Joe Biden’s approval ratings are in the toilet and the two things he could do to address the problem (make gas 75 percent cheaper or become a younger person) are either practically or literally impossible.
In the upcoming midterms, Democrats might hold the Senate, mostly because Donald Trump can’t stop giving out primary endorsements to mega-liars with multiple mystery children (Herschel Walker), TV phonies who don’t live in the state where they’re running (Mehmet Oz), and white nationalist—adjacent tech-fascist creeps (Blake Masters). But the House is not looking great, and with the White House’s critical race theory task force expected to criminalize pickup trucks by 2023 [ed.: has this sentence been fact-checked?] … well, the point is that Democrats are kicking around the idea of someone besides the current president running in the next election.
Some of the figures getting floated as possible replacement candidates have run for president before or otherwise have established media profiles. They include Stacey Abrams, Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, and Amy Klobuchar. But most of the contenders are less well-known. They’re being buzzed about because they have intriguing biographies, or have outperformed other Democratic candidates in previous elections, or are popular in key Electoral College states. Or have histories of going viral, or taking aggressive positions on trending issues, etc.
All that can be helpful when running for president. But none of it guarantees that a candidate will last beyond the first few moments of their first primary debate.
Recall that in 2020 ex–New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg spent some twelve hundred trillion dollars on advertising to propel himself into contention in the Democratic race—only to be simultaneously attacked and exposed so effectively during the party’s Feb. 20, 2020, debate, his first, that he ended his campaign by March 4. In the words of one well-regarded writer, his candidacy arrived onstage that night as an ascendant threat and left it as “the vanity project of a low-charisma onetime Republican with a history of red-flag positions and behavior.”
One could also point to the veep herself, Harris, who looked like a potential president on paper—and had her own early viral debate moment when she attacked Biden over his criticism of 1970s school integration programs. But her chances deflated into a limp pile of plastic as further camera time made clear that she was not capable of coherently forming or explaining her own positions on, among other subjects, school integration.
With this history in mind, Slate reviewed footage of recent debate performances featuring nine of the potential Democratic 2024 contenders who aren’t yet household names to the party’s median voter. The idea was to try and figure out who might pop—and, more to the point, who might be exposed as a stiff—in a still-hypothetical series of primary donnybrooks.
The hypothetical candidates have been ranked here from least to most adjudged potential.
9. North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper
Why he’s being hyped: Keeps winning elections in North Carolina as other Democrats—even inoffensive centrist ones—come up a few points short, and does so without compromising Democratic values on issues like the “bathroom bill.”
Footage reviewed: WCNC gubernatorial debate, Oct. 14, 2020
Verdict: I thought I was getting pranked when Roy Cooper appeared on screen. This is what he looks like:
This is not a rising-star modern politician. This is the leader of an evangelical congregation in 1966. This is a guy who thinks Jimmy Carter is “too rock ’n’ roll.” This is what it would look like if a sweater designed a human. This is an advertisement you use to scare teenagers into using drugs.
It’s not that Cooper was incoherent in his statements about subjects such as raising teacher pay and using “science and data” to “make the tough decisions” about COVID. He would probably win some votes from older Americans who aren’t paying close attention and who might get him kind of conflated in their head with Ronald Reagan. But no. It’s not going to happen.
8. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer
Why she’s being hyped: Won an election in a swing state by 9 points in 2018 and appears set to win again in 2022 despite the significantly tougher national outlook for Democrats. Stood firm on COVID and has stood firm on abortion without losing reputation as a moderate.
Debate footage reviewed: WOOD TV 8 gubernatorial debate, Oct. 12, 2018
Verdict: As with Cooper, there was nothing alarming about Whitmer and the statements she made about locally relevant issues like road repairs and Great Lakes pollution. But—and it pains me to say this as someone who believes the national Democratic Party needs to continue to learn (from people like Whitmer) that moderation and centrism aren’t synonymous with caution and surrender—she wasn’t a strong performer.
Whitmer, who was struck frequently by Direct to Camera Frozen Smile Syndrome, introduced a story about her mom having cancer with the incongruously humorous and confusing phrase “When I was 29 years old, I became a member of the Sandwich Generation.” She ended it with the only slightly less confusing statement “Make no mistake: Health care is on this ballot … for … governor.” And she swallowed in a weird way several times (see minute 4:56 in the video below).
One other thing that’s apparent from watching the debate is that Whitmer was spotted an advantage by running against former Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, who—and I’m allowed to say this, because he’s from my hometown—looks like a weasel whose eyes are being sewn shut.
7. Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. (and prospective Sen.) John Fetterman
Why he’s being hyped: Has an intriguing backstory (grew up affluent and moved to a down-on-its-luck Pittsburgh-area municipality for AmeriCorps, then stayed there, eventually becoming its mayor). Is a giant guy who, along with his wife, dresses like a Gen X goth hipster, which is to say, he doesn’t come off as a snob. Currently favored to defeat television’s “Dr. Oz” in a crucial Senate race in, yes, a swing state.
Footage reviewed: WPXI Democratic Senate primary debate, April 21, 2022
Verdict: Fetterman didn’t jump off the screen or take any aggressive positions. (His efforts to claim that he supports universal health coverage without specifically endorsing “Medicare for All” were especially uninspiring; here’s a clip of him avoiding the issue at a different debate.) He talked quickly and in a monotone without using his face or his hands much. He was slower with facts and anecdotes than other candidates further down this list, and stumbled a bit in his response to questions about his 2013 confrontation with a Black jogger even though he must have known they were coming.
However! It’s harder to look cool and confident when you’re taking questions and criticism about tough intraparty wedge issues during a heated primary debate than when you’re debating an unpopular incumbent or no-hope challenger from the other party, like a number of the other candidates in this piece had the good fortune of doing. Fetterman was leading his race at the time, and as such he was attacked throughout the debate from both his literal and metaphorical right and left. He avoided making gaffes and did well enough to hold his lead—and win.
Part of his appeal, moreover, is that he seems less polished and stage-managed than some other politicians. His plainspokenness and lack of self-consciousness work well in other settings. (See: this University of Pittsburgh talk called “The Brevity of Life and How It Can Move You” about how being close to a series of deaths in his 20s changed his worldview, in which his tone registers calmness and wisdom.) There is also this video of him wearing a rainbow cape and a plastic hat and sucking on a lollipop while listening to his wife speak at a Pride event. (See video below from minute 4:00 onward. It’s worth a few seconds of your time.) And there is something to be said about being able to come off as strong and possessed of conviction without having to raise your voice.
6. California Gov. Gavin Newsom
Why he’s being hyped: As the governor of a populous state that is often “in the news” but also happens to be one of the most Democratic in the country, Newsom has the benefit of being able to enact high-profile, meaningful (or meaningful-looking) measures related to issues of central Democratic voter concern like guns, abortion, immigration, climate, and even, in the case of June’s tax-rebate bill, the dreaded price of gas. In this way, he may appeal in a fantasy daydream way to members of the party who would like it to do stuff besides failing to reach agreements with Joe Manchin.
Footage reviewed: Univision gubernatorial forum, Jan. 25, 2019
Verdict: Newsom is the opposite of Fetterman—so smooth and Matthew McConaughey–esque in his elocution, which he accompanies with Inspiring Political Hand Gestures, that it’s almost comical. The man is good at looking good, and it makes you wonder whether he’s more style than substance, which is, in fact, a criticism that’s been made of him.
It’s also not technically within the scope of this article, but the cause that Newsom was most frequently and passionately defending during the debate—maintaining California as a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants—is a reminder that there would be “electability concerns” raised about a presidential candidate from the state that many people in the rest of the country imagine as a sexually depraved communist dystopia in which “Fancy” Nancy Pelosi is worshipped as a god.
5. Colorado Gov. Jared Polis
Why he’s being hyped: Appears set to be reelected by a wide margin after establishing a reputation for independence in a blue state (by, for example, ending mask mandates before other Democratic governors). Also appointed the Republican who ran against him in 2018 to a state economic development position, which is the kind of working-together feel-good bipartisan crapola that Democratic primary voters absolutely ate up in 2020. Got very rich in the greeting cards business—he helped his parents put their company, Blue Mountain, founded in 1971, online—which means he could fund some of his own campaign.
Footage reviewed: Denver7 gubernatorial debate, Oct. 24, 2018
Verdict: Polis is from the Mayor Pete School of Being Extremely, Almost Casually Conversant With the Facts of Any Given Matter. At one point he listed the starting teacher salaries in three neighboring school districts. (See below at 17:10.) He is also handy with positive-seeming technocrat phrases like “we need to have a greater offset as a backstop.” (This was in reference to the placement of oil and gas drills relative to other structures.) But he was also good at punctuating all the detail with “values” statements about wanting to, for example, make sure “every kid gets a strong start” and that “money actually reaches the classroom.” He did seem, to this non–Colorado politics expert, to be a bit evasive and slick about what policies he would actually support in relation to the values about which he spoke so eloquently, which is also a bit Mayor Pete–like, if you ask me, although obviously no one asks me.
4. Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy
Why he’s being hyped: Murphy represented the House district in which the Sandy Hook massacre took place and has been a Democratic leader on the issue of gun control (or gun safety, if you will), leading the recent negotiations that resulted in the first major gun legislation in decades. He is also just generally one of the few Democratic senators who both 1) seems to have some influence within the party and 2) is good enough at public speaking that normal people occasionally hear about things he says in Congress.
Footage reviewed: WFSB Senate debate, Oct. 26, 2018
Verdict: Murphy is in command of both the facts and the “narrative” that he wants to highlight—deflecting a question that implied he’d been unnecessarily partisan in his Supreme Court confirmation votes, for example, by working the phrase “right-wing political groups” into his answer multiple times so as to emphasize the extreme character of its most recent additions. He has the air of a trusted adviser, a longtime family lawyer, perhaps—serious, a bit frowny. If anything, he seems a little pained, a little beleaguered, by the gravity of the issues he’s discussing. This could conceivably be a problem, as voters don’t like to vote for a Debbie Downer—but it could also be an asset, as it was for Joe Biden. Especially when considering that, given his history with Sandy Hook and the frustrations of trying to pass gun control laws, Murphy’s weariness is probably earned.
3. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker
Why he’s being hyped: Pritzker benefits from the same circumstances as Newsom, in that he is the governor of a big and important blue state whose Legislature will actually pass the things Democrats want it to pass (such as spending on early childhood education). He is also a large, old-fashioned looking gentleman who is currently benefiting from a semi-ironic online campaign, led by an account called Socialists for Pritzker, which asserts that Democrats should zag away from their reputation for being bumbling, credulous, overly politically correct, and/or condescending by nominating a Big Beefy Boss Man who Doesn’t Care What People Think and will flat out Get Things Done with his big hamburger fists. (This is also a major part of the case for John Fetterman, but with tallness instead of wideness.)
Footage reviewed: ABC7 gubernatorial debate, Oct. 3, 2018
Verdict: First of all, God bless Illinois and Chicago politics. A quarter of the debate reviewed for this was about some sort of scandal related to a favorable tax reassessment that Pritzker had gotten by taking some toilets out of a big house he owned. (He is one of the heirs to the Hyatt fortune.) The words “If Mr. Pritzker gets in office and implements his tax plan, there’s going to be a giant sucking sound, and it won’t be from his toilets” were spoken! (See 8:50, below.) Another quarter of the time was spent on other scandals I had never heard of but which apparently had put incumbent Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner into such a state of guaranteed defeat that he had stopped attending to his appearance or hygiene. At least, this is what it looked like. The man was, frankly, haggard. He looked as if he was about to be turned away from a Death of a Salesman audition for looking too dead.
Anyway, J.B. Pritzker was good. He talked like a normal person, but smart, as if his positions were just obvious common sense. Regarding police reform, for instance, he said, “When police do it right, we need to stand up for them. But when they get it wrong, when people’s constitutional rights are violated, where there’s violence where there shouldn’t have been, they need to be held accountable.” Now, just reading this on the page, it might look like the kind of low-stakes on-one-hand/on-the-other-hand pandering that should be easy to pull off. But I can assure you as someone who has watched Democratic debates professionally for the past seven years that it is not.
2. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy
Why he’s being hyped: Has gotten a lot done in New Jersey despite the state’s weird/corrupt machine politics. Like Pritzker, combines practically useful personal wealth (he was a Goldman Sachs executive) with a populist outlook (the first two policies he pursued in office were raising taxes on millionaires and raising the minimum wage).
Footage reviewed: Rowan University gubernatorial debate, Oct. 12, 2021
Verdict: Unlike most state-level debates, this one was held in front of a large audience, which moderators and producers did not prevent from cheering and hooting and hollering. This made it much more entertaining—and in a weird way, more civically useful and uplifting—than 99 percent of similar events. Both Murphy and his opponent, an Italian guy, thrived in the back-and-forth environment. To quote Murphy, “You’re hearin’ it live and in colah!” (Start at 17:10, below, to enjoy that exclamation and the feigned surprise at being booed that preceded it.) This article is getting too long but: He was a good performer, varying his tone from comic to serious as the moment called for and, like the other governors on the list, showing a refreshing familiarity with very granular details.
1. Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock
Why he’s being hyped: Won a Senate election in Georgia as a Democrat campaigning proudly on a platform of social spending.
Footage reviewed: Atlanta Press Club Senate debate, Dec. 6, 2020
Verdict: This guy is a freakin’ star! He is at ease while speaking, but not too casual. (He’s a minister, so it is not surprising that he is comfortable in this way.) He talks in well-crafted positional sentences but looks like he’s actually thinking about what he’s saying. He’s good with aphorisms like “I think a good sign of what someone will do in office is what they were doing before office,” which in this case referred to Republican incumbent Kelly Loeffler’s pre-politics occupation of being extremely rich and socializing with other rich people, possibly about how to make money off COVID. (For the record, insider trading investigations into Loeffler and other senators of both parties were dropped without charges having been filed.) Warnock can explain what “preexisting conditions” actually are, and did just that during a health care riff, which more (or all) Democrats should also do.
The dynamics of the Georgia race also gave Warnock an opportunity to demonstrate how he’d respond to the most likely line of attack he’d face in a national general election—being accused of wanting to defund the police and so forth to advance a radical leftist socialist Marxist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez “the Squad” agenda. See the exchange beginning at around 23:10 below, in which Loeffler is given the chance to question Warnock directly. He pivots so smoothly around her “Marxism”-related attack into an answer about “free enterprise,” life choices, and “the people of Georgia” coming to “get back their seat” that she probably wishes she had opted for 30 seconds of silence and/or had never gotten into politics.
If Warnock beats Herschel Walker, which the polls say he could, watch out!
Now that we have gone through the candidates, let’s quickly review the potential objections to my rankings and existence in general.
If you had to go on TV, you probably wouldn’t look too good either, would you, Mr. Smart Guy?
Correct. My eyes are too close together and the way I use them to look at the ceiling when I’m thinking is distracting. These are among the reasons why I chose the profession I did (spokesman for the Sandwich Generation) rather than trying to be a politician or movie star.
And are you even an appropriate analyst for this type of thing? Whom did you think the Democrats should nominate in 2020, for example?
In 2018, I wrote that it should be Beto O’Rourke.
And who did you think was the best candidate in the Republican Ohio primary this cycle?
Who even is that?
He dropped out before the primary happened.
What did we really learn here, then?
That you can take all 3,000-plus words of this with a grain of salt—but that I watched nine debates in three days, which means it’s an informed grain of salt, and also that I am tired and am ending this article. May the best candidate win (if it turns out that there’s actually a race)!