On Democratic Presidential Debate Strategy: Night I

I note that recent polls measuring support among Democratic Presidential nominee hopefuls find former Vice President Joe Biden with a comfortable lead at about 30%, with VT Sen. Bernie Sanders and MA Sen. Elizabeth Warren each following with totals in the mid-teens that, if taken together, are only a bit behind Mr. Biden’s. South Bend, IN Mayor Pete Buttigieg and CA Sen. Kamala Harris are next, each in the 7-8% range, with the better-known trailers – MN Sen. Amy Klobuchar, NJ Sen. Cory Booker, former U.S. TX Rep. Beto O’Rourke, and former U.S. HUD Sec. Julian Castro – hovering in the 2% range. The rest of the candidates – the WAYTOs (“What Are You Thinking Of?”) – all are hovering at … 0%. About 20% of the primary electorate prefers “None of These” or “Not Sure.”

The conventional pundit wisdom appears to be that given Mr. Biden’s lead in the polls, most of the candidates will be aiming barbs at the former Vice President in the upcoming debates, seeking to draw him back into the pack. This is not the strategy I’d advise all candidates to follow. I suggested in an earlier note that winning major party nominations can frequently be about lanes, and being mindful that this contest will be pretty wide open at least through early March, I would offer these varying approaches for the respective candidates, starting with the Night I panel:

Ms. Warren: Being on the first night, alone among the front runners, is an advantage. I would pay Mr. Biden only tangential attention. Mr. Sanders is in her lane, and she needs to capture a significant segment of Mr. Sanders’ supporters quickly or risk having she and Mr. Sanders continue to split the progressive vote while Mr. Biden commands the majority of moderates, keeps winning, and takes the nomination. She needs to have snappy answers encapsulating her policies and how they will help working people. She needs to continue to embrace capitalism. She needs to attack Mr. Trump, but from the high ground – by pointing out how his policies have not helped working people. She needs to be ready with details on foreign policy, an area in which Mr. Sanders is weak. She needs to have an effective answer to her Native American ancestry snafu. She needs a couple of humorous lines to humanize herself. If on Friday her national percentage has notably gone up and Mr. Sanders’ has notably gone down – no matter what Mr. Biden’s percentage is – she succeeded.

Mr. O’Rourke: Being on the first night also provides him with a significant advantage to add to his support in his lane: the Shiny New Toy Lane. While Mr. O’Rourke undoubtedly thought he had the “Shiny New Toy” mantle when he announced his candidacy, Mr. Buttigieg has wrested it from him. He needs to wrest it back soon, or his campaign will falter. Mr. Buttigieg has obviously had a very difficult week from many perspectives, including political handicapping; this provides Mr. O’Rourke a greater opening than he might otherwise have had to reclaim his lane. Mr. O’Rourke should be upbeat, preach hope, appeal to the young with talk of the future, the environment, and the student debt crisis, and discuss health care. Describing his efforts with migrants in his home town of El Paso and his support of African American issues might provide him a wedge against Mr. Buttigieg. If on Friday his national percentage has notably gone up and Mr. Buttigieg’s has notably gone down, he succeeded.

Ms. Klobuchar: She recently said that she would finish in the top 5 or 6 in Iowa. Given her state’s proximity to Iowa, I think she needs to finish significantly higher there to maintain a viable candidacy. Her primary debate audience has to be Iowa caucus voters. She should look warm, stress her Midwestern roots, and talk about her support of farmers. Being mindful of the recent Fox News poll indicating that Democratic voters heavily favor “steady and reliable leadership,” she should describe her record of bipartisanship, mention her foreign trips with the late Sen. John McCain, and point to her success in winning rural Congressional districts in Minnesota. She needs an effective answer to the claims that she’s unreasonably hard on staff. She needs to hope that Mr. Biden falters the following night, because with a good performance she could inherit any moderates developing misgivings. To me the primary measure of her success is whether she jumps into or within striking distance of the top 3 in Iowa Democratic polls.

Mr. Booker: He has seemingly struggled thus far to find a lane. He began by preaching hope, but failed to gain traction. He lately has stressed African American issues to try to establish position in the Identity Lane, but Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris have thus far limited his ability to make headway there. His very liberal voting record prevents him from challenging in the moderate lane, but he has failed to gain ground against Mr. Sanders or Ms. Warren in the progressive lane. To remain viable, he needs to build support in the black community by stressing his background, his record as Mayor of Newark, his belief in slavery reparations, etc. He needs to peel black support from Mr. Biden — Mr. Biden’s recent gaffes regarding his relationships with segregationist Senators provide Mr. Booker an opening – but needs to do so gently, given Mr. Biden’s absence on Night I. If he jumps to the 5% range or higher in the Friday national polls, he was successful; if he remains at around 2%, his candidacy would appear to be sinking.

Mr. Castro: Mr. Castro has presumably based his candidacy on the premise that he would engender significant Hispanic support. His target audience is obvious: the Hispanic community. If he can’t build notable Hispanic support by discussing his background, migrant issues, etc., his candidacy would seemingly be effectively ended, although continuing his campaign could make him an attractive Vice Presidential nominee.

The WAYTOs: Ms. Gabbard and Messrs. Ryan, Inslee, Delaney, and de Blasio: Need to say something to register on the polling Richter Scale, or it’s time to fold up shop. I saw one pundit who thinks Mr. Ryan could shine, and Mr. Ryan does have the background to make headway in the moderate lane.

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