By Contributing Writer Jacob Hunsinger
On Thursday, September 12th, ABC News hosted the third Democratic Presidential Primary Debate. Voters were given another chance to get better acquainted with the top tier candidates who are polling over 2% nationally. The candidates were also given another opportunity to differentiate themselves in what has become the most crowded field of candidates in the history of the Democratic party.
We are still 6 months away from the Iowa Caucus and former Vice President Joe Biden is still the man to beat with national polls giving him a 6-12 point lead. Senators Bernie Sanders(VT) and Elizabeth Warren (MA) sharing a narrow second place. It’s still early though, and it’s still anybody’s game. But right now, it’s Joe Biden’s.
Biden’s debate performance was marked by strong bookends and a very concerning, weak middle. He sparred with Sanders and Warren on the costs of their Universal Healthcare plans in comparison to his proposed expansions on Obamacare. Biden also clashed hard with Sanders over trade policies such as the TPP and NAFTA, which Sanders opposed. Biden proudly claimed both the successes and the failures of the Obama era. Positioning himself closer to Obama’s legacy ultimately opened him up for attacks, especially on immigration and healthcare.
Former HUD Secretary Julian Castro’s challenge on Biden’s healthcare plan, claiming it would leave 10 million Americans uninsured. He quickly followed suit with cutting and very thinly veiled jabs on Biden’s age and memory, flustering and derailing the former Vice President. He finished by claiming that he was Obama’s true successor, not Biden. “That’ll be a surprise to him” Biden quipped back. According to Washington Post, Castro’s claims that Biden contradicted himself were false.
Castro’s attack failed to gain him any ground however, with the other candidates voicing their displeasure at his aggressiveness. According to Political analysts at FiveThirtyEight partnered with researchers at Ipsos, his unfavourability with voters nearly doubled after the debate, from 12% to 21%. His favorability only went up 2%, from 32% to 34%. Note, this is a gauge on whether or not you like the candidate, not if you are voting for them.
When it came to final remarks, the candidates were asked about professional setbacks in their careers. Biden spoke movingly about how he was able to recover from deaths of his wife and daughter after his election to the Senate in 1972, as well as the death of his son Beau to brain cancer in 2015. He very well might have reminded voters why they liked him so much. It also didn’t hurt his likeability that he was interrupted by DACA recipient protesters when he was talking about his deceased family. The protesters, before being escorted out by security, were calling Biden out for the 3 million deportations done during the Obama Era.
The attacks and challenges levied against Biden might not do any favors for the candidates, but do show significant kinks of his armor. Biden may not be the oldest candidate running, but he seems like it. He isn’t as sharp as he once was. He talks the most about undoing the Trump era, which for some voters might not be a substantial vision. His position as frontrunner seems fragile, and might not be sustainable. The evening did not wholly revolve around Biden though.
Elizabeth Warren had limited screen-time and wasn’t as enthusiastic as she was in her prior performances, she was able to capitalize on her previous momentum by highlighting her vision on education and trade. She and Mayor Pete Buttigieg, considered to be the most “pro-education” candidates in the field, had distinguished themselves on the issue in regards to teachers pay and installing an effective Secretary of Education that “believes in education”. Warren touted her background as a public school teacher, while Buttigieg gave an anecdote about a Chinese woman who, because she couldn’t become a teacher, became a doctor instead. Buttigieg called for Americans to “Respect teachers the way we do soldiers and pay them more like the way we do doctors.” Both Warren and Buttigieg saw the sharpest rise in their favorability, averaging a 3.5% gain.
The election is a long ways away, and the question is obvious; how do you beat Joe Biden? The answer may not lie in beating him, just doing better than him. Warren and Buttigieg have distinguished themselves in the field based on their visions for America. Buttigieg talks about uniting the country, while Warren talks about knowing how to fixing the institutions in the United States. Their messages aren’t predicated on another candidates or simply beating Donald Trump, and their favorability and momentum shows. We will see if this continues in the coming months.