With a Mere 16 Months Left Until Election Day, It’s Still Anybody’s Game…Probably.

The first Democratic primary debates for the 2020 presidential election are in the books, and now that the dust has settled, we’ve been graced with a tiny bit of clarity about the crowded field of 24 candidates (even if not all of the candidates made the cut for the debates themselves). With this many hopefuls in the running, you might expect current polling numbers to show support diffused widely over the field. But in fact a clear top tier of candidates has already emerged — namely Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and (after a well-received debate performance) Kamala Harris.

What’s a struggling candidate to do in circumstances like these? Well at this early stage, where the field is still so wide that debates need to be split across multiple nights, your best bet is to try to simply differentiate yourself, any way you can. The problem is that with more than 20 other challengers to contend with, standing out from the crowd can be a challenge, especially when you’re often forced to spend a lot of your time affirming your support for the same policies as your opponents. Despite striving to carve out a unique space for themselves, most of the candidates’ soundbites and key messages ended up falling into a few relatively similar veins:

“I’m young, and I’m going to use some of my challengers here on stage as a convenient prop to illustrate that.”

As leaders in the Democratic party wrestle with internal debates about exactly what kind of candidate they need to field to maximize their chances of winning the White House in 2020, plenty of those in the field are all too happy to contrast their ages with those of both the president and some of their primary challengers.

Sen. Kamala Harris, referring to Joe Biden:

  • “You also worked with [segregationists] to oppose busing. And, you know, there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day. And that little girl was me.”

Mayor Pete Buttigieg:

  • “As the youngest guy on the stage, I feel like I probably ought to contribute to the generation.”

Rep. Eric Swalwell:

  • “I was six years old when a presidential candidate came to the California Democratic Convention and said, it’s time to pass the torch to a new generation of Americans. That candidate was then Senator Joe Biden. Joe Biden was right when he said it was time to pass the torch to a new generation of Americans 32 years ago.”

“Enough with that Nancy Pelosi-style wait-and-see attitude, I’m going on the offensive against President Trump.”

It’s only natural to expect presidential candidates to attack the record of a sitting president running for reelection, but President Trump presents a unique case given the legal issues and investigations that have dogged his presidency thus far. Some of the candidates have clearly followed the Speaker’s lead in deciding that launching a full-bore assault is a losing political proposition, preferring to focus purely on policy positions instead. Others clearly see this as an area for them to be a differentiator and endear themselves to the portion of the party’s base that is raring to see more investigative or legal action taken against the president:

Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke:

  • “So we must begin impeachment now so that we have the facts and the truth and we followed [sic] them as far as they go and as high up as they reach and we save this democracy.”

Sen. Michael Bennet:

  • “We have a president who doesn’t believe in the rule of law.”

Former Maryland Rep. John Delaney:

  • “I do think no one is above the law and this president who is lawless should not be above the law.”

“Forget about the pitfalls of ‘identity politics’ — racial and social justice issues need to be tackled head on.”

There’s still plenty of debate both inside and outside the Democratic party as to how it should conduct its outreach to the various minority voter groups that form the party’s traditional voting coalition. This is especially true given the bitter disputes as to what role it did or did not play in the party’s losses in 2016. But some candidates aren’t waiting for a consensus to emerge here, and are charging forward to try and own the conversation:

Mayor Bill de Blasio:

  • “I also want to say there is something that sets me apart from all of my colleagues running in this race and that is for the last 21 years I have been raising a black son in America. And I have had to have very, very serious talks with my son, Dante, about how to protect himself in the streets of our city and all over our country, including how to deal with the fact that he has to take special caution because there has [sic] been too many tragedies between our young men and our police too.”

Former HUD Secretary Julian Castro:

  • “I also think that we have to recognize racial and social justice. And you know, I was in Charleston not too long ago and I remembered that Dylan Roof went to the Mother Emmanuel AME church and he murdered nine people who were worshiping and then he was apprehended by police without incident. Well, what but what about Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and Laquan McDonald and Sandra Bland and Pamela Turner and Antonio Arce?”

Author Marianne Williamson:

  • “All of these issues are extremely important but there are specifics, there are symptoms. And the underlying cause has to do with deep, deep, deep realms of racial injustice. Both in our criminal justice system and in our economic system. And the democratic party should be on the side of reparations for slavery for this very reason.”

To be fair, standing out from the pack isn’t the be-all, end-all when it comes to winning any election. Often times it comes down just as much to a candidate’s presentation and the manner in which they get their messages across, rather than the messages themselves. But it’s still critically important not to get lost in the crowd, especially in these early stages of the campaign. And if these first debates are any indication, most of the candidates have their work cut out for them to craft unique policy positions and distinctive messages to accompany them if they want to stick around for future debate rounds.


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