The obvious headline out of the Democratic debate Tuesday was simple: The candidates, by spending the first hour attacking her, confirmed that they agreed with the polls that Elizabeth Warren is now the most likely nominee.
The result, by the first commercial break, was a massive edge for Warren in time holding the stage; she spoke for more than twice as long as any other candidate over the opening hour. I’m always reluctant to guess how viewers responded, but she seemed to at least hold her own. There was certainly no obvious breakdown.
That said, as usual, the leading candidates had the least at stake. Warren, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and a few others have already qualified for the next debate in November and aren’t starved for resources.
While any nationally televised appearance can help or hurt, we’re still at the point where most voters aren’t paying much attention, and those who are — the party actors intensely involved in candidate selection — will less likely be swayed by either a great moment or a horrible one.
The candidates with the most on the line continue to be those trailing in the polls but, if they could only get a sudden surge, would be perfectly plausible nominees. That’s true for Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and perhaps Pete Buttigieg, although he’s probably doing better than that make-or-break level.
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It’s especially true for Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke and Julian Castro, all of whom are in danger of failing to qualify for the November rematch. Remember, it’s not just the debates themselves; other events, such as last week’s CNN forum, are using the qualifiers for their invitation list, too.
Of the three on the bubble, O’Rourke seems to me, at least, to be flailing. Castro had some good moments, especially on police violence, but they came relatively deep into the CNN-New York Times debate. He didn’t seem to do enough to undo the damage from attacking Biden in the September contest.
Klobuchar probably had her strongest debate. She remains the only candidate to employ pre-packaged zingers to add some humor to the mix, something several others really lack. And this time, she was more aggressive, including one sustained attack on Warren. She managed to rank third in speaking time overall, difficult to achieve since the highest-ranked candidates, based on polls, typically get more time.
Will it be enough to keep her candidacy alive? Klobuchar desperately needs national media time, and it’s not clear that any of her strong moments were likely to be included in TV reports. She was fine (as far as I could tell), but there were other exchanges that may have been more dramatic. Nor were her prepared bits funny enough, or even groan-worthy enough, to necessarily make the cut.
Candidates need to reach 3% in four different horse-race polls to qualify for the November debate. Klobuchar has been getting lots of 2% results. So she doesn’t need much … but she does need something.
Harris, Booker and Buttigieg all had nice moments. Nothing that seemed likely to produce a spike in the polls, but perhaps enough to keep fundraising going. They’ll each have a somewhat larger share of the time in the next, smaller debate.
So, sure, the headlines should go to Warren and her newly recognized front-runner status. But the big question coming in was about the candidates who are struggling. The question going out is really whether Amy Klobuchar gets rewarded with a media-fueled bounce or not.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy.