The debate about Thursday’s debate, powered by screeds and Twitter feeds, rages on.
Did Joe Biden survive the latest inquisition that questioned his beliefs from the past, his competence in the present and his ability to outduel Trump in the future?
Was Elizabeth Warren able to expand her appeal from a wonky lecture hall professor to a gutsy woman who has broken through glass ceilings her entire life?
Could Bernie Sanders, 78 years young, re-inspire his followers who relentless flock to feel his fury against the system?
Would anyone else in “the pack” break through as a serious contender with some idea, some moment, that reflects presidential timber and bearing?
Historically, and courtesy of television, debates have become live performances showcasing skill, presence and character. The final report cards, despite the media’s rush to crown winners and dispel losers, belongs to the most cherished democratic demographic of all: the voters. And those voters are also viewers.
Yet, as one who has prepped and coached candidates for debates for over four decades, I can tell you this much is beyond debate.
One: Contrary to national polling and prevailing wisdom, Biden is struggling. His delivery is so halting at times it’s hard to watch, and his reliance on outdated metaphors drives voters to dive into Google searches to figure out what he’s trying to say.
Biden may be the current frontrunner, but he represents an unpopular system against which most are running. He may be likable, but he doesn’t drive the heart or generate the kind of passion that wins Primaries.
Two: Warren is gaining ground by taking on the system as the ultimate outsiders’ insider. With her command of issues increasingly supported by her comfort in communicating them, Warren is as progressive as Bernie, as smart as Hillary, and oozes middle class populism at a time when it’s moving the needle.
Three: Sanders is lurking, lured on by evidence of a second wind and a first-rate following of believers. His authenticity and audacity leave many spoiling for the ultimate title match: a battle royale between Sanders, the consummate socialist, and Trump, his capitalist doppelganger.
As for the rest, Cory Booker and Pete Buttigieg are waiting for a break before they can break into the top tier, while the others are doubling down just to get noticed, from Beto O’Rourke on guns and Andrew Yang on freedom dividends, to Julián Castro on Biden and Amy Klobuchar on everyone.
Three more live debates are scheduled between now and the end of the year, meaning three more times viewers will get a taste of what these contenders feel like, act like and sound like, as they audition for the party’s blessing and, ultimately, a stamp of approval for the American public.
Democrats will want to learn more about Warren’s up-from-the-bootstraps story, more about Booker’s assault on those who assault minorities, more about Bernie’s socialist moniker and Biden’s record on race and Mayor Pete’s personal journey into the open.
Yet, as Al Gore might say, there’s an inconvenient truth to all of this, something that stands out as far more consequential than all of the debates, more telling than those who scored and those who didn’t.
It’s the primary election calendar, and it is played by fully different rules driven by wholly different math.
Two of the first three Democrat contests (Iowa and Nevada) will be determined by caucuses, held in the dead of winter, where only the most devoted show up. This favors Sanders and Warren, not Biden. The other contest is the vaunted first-in-the nation primary in New Hampshire, Bernie and Elizabeth’s backyard.
It’s very conceivable front-running Biden could succumb in all three, which would mean his national poll numbers will plummet, questions about his competence and electability will soar, and the move to find another “centrist” will pick up steam. His collapse would be the “break” Booker, Buttigieg and others are betting on.
This last debate should serve as another wake-up call that what seemed obvious no longer is, and what seemed pre-determined hasn’t been determined at all.
The Democratic Primary is just warming up.
Goodman is a Republican media strategist who has advised Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and Jeb Bush. He is the first Edward R. Murrow Senior Fellow at Tufts University.