Heading into this week’s two nights of Democratic presidential debates, the big picture looked like this. Based on national polls, fundraising efforts, and media coverage, the Democratic field consisted of five actually viable campaigns (Biden, Sanders, Warren, Harris, and Buttigieg), and a bunch of mere candidacies. Among the rest of the contenders, O’Rourke, Booker, and Klobuchar were generally considered to be the Minor Three candidates with the best chance of hitching a ride with the Big Five, real candidates. How everyone performed on stage—non-verbally, emotionally—over the last two nights has scrambled that picture.
The Winners: Nobody benefited more than Cory Booker. Passionate, full of looks of happiness, surprise, indignation, and occasional sadness, Booker really brought it to Wednesday night’s debate. The odds are he’s now found his mojo. Nobody was more animated or emotionally versatile than Booker. The other two biggest winners were Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren from Tuesday night’s debate. But by comparison, Sanders was utterly emotionally monolithic: anger, combined with more anger and just a touch of disgust. If somebody did a remark of the 1976 satirical movie Network, surely the casting director would have to look no further in deciding who to cast as the raving anchorman Howard Beale: the man on TV screaming to millions “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.” Alongside Sanders, Warren was also repetitively angry, but not as intensely so. She projected courage and conviction, too, but not as if she would rather burn down The White House than move into it.
The Losers: Occasionally stumbling for his words, and at other moments standing with his head bowed and lips firmly, even grimly, pressed together, Joseph Biden came across as more like a bobber at the end of a fishing line than our next President. Biden rode the waves, but not much more. For Kamala Harris, Wednesday night proved to be a minor disaster. The empathetic sadness she wove into her take-down of Biden in the previous round of debates turned into glum determination this time around. Maybe she didn’t expect to be pummeled by the likes of Tulsi Gabbard and Michael Bennet. But Harris looked like a woozy boxer at times, somebody taking it on the chin. Among the Minor Three candidates, Beta O’Rourke talked way too fast to emote much, failing to make a strong impression. In contrast, Amy Klobuchar made a definite impression: scared. As with the first round of debates, nobody exuded anxiety more than Klobuchar did; she appeared to be the mirror inverse of Warren’s pluck.
Everybody Else: Gabbard was close to phenomenal: unlike most of the 20 candidates on stage, she didn’t rush her words or fail to convey confidence and conviction. If there’s any justice in the world, she deserves to turn the Minor Three into the Major Minor Two: her and Booker. As to Pete Buttigieg, standing next to Sanders he tried to amp up his anger but got lost in the force field of Sanders’ greater, more radioactive anger. Julian Castro? Adept, but did you notice his tendency to arch his head back in a look of condescension not far off from Kirsten Gillibrand’s smirking. Marianne Williamson? She had a higher gear, emotionally and otherwise; she’ll be (likely) missed in round three. Andrew Yang’s flat affect undermined him, but not as badly as Bennet’s weak voice and tepid emoting, Jay Inslee’s ugly mouth grimaces, or John Delaney doing his best, wide-eyed and falsely smiling impression of what a prairie gopher or chipmunk might look like if running for President.
This week’s pair of debates provided a study in contrasts. On Tuesday, Sanders and Warren were ironically in the center of the stage, physically and emotionally, dominating the debate and making the “far left” seem downright central. Try as they might, verbally shooting at them from the wings, the party’s moderates lost out. Wednesday night’s debate was totally different. At center stage was the party’s main moderate, Biden, alongside center-left Harris. In this case, the center did not hold (up) well. Two other more or less moderate candidates, Booker and Gabbard, stole Wednesday evening and deserve to live to see another night on stage.