Why the second Democratic debates may be the last gasp for some 2020 candidates

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris delivered a highly anticipated scuffle over health care. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders formed a temporary alliance to hoist a progressive flag over a troop of teeming moderates. And Pete Buttigieg remained his cerebral, steady self.

While the top of the Democratic presidential field faced their fair share of attacks at this week’s debates, they survived and are all but guaranteed to face off again this fall. Some of their rivals won’t be so fortunate.

Time is running short for the crop of candidates who have dwelled at the bottom of the 2020 pack and failed to land a breakout moment over two nights in Detroit. For those already struggling to make a dent in the polls and raise money, the bar to qualify for the next round of debates in September may prove to be too high to overcome.

“Voters are already thinning the ranks of Democratic candidates more than the debates,” said Mary Anne Marsh, a Massachusetts-based Democratic strategist.”Polling has shown a pretty consistent top tier of Biden, Sanders, Warren and Harris and Buttigieg for months. The rest of the field is having trouble getting its footing and unlikely to do so.”

Here are the most significant ramifications from the second series of debates:


The Detroit debates will likely be the last time millions of Americans get exposed to some candidates they were just getting to know. The one-percenters took their best shots, but most of them did not land.

John Hickenlooper, the former governor of Colorado, mocked Sanders for tossing his hands in the air. Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio chided the Vermont senator for yelling about Democrats fearful of “big ideas.” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York confronted Biden over decades-old comments he made referencing working women leading to the “deterioration of the family.”

The risk for them is that none of it reverberated far beyond the panels of Twitter, in part because so many other clashes were occurring within minutes of each other.

Even some candidates who have already secured a spot in the September debate -- like Beto O’Rourke -- are beginning to weigh on Democratic activists, who are tiring of the intraparty fighting and are concerned about down-ballot races.

“The lower tiered candidates have an opportunity now to exit with grace,” said Dale Todd, a longtime Iowa Democratic activist supporting Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey. “Hickenlooper and I sure wish O’Rourke should stay and run for Senate.”

The urgency of their situations was demonstrated by the number of punches thrown by these candidates over both nights.

Gillibrand even used her closing statement to plead with viewers to contribute to her flagging campaign. A text message to supporters followed: “I need 130K donors to guarantee my spot at the next debate, and I’m not there yet.”


Harris learned that her ascendance to frontrunner status invites more uncomfortable scrutiny. The California senator broke through at the June debate by assailing Biden, who seemed stunned by an attack on the sensitive issue of race.

This time, it was Harris who was incurring arrows. It wasn’t just Biden, who had an arsenal to unload on her for inconsistencies on Medicare for All and preserving private insurance. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, a low-polling candidate who could be out of September’s debate, tore through Harris’ record as a prosecutor with the precision of a medical surgeon.

“She put over 1,500 people in jail for marijuana violations and then laughed about it when she was asked if she ever smoked marijuana,” Gabbard said to rousing applause. “She blocked evidence that would have freed an innocent man from death row until the courts forced her to do so. She kept people in prison beyond their sentences to use them as cheap labor for the state of California. And she fought to keep cash bail system in place that impacts poor people in the worst kind of way.”

When given a chance to respond, Harris fell back on her longtime opposition to the death penalty, without robustly refuting Gabbard’s blistering claims.

It might not lift Gabbard, but it wounded Harris, who will be forced to reckon with this question moving forward. Playing on offense, the first debate made her a contender. In this second debate, she struggled to play the role of defender.


Warren, who for the second straight month avoided sharing a stage with Biden or Harris, still managed to excel in her night one debate by punching down.

That’s usually not a tactic a candidate in her position would employ. But by engaging in a full-fledged philosophical back-and-forth with former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland, a longshot candidate, Warren played to a core strength of her willingness to scrap and fight. What’s more is she used Delaney as a proxy for what is coming when she finally meets Biden.

“I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for,” she said to Delaney, in one of the best received lines on either debate night.


Cory Booker, who has grown frustrated that his hope-fueled campaign has failed to snap him out of the middling pack, went sunny side up for a moment in Detroit.

After observing the Biden-Harris fights on Medicare for All and decriminalizing illegal border crossings, Booker responded with a characteristically positive refrain.

“Again we are playing into Republican hands,” he said. “Don’t let Republicans divide this party against itself.”

But later, Booker chose to confront Biden on his record on criminal justice. When Biden retorted with Booker’s own record as mayor of Newark, Booker had a ready-made response guaranteed to be replayed on cable television.

“You’re dipping in the Kool-Aid and you don’t even know the flavor,” he said.

Time will tell if Booker’s balanced approach will impact his standing, but many Democrats cited him as one of the debate’s winners.

“Booker’s optimism and animation stood out on the stage,” says Colm O’Comartun, a former executive director of the Democratic Governors Association. “Booker repeats with the previous speaker says but says it in a more appealing way with more humor and positive spin. He did what he needed to do.”

Even Biden couldn’t help but call his rival “future president.”

David Catanese is a national political correspondent for McClatchy in Washington. He’s covered campaigns for more than a decade, previously working at U.S. News & World Report and Politico. Prior to that he was a television reporter for NBC affiliates in Missouri and North Dakota. You can send tips, smart takes and critiques to