The Democratic debates in Miami are finally over, and wow, was that a lot of debating or what? In an effort to cut through the blur, here’s a ranking of the current potency of each participating candidate’s campaign based on subjectivity, recency bias, and hyperbolic overreaction to the way various clips have played on social media. In other words, it’s a ranking of who’s most likely to win the Democratic nomination done by someone who’s thought about nothing but DEBATES DEBATES DEBATES for the past 48 hours but still has a distant, animal memory of things like prior polling and fundraising totals.
Let’s have at it!
1a. Elizabeth Warren. Yes, I’m putting two people in the No. 1 slot. Feel free to create your own list! On mine, I’ll start with the candidate who got the best reviews of anyone onstage Wednesday night and sent a clear signal to potentially wavering Bernie Sanders voters that she is trustworthy on health care by announcing her support for a single-payer program that would eliminate private insurance. That could bite her in the general election, or if she ends up in a one-on-one race with Biden or another “Medicare for All” moderate, but those are what we call Later Problems. For now, she’s done what she needs to do to continue rising in the polls.
1b. Kamala Harris. Delivered spirited pitches for center-lane Democratic policies and hit the current center-lane front-runner’s weakest spots in the most memorable moment of either debate. As with Warren, there’s not much more Harris could have done out there; I’m putting her at 1b because she started further back in the polls and I personally think she’s a little less fluid and natural-seeming when delivering talking points than Warren is, though it could also be because, like many left-leaning opinion journalists, I am more drawn to Warren. Media bias!
3. Bernie Sanders. While Joe Biden’s performance involved meandering lists of bullet points with little relation to each other or to the question he was asked, suggesting that perhaps the ol’ politics game has passed him by, Biden’s fellow septuagenarian polling front-runner, Sanders, gave responses that touched on policy specifics but also forcefully delivered a sense of his broader values. One thing that the debates made clear, in other words, is that Sanders—and a number of other top contenders—have been spending a lot more time than Biden over the past few years taking questions from voters and reporters. Of course, that’s sort of the problem for Sanders too: Are there any Democrats who watched the debate who hadn’t already seen what Bernie has to say?
4. Pete Buttigieg. Buttigieg came into the debate in fourth place in the polls and took the opportunities he was given to state his signature talking points about values and democracy in coherent fashion—i.e., he didn’t do anything to hurt himself. Time will tell how voters judge his handling of the recent fatal police shooting of a black man in South Bend, Indiana, where he is mayor. But on Thursday he addressed the issue directly and took blame for having failed to diversify the city’s police force.
5. Julián Castro. Won wonk hearts with his proposal for decriminalizing undocumented border crossing; gave sharp answers on reproductive rights, police brutality, and the filibuster. Generally reminded people that he’s a former big-city mayor (San Antonio) and Cabinet secretary (Housing and Urban Development) with an impressive personal story who was considered Texas’ rising Democratic star before Beto O’Rourke—about whom you’ll read further down this list—ran for Senate against Ted Cruz.
6. Joe Biden. Responded defensively rather than compassionately to Harris’ comments about having been bussed to a formerly segregated school; did not convey any sense of what he thinks America needs from a president at this point in time; broadly speaking, sounded like a circuit board loaded with random political phrases that someone had poured water on. Would be lower in the rankings if he had not walked into the debate 15 points ahead in the polls.
7. Marianne Williamson. Talked about dreams and visions; said the very first thing she would do as president would be to call the prime minister of New Zealand (!?!) to talk shit. Didn’t openly advocate on behalf of the measles. Has real potential to be the Ben Carson of 2020. Or, hey, the Donald Trump! Ha-ha-ha! Can you imagine? Oh god.
8. Cory Booker. Didn’t lead the way on any issues to the extent that Castro did, but similarly reminded viewers that he is someone who has a good CV and can talk energetically and dramatically about, you know, Democratic Party stuff.
9. Jay Inslee. Had some mildly arresting I’m-mad-as-hell-and-I’m-not-going-to-take-it-anymore riffs, particularly on his signature issue of climate change, and flashed piercing blue eyes that had some viewers (me) thinking thoughts like, My, isn’t that a handsome current governor of Washington state! He isn’t going to win the race but had some influential pundits (me) thinking about his veep possibilities.
10. Bill de Blasio. In a too-perfect mini re-creation of his political career, de Blasio delivered a few blasts of impressively rousing populist rhetoric during the Wednesday debate, then immediately stepped in it by quoting Latin American revolutionary Che Guevara at a subsequent event in Miami (i.e., the famous epicenter of anti-revolutionary Cuban conservatism), then extended the gaffe cycle by making an unconvincing claim that he hadn’t known the provenance of the quote despite being a former Sandinista. Truly, it was classic B-Blaze.
11 . Amy Klobuchar. Klobuchar is pretty much the median candidate in this race, someone with OK-but-not-great name recognition and some stage presence but not an overwhelming amount of charisma, and she delivered basically the median debate performance, giving perfectly cromulent sound bites but not particularly distinguishing herself from either a personality or policy standpoint.
12. Beto O’Rourke. Once upon a time, dumb pundits said O’Rourke could be president. But the energetic, intellectual heartthrob vibes he gave off while leading a nearly amazing grassroots upset in Texas have dissipated. O’Rourke, whose campaign has lost ground since he announced, could have used some big moments to turn things around; instead, he repeatedly told “I met a woman in Omaha who gave me two pebbles … “–type stories that were meant to be profound but simply came off as glum.
13. Kirsten Gillibrand. Pushed her way into several discussions as if she were peeved not to be getting taken more seriously, something for which you can’t really blame her, given that she set up this campaign for years, becoming one of the most prominent members of the Senate by taking forward-looking positions on a wide variety of subjects and consistently pushing her caution-inclined caucus to battle the Trump administration as aggressively as possible. Voters are just not that interested in what she’s selling right now, and you have to feel bad for her, or at least as bad as it’s possible to feel for a former attorney for Phillip Morris who specialized in disclosure issues related to the company’s research into the health effects of smoking.
14. John Hickenlooper. Also seemed peeved not to be getting taken more seriously, something for which you can blame him, because he is one of several candidates with very similar backgrounds and beliefs who are polling very poorly. You’ll see the other ones’ names shortly!
15. Tulsi Gabbard. Impressed debate audiences to the extent that she made a compelling case against the United States’ endless-war foreign policy and has a compelling biography at first glance. Likely will not overcome the reality that her pacifism involves weird advocacy for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and that her biography involves ongoing connections to a small, not-entirely-healthy-seeming religious sect in Hawaii.
16. Tim Ryan. The congressman from Youngstown, Ohio, made abundantly clear that he is running for president because he thinks the president should be extremely concerned about the conditions and cultural customs of people from industrial Ohio. Which is strange, because the president is supposed to be concerned about everyone. Being concerned about people from northeastern Ohio is the job that Tim Ryan already has!*
17. Michael Bennet. I don’t understand why he’s running. He used the phrase mercantilism and talked about the Strait of Hormuz. He sounds like someone who worked in Eisenhower’s cabinet and had to resign from the State Department in 1966 over an incident involving martinis and “Indochina.”
18. John Delaney. Kept butting in as if annoyed that he isn’t being taken seriously as a presidential candidate despite being an anonymous former congressman who is averaging less than 1 percent in the polls. Tried to compare his English grandfather having been detained for an admission hearing at Ellis Island to family separation at the border.
19. Andrew Yang. Yang is not a politician and comes off in interviews as a smart outside-the-box thinker. On stage he looked like a guy with no experience on national TV who had just been asked to explain the concept of value-added taxes, automation-driven obsolescence, and universal basic income in 45 seconds, while some of the best public speakers in the country watched him from feet away.
20. Eric Swalwell. This guy is just not my kind of guy.
Correction, June 28, 2019: This sentence originally misidentified Youngstown as being in northwestern Ohio. It’s actually located in northeastern Ohio.