Dem Debates: Down To The Big Three? Please, No!


All the latest polls that count for 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls show former Vice President Joe Biden and Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders pulling decisively ahead of the rest of the pack.

The emergence of a Big Three is driving media and political pundits to cast the race for the Democratic nomination all but over for the nearly 20 other candidates. In the words of FiveThirtyEight Editor-in-Chief Nate Silver, if you’re polling in the low single-digits at this point “you are probably toast.” Axios on Monday heralded “a steady and indisputable trend: The Democratic 2020 race is a three-way brawl between 70-somethings.”

Not so fast. Biden, Warren, and Sanders do not adequately cover the ideological spectrum of voters needed to win the general election against Donald Trump. Can Biden hold up through 14 months of rigorous campaigning and debates without blunders? Bernie is wobbling in the polls, would face withering criticism as a Socialist in the general election, and is rated by respondents in this week’s USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll as too far to the left for the average voter. Warren has surged with her energetic stumping and debating. But with her Medicare-for-All plan and promises to make college free and student-loan debt disappear, her views are as much to the left as Sanders’ and that could spook voters if she were to emerge as the Democratic nominee.

Mainstream and cable news media have a stake in keeping the contest crowded, at least until the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary in February, as the campaign is good for advertising revenue and ratings. The handful of candidates hovering in the mid-single digits will get a chance for breakout moments on Thursday, when ABC hosts the first single-day debate with the 10 who qualified in poll numbers and fundraising.

The dual-night debate stages this summer churned up a lot of sound bites and snippets of plans but didn’t give anyone enough time to make a convincing case to break into the pollsters’ Top Tier. The CNN marathon of Climate Crisis town halls allowed most of the 10 leading candidates to present impressive plans to protect the planet. But those performances didn’t do much to move the polling needles, likely because too few viewers had the time or appetite to tune in for seven hours.

Sunday’s political talk shows seized on the latest Washington Post-ABC News survey showing Biden with a clear and stable lead at 27%, ahead of Sanders with 19% and Warren with 17% support. Sen. Kamala Harris dropped to 7% from double digits in the July poll, and Pete Buttigieg, Beto O’Rourke, and Andrew Yang were hovering around 3%. No one else in the pack was drawing more than 1% of surveyed voters’ backing.

On “This Week with George Stephanopoulos,” former Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel wisely urged caution in the rush to winnow Democrats’ choices to the three septuagenarians.

He pointed out that healthcare is the single issue on which Democrats have a 35-point lead over Republicans. Sanders and Warren both back Medicare for All, he said, which means two of the three Democratic frontrunners are telling voters they are “going to eliminate 150 million people’s health care, and we’re going to provide health care for people that have just come over the border. That is an untenable position for the general election.”

Rep. Seth Moulton conceded defeat in the Democratic National Committee rules for getting a spot on the debate stage last month. “I don’t think it’s a good thing that essentially it’s become a three-way race,” the Massachusetts congressman said. “But if you look at the polling right now, that’s what it is. It’s basically Biden, Warren and Sanders.”

Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet also failed to meet DNC criteria for Thursday’s debate, criticizing the polling and fundraising bars as “stifling debate at a time when we need it most… These rules have created exactly the wrong outcomes. And they will not help us beat Donald Trump.”

Bennet has been singled out of the Democratic field for praise by The Economist, and the Wall Street Journal has run several recent columns and editorials warning that the Democrats are shutting out moderates who can draw centrist Democrats in a head-to-head battle with Trump.

“Here’s How Amy Klobuchar Could Pull Off the Nomination,” Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin wrote Monday, heralding the Minnesota senator as a “Midwest gal-next-door” who is connecting with voters at campaign rallies in the farm belt and with honest assessments of what our already heavily indebted country can afford. Klobuchar could be considered “electable,” Rubin writes, if those unimpressed by Biden’s inarticulate agenda and afraid of the radical plans of the progressives would put their support behind a moderate likely to pull in independents and Republicans sick of Trump’s burlesque theater.  

Cory Booker, the Rhodes scholar, Yale Law graduate, former mayor of Newark and junior senator from New Jersey, has been articulate and passionate during the debates and the climate discussion and, like Klobuchar, avoided making promises to voters that may not be deliverable. Like Klobuchar, he got no bump in the polls from either forum.

DNC Chairman Tom Perez has defended the debate qualifications as fair and necessary to let the voters hone their preferences as Iowa and New Hampshire approach.

Political analysts have been pushing publicly for those trailing in the polls from states with an open or vulnerable Republican Senate seat to drop their “vanity campaigns” for the presidency and help the party wrest the upper house from Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Georgia’s Stacy Abrams, Texan Beto O’Rourke, and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock are considered good prospects for Senate runs in their states, as is Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who dropped his presidential bid and is now challenging Republican Sen. Cory Gardner, considered one of the most vulnerable incumbents. 

Even if a Democratic president is elected next year, he or she will face a tough battle to get anything accomplished if a Republican Senate majority keeps burying House-passed reforms in McConnell’s graveyard.

Carol J Williams
Carol J Williams
Carol J. Williams is a retired foreign correspondent with 30 years' reporting abroad for the Los Angeles Times and Associated Press. She has reported from more than 80 countries, with a focus on USSR/Russia and Eastern Europe.



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