really hitting him was off the table for this debate. And Biden’s combination of older voters and African American voters has proven inaccessible to the new group of challengers. They like Biden and don’t really care how he performs in debates. He was a loyal vice president to President Barack Obama and, as he tried to say, he has the full suite of qualifications to be president. But it is equally hard for him to grow in this crowded field of new progressives. He has been unable to stake out his next constituency and appeal to them, and so he is stuck in the low 30s in polling and is in real trouble in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Warren undoubtedly has shown the most momentum in the race, coming from long odds to the number one or two ranking in most scorecards. She is the college professor who appeals to Democratic elites — she has taken these New York Times readers by storm and occupies the vote typically owned by the Gary Hart Democrat. She continues to struggle with her answer to what “Medicare for All” means for middle-class taxpayers, the vast majority of whom already have health care they like. The Medicare for All plan is a vulnerability for her, but the elites have wanted a single-payer health care system for at least 30 years, and she may be the first actual nominee to carry that portfolio to the voters. Sen. Amy Klobochar’s (D-Minn.) questioning of Warren shows, however, that there are a lot of Democrats and union members with excellent benefits who are not on board with eliminating private health care, and Klobochar did a solid job of trying to move into the moderate box.
South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg continues to occupy the bottom of the top-tier of candidates, and he turned in a solid performance. He is whip-smart, is a veteran and has some definite appeal, especially with younger voters — but can the party nominate someone with his limited experience as the mayor of a relatively small town? Debates tremendously help a candidate like him, by giving him equal exposure with someone who was vice president for eight years and head of both the Foreign Relations and Judiciary committees of the Senate. In today’s topsy-turvy politics, such candidates can still emerge, and he definitely would be a strong vice presidential pick for Elizabeth Warren.
I judge campaigns by whether they meet the test of having a clear, memorable theme, a values-laden bio, a voter target, issues they have differentiated plans on, and show “edge” against the competition. Against those measures, none of these candidates has a stellar campaign that transcends the party’s divisions. Instead, they each have carved out one or more constituencies and they are holding on to them even as we begin the primary season. Warren has shown the most movement — but even that is far from garnering a majority against a field that is digging in rather than thinning out.
Mark Penn is a managing partner of the Stagwell Group, a private equity firm specializing in marketing services companies, as well as chairman of the Harris Poll and author of “Microtrends Squared.” He also is CEO of MDC Partners, an advertising and marketing firm. He served as pollster and adviser to former President Clinton from 1995 to 2000, including during Clinton’s impeachment. You can follow him on Twitter @Mark_Penn.
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