It is not exactly an earth-shattering revelation that the Democratic presidential debates on CNN this Tuesday and Wednesday nights are important. But they might be even more important than many appreciate.
There is no debate scheduled for August. In fact, the next ones aren't until September 12 and 13, with no obvious opportunities for anyone to materially improve their positions beforehand.
Without getting melodramatic, the candidacies of the 13 Democrats with Real Clear Politics national poll averages of 2 percent or less are on life support. Even more fit the bill in the latest Fox News (15), ABC News/Washington Post (16), and NBC News/Wall Street Journal (17) polls.
The lack of a breakthrough this week effectively means another six weeks with little political oxygen.
Keep in mind that the candidates with the top five RCP national-poll averages—Joe Biden (31 percent), Elizabeth Warren (15 percent), Bernie Sanders (14 percent), Kamala Harris (11 percent), and Pete Buttigieg (6 percent)—also happen to boast the top five RCP averages in each of the early-voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina, as well as California, the biggest of the March 3 Super Tuesday states. In his home state of Texas, Beto O’Rourke jumps to second place behind Biden, pushing Buttigieg down to sixth place but still above the other Texan in the race, Julian Castro.
The bottom line is that for those candidates not named Biden, Booker, Buttigieg, Harris, Klobuchar, O’Rourke, Sanders, and Warren, absent a grand-slam home run in their debate performance this week, they are more likely to walk on water or turn water into wine than win the 2020 nomination.
In fact, even becoming relevant in this race without doing incredibly well this week is pretty unlikely. There really is no opportunity to break through for a month and a half. Though 25 candidates are running, the three-quarters who are within the margin of error of a negative number are almost invisible, their voices lost in the cacophony with a dozen-and-a-half similarly situated as the longest of shots. There is a pressure in this last debate to do something outrageous to get attention, but risking looking ridiculous in doing so. Even for Booker, Klobuchar, and O’Rourke, at the bottom of the eight quarterfinalists, the pressure is enormous.
But there is another way that this week’s debate is incredibly important, and that is in defining the shape of the race.
Biden is the front-runner right now, with, in my mind, roughly a 40 percent chance of winning the nomination. That obviously means there is about a 60 percent chance that the nod will go to someone else, though no other single candidate seems to have much better than a 25-30 percent chance of prevailing: Sanders’s stock is declining, Warren and Harris are gaining, and Buttigieg is hanging in behind the front four but ahead of the other 19.
Biden has the highest name recognition, but more importantly he consistently performs better against President Trump than any of the others in head-to-head polling matchups and is broadly acceptable in the party, while others stir up more enthusiasm and intensity. Some of this comes from a reservoir of goodwill that he has built up over almost 50 years on the national stage, but also as Barack Obama’s wingman for eight years.
His uneven performance in the first debate put his leading status in some jeopardy, as he wobbled in general and particularly after a withering attack from Harris. But he seems to have regained his footing, and polling shows that he has recaptured much of the support lost in that first altercation.
My view of the top five, through a generational and ideological lens: The 76-year-old Biden is the dominant figure in the center-left lane; the 77-year-old Sanders and the 70-year-old Warren are battling it out for the left/progressive lane, with Warren pulling ahead and beginning to consolidate the Left; and the younger Harris (54) and Buttigieg (37) are to Biden’s left and to the right of Warren and Sanders.
There are more plausible possible outcomes than this, but consider two scenarios coming out of the first debate. In the first, if Biden does reasonably well, his hold on that center-left lane is strengthened, leaving the other candidates who are somewhat less than purely progressive with few if any opportunities to gain traction for six more weeks. The attention in the race would then shift to the fight between Sanders and Warren in the progressive lane, and to Harris and perhaps Buttigieg in the lane in between. Buttigieg’s poll numbers are still on the anemic side, but his bank account is very impressive, earning him a place at the bottom of the top rank rather than at the top of the bottom.
Now think of an alternative scenario: Biden on Wednesday turns in a second underwhelming performance. Suddenly that center-left lane gets more interesting. Do Buttigieg and Klobuchar, the two most prominent center-left candidates, suddenly gain traction? Or maybe O’Rourke? Or one of the others could suddenly get a breath of life.
Does Harris inch or pivot toward the middle a bit, ceding some ground to Warren but trying to capitalize on Biden’s vulnerability? Would Biden’s supporters care that Harris contributed to his downfall? Under these circumstances, while the Sanders-Warren fight continues and remains relevant, the center-left dynamic becomes more riveting.
In short, what happens this week will dictate which way the spotlight will be pointing for the next month and a half—and potentially even longer.