I’ve had two main experiences with presidential debates. In some cases, pollsters found that the person who I thought had the best performance actually lost. More often, the people agreed with my assessment, but it didn’t seem to make any discernible difference (at least in the Electoral College results). I long ago concluded both that I’m a poor judge of debates and that debates are overrated in importance.
I’ve also found that the coverage of the debates seems to have more influence than the debates themselves, but this is also more complicated than it might look at first. The immediate reactions from cable news talking heads and spin room operatives are often as wrong and insignificant as my own hot takes. But when the media replays the highlights of the debates on a loop for the next few days, one good zinger or particularly effective comeback can be more valuable than ten good, substantive answers. Candidates have figured this out, too, and they actually prepare to create moments that can go “viral.” In the social media age, this is easier to accomplish because the traditional media can’t serve as the gatekeeper.
The opposite is true, too. One terrible moment in a debate can be devastating, as Rick Perry discovered with his “Oops” moment in 2011.
It’s also possible to have an “Oops” moment that virtually no one notices. This happens when a candidate takes a position in the debate that can be later used very effectively against them. It’s more likely to happen in a primary debate than in a general election debate for the simple reason that partisans tend to have differences of degree rather than type. In all-Democratic or all-Republican debates, it’s easy to miss when one candidate goes so far out on the right or left that they cause permanent damage to themselves with the middle.
Looking at the coverage this morning, I see that several people have concluded that Elizabeth Warren had this kind of “Oops” moment last night. You can see it hinted at in the New York Times:
“The strength of the party’s progressive wing was on vivid display in South Florida, starting in the first minutes of the debate when Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts branded the federal government as thoroughly corrupt. Ms. Warren, the highest-polling candidate onstage, called for the government to bring to heel oil companies and pharmaceutical companies, and embraced the replacement of private health insurance with single-payer care.
“‘We need to make structural change in our government, in our economy and in our country,’ Ms. Warren said, setting the tone for the handful of populists in the debate.”
Jonathan Chait seizes on Warren’s single-payer answer as a major mistake that badly hurt her electability.
Early in the first Democratic presidential debate, all the candidates were asked who would abolish private health insurance. Only two raised their hands: Bill de Blasio, who is not going to be the party’s nominee, and Elizabeth Warren, who might be. Should that possibility come to pass, her frank answer could prove deeply harmful and perhaps deadly.
For Chait, the phrasing of the question was particularly important. Moderator Lester Holt said, “Who here would abolish their private health insurance in favor of a government run plan?”
Warren went on to explain:
“Look at the business model of an insurance company. It’s to bring in as many dollars as they can in premiums and to pay out as few dollars as possible for your health care,” she said at Wednesday’s debate. “That leaves families with rising premiums, rising co-pays, and fighting with insurance companies to try to get the health care that their doctors say that they and their children need.
“Medicare-for-all solves that problem,” she continued. “There are a lot of politicians who say, ‘Oh, it’s just not possible, we just can’t do it,’ have a lot of political reasons for this. What they’re really telling you is they just won’t fight for it. Well, health care is a basic human right, and I will fight for basic human rights.”
If Warren is the nominee, the Republicans won’t run advertisements of her lengthier explanation. They’ll show her raising her hand in response to Lester Holt’s question about abolishing people’s existing health plans. As Chait points out, polling shows that many of the goals of Medicare-for-All are popular but doing away with private insurance is actually very unpopular.
So, does this mean that Warren actually lost the debate last night? Most people gave her good to middling reviews, and her answer is sure to be much more popular with Democratic primary voters than it is with the public at large. Yet, could it be that she planted a bomb that will explode later?
On Wednesday, Nancy LeTourneau wrote a piece that looked at the electability question from an interesting angle. What happens if you ask Democrats who they intend to support for the nomination and then follow that up by asking them who they’d pick if they could wave a magic wand and make them president. When the research group Avalanche ran this experiment, they found that Biden was far ahead of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren on the first question, but given a magic wand, Democrats actually gave Warren a narrow lead.
What this seems to indicate is that a lot of people prefer Warren to Biden and Sanders but don’t think she can win and so intend to vote for the former vice president. Her challenge, then, isn’t just to win the hearts of Democrats but to convince them that she can be relied upon not to blow the election and give Trump a second term.
For this reason, she may have created a problem for herself in the debate, but some of that depends on how many Democrats read the New York Times and Jonathan Chait, and also on how willing her competitors are to try to exploit this opening.
It’s important to remember, too, that this isn’t an opening Bernie Sanders can exploit. Warren’s sin, if she committed one, was saying that she agrees with Bernie Sanders on private health insurance. If the same question is put to the candidates on Thursday night, we know Sanders will also raise his hand.
In this sense, Warren helped herself by not allowing Sanders to get to her left on the issue. She’s competing with Sanders right now to be the main alternative to Biden, and poaching Sanders’ supporters helps her accomplish that. If she looks like the more electable of the two, she’s going to win that battle, and most people think she looked like presidential material during the debate.
It could be that she helped herself in the battle for the nomination but at a high cost for her prospects in the general. It could be that her answer won’t come back to haunt her as much as some people fear. I’d be very surprised if a referendum on Trump’s presidency turned on Warren’s answer to a health care question in June 2019. But, as I said at the top, I’ve almost given up on knowing how the American public will respond to debates.