1st Debates, First Night: 2020 Democratic Contenders

Usually, going forward I’m going to favor short, quick-to-read blog posts. But, hey, we’re talking about who could be the next leader of the so-called Free World. So I’m going to go in-depth here. Still, for those of you with no time in your day, the skinny is that Cory Booker won (non-verbally, emotionally) last night and Julian Castro did second best, while Elizabeth Warren more than held her own. Pretty good performances came from Bill de Blasio and Tulsi Gabbard. In contrast, Beto O’Rourke stumbled badly, Amy Klobuchar did really only so-so, and as for the rest: well, if you can’t say anything nice, then don’t say anything at all (or so my mother says).

The policy positions I’m leaving to the supposed “fake news” journalists and the usual campaign pundits to pontificate about. Here I’m more interested in what the candidates revealed on their faces, in their body language, and in their voices–over and above what they said on stage in last night’s first televised debate in the 2020 race for The White House. After all, personalities and personas stay with us as viewers often far more than complicated talking points meant to be on-message. Being on-emotion matters as much or more, quite frankly, when it comes to winning elections. (As a side note, I also can’t resist making a few comparisons in my critique, at times, with what the cattle-call of pundits on CNN said last night after the debate.)

So . . . here we go:

  • Before a single word was said, there was the first-impression visual for TV viewers to take in. The candidates’ relative heights were immediately striking. At 6’5”, NYC’s mayor Bill de Blasio looked to be the tallest candidate on stage and either Julian Castro or Amy Klobuchar the shortest. A trivial detail? Malcolm Gladwell didn’t think so in noting in Blink how much taller than average CEO’s tend to be. In my newly released book, Two Cheers for Democracy: How Emotions Drive Leadership Style, I devote the entire middle section of that book to an analysis of all 14 televised debate cycles from 1960 through 2016. In two-thirds of those cases, the taller candidate won. So in that respect, Elizabeth Warren was unlucky. She stood on stage last night, all 5’8” of her, sandwiched between 6’4” Cory Booker and 6’2” Beto O’Rourke.
  • The white guys were almost entirely relegated to the margins of the stage! Holy cow, the four candidates with the worst positions on stage given their polling numbers were de Blasio, John Delaney, Tim Ryan, and Jay Inslee. Only O’Rourke had a prime-time spot. Did the pundits on CNN say anything about this fact? NO, and how incredible given the demographics that suggest the Democratic party is increasingly NOT the party of (aging) white males. To skip over this fact was really an incredible oversight. For me, it called to mind how during a late 1980’s NBA finals series between the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers there was the sight, for a few minutes in one of the games, of an all-white Celtics team facing an all-black Lakers team on the court. That’s a visual I predict will never, ever happen again in a NBA finals, and yet the NBA announcers that night didn’t dare acknowledge that tell-tale racial detail any more than the CNN pundits did, either.
  • Now as to the debate itself, last night was almost the equivalent of the 2nd tier, “kiddy” debate between the weaker-polling Republicans during their first multi-candidate debates in 2016. In other words, Warren was the only currently “major” contender on stage by chance. Nipping at her heels for the evening was three lower, 1st tier Democratic contenders: O’Rourke, Booker, and Klobuchar. How did Warren do? Did she maintain her recent momentum from the campaign trail and in the national polls? Yes and no is the answer. Every reply she gave was strong, and no candidate did more to command the stage in terms of body language than Warren. She leaned into her podium on occasion, and her hands and fingers frequently jabbed the air in a sign of urgency and defiance. The senator from Massachusetts vowed to fight the powers that be, and she showed enough consistent anger to make that vow hugely credible. At the same time, however, Warren missed two opportunities. First, as only one CNN pundit picked up on, Warren was invisible for stretches of this debate. Rather than interrupt any of her colleagues, Warren didn’t force her way into the conversation; and given that air time can signal importance, her at times relative invisibility at the center of the stage felt weird. Second, Warren was all earnest anger. A little humor might have gone a long way to differentiate her from the super-angry, entirely socialist Bernie Sanders we’ll be seeing on stage tonight.
  • Booker had a superb evening. Going into this debate, the news media was suggesting that the New Jersey senator was too nice, too soft. Last night, Booker was instead super-charged. His eyes were as usual bulging wide with alarm. But this time, Booker’s usual accompanying smile was typically replaced by knitted eyebrows, upward chin thrusts and pursed lips. In other words, anger, disgust and, at times, eyes closed in sadness signaled Booker’s indignation and regret regarding the state of affairs in America. He was in short all-in, utterly committed. Whether the reason might have been favoritism from the NBC moderators or because they went with the hot hand, Booker ended up absorbing a lot of the air time that might have gone to Warren instead.
  • Castro was the evening’s other winner, but non-verbally to a lesser extent than the panel of CNN pundits would have us believe. Yes, Castro resurrected a campaign otherwise probably on life-support. In particular, he manhandled O’Rourke on the issue of immigration. Normally, the happiest of the Democratic candidates—Joe Biden aside—Castro came on the scene last night full of piss and vinegar. His eyebrows arched with doubtful surprise at what O’Rourke was saying, and sarcastic smiles and thin-lipped smiles replaced his usual buoyant, huge, all-is-pure- sunshine expressions. This version of Castro showed up to fight, not glad-hand his way forward. In a battle between the two youthful candidates from Texas—the state with the country’s second largest total of electoral college delegates—Castro prevailed in seizing the mantle of being the Democrats version of Mr. Texas. Where Castro wasn’t as effective, however, was when he wasn’t talking. Listening to the moderators’ questions, he looked too calm, too detached, too cerebral. And in listening to nearly all of his colleagues, Castro looked vaguely disdainful and haughty. A smirk often played around the corners of his mouth, creating the impression of a condescending sour puss.
  • Did the evening have a clear loser? It certainly did. It’s early in the race, but for my money I’d say O’Rourke is probably finished as a major contender. It wasn’t just Castro who interrupted him and made O’Rourke look weak. De Blasio did likewise. That fate didn’t befall any other candidate twice last night; the closest next instance was Tim Ryan getting taken apart by Tulsi Gabbard. A friend of mine came home from fighting in Viet Nam, knowing two things: he was now against the war, and Eugene McCarthy wasn’t his candidate in 1968 because McCarthy wasn’t tough enough to take on the carnage and the powers that be. That friend ended up running Robert Kennedy’s campaign in northern California, leading to the primary victory there that preceded Kennedy’s tragic murder that same night. A youthful, jaunty, good-looking O’Rourke has been credited with being the potential second-coming of RFK. But to echo Lloyd Bentsen’s put-down of Dan Quayle, O’Rourke’s no Bobby Kennedy. Plenty earnest and kindly in nature, O’Rourke also came across as timid and perhaps even a little lost on stage at times as he faltered in articulating his candidacy.
  • Klobuchar was perhaps the evening’s biggest enigma. She’s barely hanging on in the bottom part of the top-tier candidates and yet has plenty of potential upside. As a female Midwestern moderate, she has everything to gain if Biden falters. And if Biden should hold onto his lead and Klobuchar acquits herself well during the primary voting, she could at least end up in the Vice Presidential slot on the Democratic ticket come the general election. Now don’t get me wrong. Klobuchar had her moments on stage last night. She fought through her natural tendency to be somewhat dour and antiseptic by managing some big, welcoming warm smiles. She got off one of the evening’s better lines, equating Donald Trump’s follow-through on the issues with a drink that’s “all foam, no beer.” But she also looked nervous, flashing micro-expressions of fear (her mouth pulling slightly wide at times). In other moments, her voice sounded like a mixture of being both nervous (about the fate of her own candidacy) and plaintively concerned (about the fate of her fellow citizens). In short, the senator from my home state didn’t come across as quite ready for prime time. That’s despite a strong closing statement in which she made her case for being the most electable candidate in the Democratic field.
  • How about the other candidates crowding the stage last night? Gabbard had her moments, too, and looked more assured than Klobuchar (except in defending her flip-flop on LGBT rights). When Ryan mistakenly referred to the Taliban being responsible for 9/11, Gabbard was able to leverage her military experience by pointing out that of course it was Al-Qaeda, not the Taliban, that was responsible for flying the planes into the Twin Towers. A slightly smiling, poised, alert Gabbard came through the evening well. Asserting himself from the far left side of the stage—both literally and metaphorically speaking—de Blasio was more of a presence last night than his anemic polling numbers would support. Eager to have the Democrats go on the offense against Trump, de Blasio snarled his way through many an answer. The problem is, he snarled. Another tall white male New Yorker, namely, Trump, does likewise and a mouth contorted by an upper lip raised in disgust isn’t exactly the cheeriest of expressions. In a New-York type moment, albeit repeated again and again, de Blasio joined former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani in suggesting that disgust and ruling the (rotten) Big Apple go hand-in-hand.
  • As to the other white men on the fringe of the stage, heaven help Ryan, Delaney, and Inslee. With their grim smiles and eyes bulging like Popeye’s biceps after eating a can of spinach, Ryan and Delaney could have been mistaken for being a pair of emotional Frankensteins. Inslee’s problems were of a different nature. More so than any other candidate on stage last night except O’Rourke, the governor of Washington state suffered from meekness. For starters, his voice sounded terribly weak, like a mouse in a gorilla suit. That quality was, in turn, reinforced by the governor’s tendency to have his inner eyebrows rise together in a sign of surprise, fear, and sadness. To put it mildly, Inslee projected an image of being a sad sack more so than a guy who could use his signature issue of global warming to become the savior of the planet.

The CNN pundits took the first half hour after the debate to basically call the evening a win for Castro, Booker, and Warren, a slight victory for de Blasio; and a less than stellar evening for the likes of O’Rourke, Klobuchar, and Ryan. Put Booker first and add Gabbard to those who did well, and I could largely agree with that collective assessment. Along with never acknowledging, however, that the white guys were almost all relegated to the margins of the stage, what the CNN pundits also left unsaid was this: yes, there were five white guys on stage last night, three white female candidates, a Hispanic candidate, and an African-American candidate. Diversity was alive and well in the Democratic party based on who was present on stage. Nevertheless, who exactly lost the debate? In four of five instances (de Blasio aside), the answer consists of the white guys—O’Rourke in particular. Only Klobuchar came close to O’Rourke in likewise failing to adequately seize the opportunity of being before a national television audience for the first time.

Put another way, given last night’s debate results Biden has just been handed a chance to present himself as the one mainstream white guy able to hold his own on stage, and carry the election. Will Biden be up to the challenge or fold? Given his previous runs for The White House, I’d give him a 75% chance of having his wings clipped (a little or a lot), and a 50/50, coin toss probability of collapsing as badly as Jeb Bush did in 2016. The word on the ground in Iowa is that Biden’s support is broad and yet also lukewarm, vulnerable to reversal. I for one can’t wait to watch tonight’s debate! How hard will Sanders (the lion) roar, and for how long can Biden just keep grinning some more?

One thought on “1st Debates, First Night: 2020 Democratic Contenders

  1. Interesting insights, Dan! It’s great to have someone focused on the non-words since the news media focuses so heavily on the words spoken

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