Democratic Debate Preview: All to Play for

The first Democratic debate is this Tuesday, and I’m pretty excited. The candidates will share the stage for the first time this campaign, and hopefully show the country that there is, in fact, not only an alternative to the Trump- and Carson-fueled madness of the Republican field, but also a whole separate primary going on at the same time, with 100% fewer Nazi Germany analogies. That the debate is happening at all is good news, although hopefully the non-Clinton candidates will be able to use the national stage reiterate their points that there should be more of them, forcing the DNC’s hand. These debates force the media to acknowledge that the Democratic race is not just an overdue coronation of a party stalwart, as the dominant narrative continues to be even in light of the dramatic surge of Bernie Sanders and Clinton’s precipitous drop in the polls. While likely to be less insane and watched by fewer people than the Republican debates, this first Democratic debate still has the potential to provide quite a shake-up in the polls, and the race as a whole.

Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee

I don’t want to be too harsh on these guys, but the straight Democrat ticket is a tough one to run these days. People interested in the establishment are voting Hillary, people who aren’t are voting Bernie. The “solid, uninteresting Democrat” just isn’t really relevant anymore. Campaign energy, ideological passion, and name recognition are all things that people look for, and things that these guys pretty desperately lack.

Prediction: Nothing out of the ordinary here. These guys are both polling at below 1%, and have a tendency to put people to sleep when they talk. They will likely get snubbed in terms of question time, and have relatively little impact on the post-debate polls. The best thing to happen for either of them will be a creatively timed viral #FeeltheChafe tweet

Martin O’Malley

He’s the real wildcard going into this first debate. Currently polling at just over 1%, O’Malley has a lot to gain. Unlike Webb and Chafee, he has the capacity to look and sound very presidential and combines solid liberal credentials with a sense of establishment authority. He’s a smart guy, who’s suffering in the polls because the role of liberal firebrand has been taken form him by Bernie’s surprise surge. His environmental action, gun control, and racial justice platforms have been the gold standard so far this campaign, so he has a lot going for him. If he adequately demonstrates that, even with the limited answer time he’s inevitably gonna get, he’ll be in pretty good shape. He also has the unique position of being the only candidate who can really go fully negative. While Bernie just doesn’t do that and Hillary learned the hard way that doing so can backfire, O’Malley has no such qualms.  He’s attacked Bernie in the past, and has been highly critical of Clinton and the DNC establishment in recent weeks. He’ll be the one inserting most of the drama into what might otherwise be a relatively dry discussion of policy solutions and people trying to out-liberal each other.

Prediction: He’ll do a solid job. He’ll get his name out there and try to prove he’s a legitimate contender, much like Rubio did in the first Republican debate. Expect an attack on Bernie for his gun control record and several attacks on Clinton for her recent flip-flopping. Might be confronted with questions concerning rough spots in his record as governor of Maryland. A good chance some publications will dub him the ‘winner’ of the debate, and his numbers will get a bump, though maybe not a long-term one.

Bernie Sanders

Bernie has a lot to gain, but also a lot to lose. To many people who don’t use the Internet for their news, this is a good chance to make a first impression to people who either don’t know him at all or have heard of him only as Vermont’s very own Satanist Stalin impersonator. The biggest hurdle his campaign has to overcome is the information  gap, as he is ahead or doing very well in states where many people know about him but down by 50% or more in states where no one knows who he is. Therefore, appearing on stage in the first place is bound to have some positive effects on his campaign. However, there’s also the chance that he’ll come off as preachy, too idealistic, old, or out of touch. Bernie has a tendency to try to get his message across no matter what, even if that involves dodging the question and trailing off about the undue influence of the 1%. Expect a lot of Red-baiting and general hostility from the other candidates, as he’s stealing all of the anti-Hillary limelight.

Prediction: does fairly well. He’ll get sidetracked once or twice but have an extremely thoughtful answer to the inevitable ‘socialist’ question. There’ll be a sarcastic remark concerning being the first one on stage to support any tenet of their current platform, and an exquisitely time eye roll. He’ll laugh at a joke made by the moderator for an uncomfortable amount of time, but be 100% on-message throughout, for better or worse. Will face tough questions across the board concerning his gun control record. Likely to keep climbing in national polls thanks to name recognition bump.

Hillary Clinton

For Hillary, in a way, this, like the past couple weeks, is all about damage control. Her numbers have been in freefall since June, which she’s tried combating in a bunch of ways. Her first couple strategies, notably going on the offensive against Bernie and trying to paint herself as the moderate alternative, failed pretty miserably. Her current move seems to be co-opting Bernie’s message to muddy the contrasts between the two of them. We’re gonna see this in full at the debate, as she’ll tout her newfound support of LGBTQ rights and Wall Street reform as well as claiming that she’s basically always been against the Keystone Pipeline and the TPP, both of which she conveniently reached a decision on in the past week. Political weathervane or not, this has the potential to backfire tremendously. Hillary’s biggest issues are authenticity and trust. While some might write these off as little more than buzzwords, Mitt “Etch-a-Sketch” Romney might disagree. Again, I’m no expert political pundit, but it certainly seems like pulling 180’s on most of her campaign platform within the past 2 or so years isn’t a great way to build that authenticity and trust. Hillary is a master politician, so she might be able to pull it off, but there’s almost an equal chance that she’s just going to come across as callous and opportunistic like, you know, master politicians often do.

Prediction: She’s gonna get treated pretty badly by the moderators, who can score major points by making her uncomfortable, and everyone else on stage, who’ll be wanting to knock her down a peg or two. She’ll be trying very hard to sound less prepared than she is, with varying degrees of success. Hopefully, she will truthfully answer at least 50% of questions posed to her. All in all, just about everything she’ll do will be subject to intense criticism. She might even simultaneously be too moderate for the base and too liberal for the general, which I guess could technically be some reversal of Clintonian triangulation. Hard to see her reversing the trend in polls, though she might very well stop the freefall for now.

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