The Biggest Stage Has Two Front-Runners

And more also-rans than ever.

Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren onstage.
Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren at last month’s debate in Houston. Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

In the month since the last presidential debate on Sept. 12, the national focus has drifted away from the ups and downs of the Democratic nominating contest and toward an adjudication of the present, with the House of Representatives beginning the impeachment process of President Donald Trump.

Just as the spotlight turned away from the hypothetical and toward the real, though, the race also saw its first major shift at the top: Joe Biden lost his position as the solo front-runner, a status he had held since entering the race in April and in trial-heat polling for months before that. He now effectively shares that lead with Sen. Elizabeth Warren in both the national polling average and those averages in Iowa and New Hampshire.

But Warren’s rise has come less from a Biden “collapse” than by her siphoning a couple of points here and there from everyone—and those lost few points matter more to those struggling for survival than they do to Biden. The new shape of the race looks like a two-person contest, with the rest of the field sucking wind. We should expect the dynamic of Tuesday night’s debate, taking place just outside of Columbus, Ohio, to be less the two front-runners trying to body-slam each other—there’s no need for them to deploy finishing moves before they’re in a formal one-on-one contest—and more the 10 other candidates in the field trying to stay in the match.

And yes: The 10 other candidates! In another paradox from the Democratic National Committee and its television partners, the process of using debates to winnow the field has produced a fourth debate that will feature the most candidates sharing a single stage of any debate thus far. All the candidates who participated in the September debate—Biden, Warren, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg, Andrew Yang, Julián Castro, Beto O’Rourke, Cory Booker, and Amy Klobuchar—will return to this stage, with Tom Steyer and Tulsi Gabbard joining the cast in guest spots. So even while more of these lower-polling candidates will feel the need to “make something happen,” as the DNC has ratcheted up the qualifying thresholds for November’s debate another notch, they’ll have less average time to speak.

And what, in their respective small windows of time, can they do?

Premeditated attack strategies have a mostly losing record so far. The most successful of them—Kamala Harris’ biographical repudiation of Biden’s recording on busing—lent Harris only a short-lived boost as her moment of moral righteousness soon faded to equivocation.
John Delaney earned plenty of screen time in the second debate acting as the moderate counterweight to Warren, but moderate voters already had their preferred counterweight in Biden, and they also like Elizabeth Warren more than they like John Delaney. Tulsi Gabbard, similarly, took a hatchet to Harris in the second debate, a moment that may have hurt Harris but hardly helped Gabbard. And in the third debate, Julián Castro famously “insinuated” that Joe Biden was losing his mind and was rewarded with a sharp collapse in his net favorability.

The “nicer” candidates haven’t gotten much out of the debates, either. Cory Booker has had three excellent debates as an all-around competent, joyful figure, inspiring barely a rounding error’s worth of people to support him. Beto O’Rourke seized the last debate with his emotional moment on guns; he also went nowhere. Amy Klobuchar has remained a steady afterthought throughout the campaign.

And the issue that’s overtaken the presidential race in the public consciousness—the impeachment inquiry—is unlikely to produce many opportunities for differentiation, since they’re all more or less on the same page. It may be the two newcomers, Steyer and Gabbard, who can add the only wrinkles. While in one sense, it’s a bad political break for Steyer that the rest of the party is now with him on his defining issue—imagine, say, the climate-focused Jay Inslee only making the debate stage after Congress had passed the Green New Deal—he can make the argument, with compelling evidence, that the impeachment process should have begun when he first called for it in 2017, sparing the country years of crimes. And while Gabbard has come on board with the House’s impeachment inquiry, she’s still one of the most reluctant Democratic figures about it. Reluctance to impeach no longer has a significant Democratic constituency, but it’s a way to start an argument.

The candidate that might have the most opportunity to rise, really, could be third-place Bernie Sanders. Just a couple of weeks after a heart attack, he has the ability to impress, inspire, and reassert his standing simply by making it through the debate.

After reading all of the evidence of debate trial-and-error above, you might be asking: Well, can any of these lower-polling candidates do anything during the debate to break the duopoly at the top and prompt a rise in the polls for themselves? The answer isn’t necessarily “no,” it’s just that it hasn’t happened yet. We should expect more attempts Tuesday night, and for Biden and Warren to spend most of their night evading competitors and shit-stirring moderators. And when it’s all done? We should expect the same front-runners as before.