Helton: 20 Out of 20: Winners and losers of the first Democratic debates

Which Democratic candidates made the most of their opportunities and who miss their chance?



Democratic presidential candidates wave to the crowd as they arrive to the stage at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami on Thursday, June 27, 2019, for Day 2 of the first Democratic presidential primary debates for the 2020 elections. (Al Diaz/Miami Herald/TNS)

Elijah Helton, Opinions Editor

Going into the first two nights of Democratic debates, the 20 participating candidates had more or less the same goal: leave a good impression. Regardless of whether they were an upper-tier candidate looking to prove campaign legitimacy as a frontrunner or a long shot hoping to make waves and gain attention, some presidential hopefuls had better nights than others.

Let’s look at which candidates improved their chances of capturing the Democratic Party’s nomination and which left the stage empty-handed.

Winner: Julián Castro

As mentioned in his recent 20 Out of 20 profile, Castro seemed primed for his moment. The former secretary of housing and urban development was adept at getting and staying on screen. He proved to leading the charge on immigration, with several in-the-weeds proposals. He held his own clashing with fellow Texan and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker. It’s important not to oversell the importance of these debates, but Castro has definitely found some momentum heading into the next phase of the campaign.

Winner: Kamala Harris

If you pay attention to the pundits, Harris’ status as a candidate has been a bit up in the air. Is she in the top tier? Is she underperforming? Is she the consensus candidate? Whatever your prior assumptions about the senator from California, her debate performance proves she’s one of this primary season’s strongest contenders. Her takedown of Joe Biden’s record on racial issues spoke the part of the party that sees him as too old and out-of-touch to be at the top of the ticket. A mixed-race woman with a killer instinct may be just the person to take Biden down from the top of the polls. Speaking of the former vice president…

Loser: Joe Biden

He’s been atop the polls from the beginning of his campaign. He holds the line for moderate Democrats. He’s seen by many as the best person to beat the incumbent president. But Biden definitely had a bad night. Whether it was the attacks from Harris or even California Rep. Eric Swalwell, who called on him to “pass the torch” to the younger generation, Biden sure didn’t look poised to take over the race. He may very well pull himself together and be all but the presumptive nominee by the Iowa caucuses, but it’s obvious that being Barack Obama’s buddy isn’t going be enough win over the party.

Loser: Bernie Sanders

It might be predictable that independent senator from Vermont would be singing the same tune he has for 40 years, but it isn’t doing him any favors. Railing against the top 1 percent was enough to build an impressive bid for the Democratic nomination in 2016, but if Sanders wants to revitalize his revolution, he needs more than just having the most left-wing position on everything.

Winner: Elizabeth Warren

Unlike Sanders, Warren’s radicalism seemed competent and tangible when she was on stage. This may have been because her competition on Night 1 didn’t include Sanders (or Biden or Harris for that matter), but regardless of her luck of the draw, she proved more than capable of confidently delivering her message of structural reform and standing up for working people.

Loser: Andrew Yang

As the favorite candidate of some sectors on internet, the tech entrepreneur had a chance to break into the mainstream with his debate appearance. He didn’t do much with his time, however, perhaps overshadowed by the bigger names on the stages.

Loser: Pete Buttigieg

Whatever momentum the mayor of South Bend was cultivating seems to have slowed down. His favorite topics such as winning back religious voters didn’t seem to break through in any meaningful way.

Winner: Tulsi Gabbard

She didn’t upend the race or ruin her campaign, but the Hawaii representative definitely helped to get her name out there during discussions of foreign policy.

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