Domestic Affairs

Mea Culpa: The Moment Each Top Democratic Candidate Cost Themselves the Nomination

With over a year left until Election Day 2020, the Democratic Primary is wasting no time in making election season interesting. From surprise entries to unexpected poll surges and oodles of meme-worthy content, each candidate has contributed to the non-stop race to nominate Donald Trump’s opponent. But while the candidates fight to make a name for themselves, it is inevitable that they will have a misstep or two. For those with healthy poll numbers, these missteps matter less. (Yes, I am talking about you, Joe Biden). For those with less margin for error, however, these miscues can be fatal. With that being said, most candidates end up erring in a way that symbolizes their doomed candidacy. This piece serves as a compilation of potential turning points for the remaining candidates who qualified for the October 15th debate.

Honorable Mention: 

John Delaney:

The Moment: Getting his lunch eaten by Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.

What Happened?: Poor John Delaney. The former US Representative entered the race pushing a platform that did not go as left as Warren’s and Sanders’ policies, but still encouraged popular progressive platforms like universal health care and assault weapon bans, per his campaign website. In his time on the debate stage, Vice Principal Delaney attempted to appeal to voters by painting his more progressive opponents’ policies as unrealistic and ultimately damaging to the nation, a tactic also employed by other moderate candidates like Tim Ryan and Amy Klobuchar. The viability of this tactic is debatable, but what is clear is that it definitely did not work for John Delaney. Couple that with news that his campaign staff encouraged him to drop out months ago, and it is clear that it was never meant to be for John Delaney. Though Delaney was destined to fail, he left us with a plethora of soundbites for us to enjoy in the coming months, each reminding us of his time as our favorite punching bag. Delaney’s contributions to this race were unique, and we will miss him dearly.

The Candidates:

Tom Steyer:

The Moment: Declaring his candidacy late.

What Happened?: Tom Steyer, hedge fund manager and prominent Democratic donor, declared his run for president in July, months after poll leaders like Warren and Sanders, who announced their candidacies in December and February, respectively. Steyer has made impressive progress, considering his delayed start, rising high enough in the polls to qualify for the October debate after barely missing out on the previous one. Regardless, it takes time and exposure for people to develop an affinity for a candidate, and unless Steyer blows the rest of the competition out of the water in the next few weeks, there is simply not enough time for him to garner the attention he needs to keep his campaign going.

Tulsi Gabbard:

The Moment: Refusing to denounce Bashar al-Assad.

What Happened?: The linked video shows Tulsi Gabbard in perhaps the high point of her candidacy. Following the debate in which she chastised Kamala Harris for her prosecutorial record in California, Tulsi became the most searched candidate on Google. Much of the initial portion of Gabbard’s interview with Anderson Cooper covers this, however after the 6:20 mark Cooper starts to prod Gabbard about her stance on Syria’s cruel and repressive leader, Bashar al-Assad. Gabbard’s views on Assad have been well documented, and this line of questioning was her chance to unequivocally rebuke Assad and resolve questions about her alleged sympathy for the Syrian dictator. Instead, Gabbard refused to directly condemn Assad, attempting to shift the discussion towards minimizing US casualties while emphasizing the work of past presidents with notable dictators. Using whataboutism rarely works out well for a candidate, and Gabbard’s hiding behind past leaders and their work came off as a poor attempt to justify whatever unpopular views of Assad she may have. As a former US soldier, Gabbard has shown she will risk everything for her country. However when presented an opportunity to affirm her allegiance to the free world and those who oppose tyranny, she fell flat.

Amy Klobuchar:

The Moment: “I don’t make promises I can’t keep.”

What Happened?: Amy Klobuchar has survived this long by painting herself as the reasonable moderate — the president for all of America. Appealing to the midwest is certainly a focus of the Democrats this election cycle, and Klobuchar can do that. Unfortunately for Klobuchar, however, this tactic simply does not work as well in the rest of the country. Polls have consistently shown Biden, Warren, and Sanders rounding out the top three with little threat from other candidates. This speaks volumes about what Democrats want: someone known and trusted, or someone ready to make bold changes. The aforementioned three satisfy either one or both of those qualifications, and most of those polling ahead of Klobuchar have comparable levels of experience, if not more. Those without the experience can offer bold policies that inspire hope amongst voters. Klobuchar simply cannot rely on being the moderate candidate when Joe Biden is consistently shown as being the moderate of choice to Midwestern voters, as well as voters across America. Signature moments and ideas are the only way for middling candidates to pose any threat to the three frontrunners, and there is little hope of Klobuchar lasting much longer through playing it safe.

Julian Castro:

The Moment: Insulting Joe Biden during the third debate.

What Happened?: As a San Antonio native, this pains me to write this. Julian Castro maintained a likable persona and steady reputation during his time as the mayor of San Antonio and the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under Barack Obama. When he declared his candidacy, many were skeptical of his chances; many thought Castro would be one of the first to go. Instead, with a poised and articulate demeanor, Castro rattled off two solid debate performances. Highlighted by his stances on immigration, these performances effectively revived Castro’s campaign, and propelled him high enough to qualify for each of the first four debates. However, this momentum stalled following a lackluster third debate and his notorious exchange with Joe Biden, in which he mocked the former Vice President’s age by questioning his memory. The move drew plenty of criticism, and this misstep effectively killed off what little chance he had at propelling himself further up in the polls, leading to the inevitable end of his campaign.

Beto O’Rourke:

The Moment: Speaking Spanish during the first debate.

What Happened?: Desperate to uphold his image as the lovable candidate from Texas who shocked the nation in his race against Ted Cruz, Beto tried to differentiate himself from the rest of the stage by answering a question in Spanish in front of a largely Hispanic Miami crowd. This decision drew plenty of attention and immediate copycat attempts by Booker and Castro. The feedback varied. While the Spanish speaking community enjoyed the representation on such a large stage, the display was also mocked as overeager pandering to a demographic O’Rourke consistently tries to align himself with. In the end, as O’Rourke consistently posts middling poll results, it is symbolic of his futile effort to catch lightning in a bottle twice. Beto’s magical 2018 run was something that gave hope to millions of Texans and Americans across the country, but from the moment he spoke Spanish on that debate stage it was as if the luster wore off. The seemingly effortless likability he once ran with turned into awkward efforts to become a sort of “cool uncle” of the field. He was panned by most for his lackluster performance that night, and as the primaries progress he continues to lose momentum. Ultimately, all that will remain in the heads of voters when they think of Beto, is the face he inspired Cory Booker to make on that debate stage.

Cory Booker:

The Moment: Asking for money.

What Happened?: In late September, Cory Booker’s campaign released a request to all of his supporters: get me $1.7 million by September 30th or I drop out of the race. A bold move, which ended up working, this request showed the world just how much Booker was struggling to stay relevant. Though he has qualified for the fourth debate, Booker so far has reached none of the qualifiers needed for the fifth debate in November, whereas each of the other participants in the fourth debate have met at least one. Booker will remain a high energy presence on the debate stage, but the political battlefield is ruthless; if opponents smell blood they will go in for the kill. Booker may have prolonged his campaign for a little longer, but in the end he will meet the same fate as the rest of his peers.

Andrew Yang:

The Moment: Not having a “moment” during the debates.

What Happened?: Andrew Yang has surfaced as one of the most likable dark horse candidates. His presence on social media is one of the most prominent out of the candidates: he has garnered the support of SpaceX founder Elon Musk, has challenged Ted Cruz to a game of basketball, and has seen a number of trending hashtags in his name like #YangGang and #TrumpFearsYang. However, what will ultimately prevail as the most defining hashtag of Yang’s campaign is less auspicious for the entrepreneur: #LetYangSpeak. Despite garnering interest as the candidate who wants to give every US adult one thousand dollars a month, Yang was barely given a chance to speak during all three debates. Charts from the first, second, and third debates show Yang consistently near, or at, the bottom in terms of words spoken and time spoken. While Yang still managed to have a couple of quoteworthy moments, the lack of speaking time granted to him meant he was never given an opportunity to make himself more than a one dimensional candidate. Yang will continue to garner interest for his innovative ideas, but a one trick pony can only go so far.

Kamala Harris:

The Moment: Tulsi Gabbard unearthing Harris’ past actions as a prosecutor during the second debate.

What Happened?: Kamala Harris was showered with praise after her performance in the first set of Democratic debates. She came across as concise, powerful, and unafraid of any opponent, including Donald Trump. During the second round of debates, Tulsi Gabbard reminded the nation where Harris acquired her debate prowess from. Kamala Harris has a lengthy record as a prosecutor in California. While her time in the profession produced positive outcomes, including fights for marriage equality and against for-profit colleges, her controversial career as district attorney and attorney general has been the focus of the nation. What the nation’s attention has been turned to is the accompanying controversial actions scattered throughout her time as district attorney and attorney general. Kamala has consistently been criticized for her past decisions, including keeping inmates in prison longer for their labor and locking up over a thousand people for marijuana-related offenses, which run contrary to the progressive image she is selling to the nation. Gabbard’s attack brought these controversies straight to the eyes and ears of viewers across the nation, and it has been difficult for Harris to recover. Harris has struggled since her magical first debate, and while her past profession is not the only reason for her struggles, they will no doubt leave a lasting impression on voters captivated by other candidates.

Pete Buttigieg:

The Moment: “I couldn’t get it done.”

What Happened?: Pete Buttigieg took the world by storm as the soft spoken, uber intelligent, proudly gay mayor from South Bend, Indiana. Young and charismatic, Buttigieg came out of nowhere to consistently poll just under the three major frontrunners of Biden, Warren, and Sanders. Pete can also identify more deeply with Republican demographics through his experiences as an actively religious US veteran. While all of these assets benefit him, it is his issues with race that continue to haunt his campaign. In June, a South Bend police officer shot and killed an older black man under suspicious circumstances. As police began to investigate, outrage plagued the town, and it spread to mayor Pete’s nationwide campaign. After a town hall and numerous questions regarding the shooting and Pete’s firing of the first black police chief years before, he is unable to shake the weight of the racial tensions in his city. All of this was perfectly embodied by his response to a question regarding a lack of black representation in South Bend’s police force: “I couldn’t get it done.” This response stands as an omen for his prospects with the African American population. Despite his efforts, Buttigieg simply cannot do enough to rectify his reputation with African American voters across the nation, and it will ultimately portend his demise.

Bernie Sanders:

The Moment: His heart attack in October.

What Happened?: I truly am devastated by the news of Sanders’ health scare. Regardless of political views it is clear to see that Bernie Sanders has worked hard for decades to promote his visions, and even at his age he continues to convey the energy of a passionate young activist. I hope to be wrong about this, as being disqualified due to your health is something no one should hope upon another, but a heart attack is a serious event. Even if his health remains stable following this incident, the public will remember, and continue to question if he is physically fit to be president. Seventy eight is the average life expectancy for a US citizen, and to hold the position of president at such an advanced age is almost a herculean task. Sanders is already 78, and will be 83 if he were to exit the office after serving one term. People needed a reason to go after Sanders’ age, and now they have it. Sanders pushed for the modern progressive agenda long before many others adopted it, and he is a large reason people are beginning to open up to talking points like universal health care in the first place. Sanders will hang around until the very end, but unfortunately for him his chance has passed.

Joe Biden:

The Moment: ”Make sure you have the record player on at night”

What Happened?: There are a number of gaffes you can look at when it comes to Joe Biden. From calling Bernie Sanders president, to his infamous closing statement in the second debate, and it is clear that Biden has lost momentum. Though the former vice president was expected to run for president long before his declaration in April, what was unexpected was how quickly the voter base turned on him as soon as he declared. Sporting a 56% approval rating just prior to his campaign announcement, his approval rating has dropped on average about 10 points as of last month. A lot of this is due to his inability to stay out of controversy. From poor debate performances to past and current stances regarding busing, segregationist senators, and reparations, Joe consistently faces scrutiny for one thing or another. One naturally carries more baggage if they have been a public servant for longer, but the volume of issues that have surfaced with Biden demonstrate his dissonance with the current demographics of the Democratic Party. A number of moments will be remembered, but his third debate performance, in which he simultaneously offends black people, corrects the word television with record player, and stumbles upon his words and message repeatedly, stands as a poignant symbol of Joe’s fall from grace.

Elizabeth Warren:

The Moment: Raising her hand.
What Happened?: Obviously, someone has to win the nomination, and while I would not take this as my official prediction of the primaries, there is a reason I put Elizabeth Warren last on the list. Elizabeth Warren has impressed the entire nation; while not initially considered a frontrunner, she has powered her way up to the top of the polls through stellar debate performances, having a plan for every issue, and promoting herself as a likable figure sympathetic with the plight of the middle class. All of this has culminated in her overtaking Biden in recent polls. With all of this being said, one possible reason she has not risen further is her continued support for Medicare for All and the abolishment of private insurance, a stance only Bernie Sanders has taken as well. This debate has become one Republicans lick their lips in anticipation for. Though a majority of Republicans actually support some sort of universal health care, they do not support abolishing private insurance. This split adds to the image that Warren is less electable to swing voters, a topic of concern Democrats have held since the beginning of the primaries. Democrats fear that if they elect someone too progressive, they may fail to capture the independent and undecided voters needed to win against Donald Trump. This mindset is partly responsible for Biden’s steady numbers, fears over candidates like Warren and Sanders, and the emergence of moderate candidates like Klobuchar. Warren’s promotion of progressive policies, particularly the Medicare for All plan, could end up hurting her more than inspiring voters, and if electability takes precedence once the primaries come around, Warren’s insistence on big ideas could be her undoing.

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