The top 10 Democratic presidential hopefuls took the debate stage together last night for the first time during this primary season — and former Vice President Joe Biden, in the center, was sandwiched between Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), the only other candidates with double-digit polling numbers.
This center placement gave Biden a prestigious position from which to swat at opponents on either side. However, he was too far away last night from swatting at the most aggressive confronter, former Housing Secretary Julian Castro, who went after Biden from the very end of the stage — which seemed to take everyone by surprise.
Overall, the one-night-only event featured less confrontation than expected, in my view.
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Who made the grade in terms of communicating effectively and delivering responses with passion and purpose?
Here are six key communication takeaways.
1.) How well did candidates handle confrontation? Once again, Biden was on the hit list. It was expected and Biden was prepared. He did not back down from heated discussions and often seemed animated. However, he also gave rambling, hard-to-understand answers and one point had some sort of dental issue that distracted many people from his messaging and set the internet abuzz.
His more progressive opponents — Sanders and Warren — for the most part didn’t touch him on Thursday night.
2.) Who succeeded in creating confrontation? From the far right-hand end of the stage, Castro threw several hard punches at Biden. At one point, Castro cited Biden’s flip-flop on health care policy points — and asked if his varying responses were because Biden had already forgotten what he’d said just two minutes earlier. Audience members literally gasped. Not long after that blow, Castro pounced again, saying Biden was eager to attach himself to former President Barack Obama’s successes but quick to distance himself over failed initiatives.
Castro may have gotten himself more camera time but never truly landed a knockout punch, nor did others. That’s likely because the candidates were more focused on bashing President Trump than in sharing their own visions for America.
3.) Who made eye contact? Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) missed the mark here. Despite his passion, he never spoke directly to the audience. Instead, he stared at the moderators and sometimes even looked down and away.
Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke often looked only at the moderators as well even as he promoted aggressive gun grabs, saying at one point, “Hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47” in the wake of mass shootings in this country.
Warren, for the most part, communicated effectively, toning down her over-the-top expressions at previous events and speaking calmly but firmly to voters. As far as eye contact, finally she was able to connect with the live audience, and with home viewers, moderators, and other candidates without looking like her head was on a swivel.
4.) How well did candidates stick to time limits? All of the candidates appeared to have gone through an etiquette class since the last debate. There were no real rule breakers, and candidates actually raised their hands instead of yelling out of turn. A few pushed past the time limits to complete their thoughts or add a Trump insult, but that was expected. Biden spent most of the debate obeying the cut-off until he got himself on a roll about education and inequality issues. Yes, it was a very rambling and unclear response — but when the moderator told him his time was up, Biden insisted he would keep going “like everyone else” — which generated a positive audience response.
5.) How well did candidates answer questions? Jorge Ramos, one of the moderators, called out Biden for not answering a question directly. It was a direct strike, as in previous debates Biden was able to dodge and weave and no one called him on it.
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) answered questions put to her with odd comments about Trump — and at one point tried to draw in George Stephanopoulos, another moderator, into her banter.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) skated around many questions in an attempt to remain a middle-of-the-road candidate — she seemed to be working hard to be careful not to offend others. Warren was also unclear and rambling about whether or not she would raise middle class taxes for her Medicare for All plan.
6.) Who directly impacted the audience and created memorable moments? Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, gave voters a reason to remember him — but it likely wasn’t the outcome he wanted. Buttigieg’s attempt to show strength and confidence was often communicated with a condescending tone, eye rolling and smirks.
Sanders’ hoarse voice never improved throughout the evening — at times it seemed speaking pained him. Not good (although he did spend time in the spin room afterward talking to reporters — while Biden was noticeably missing from that). The tie-less tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang created a memorable moment when he announced he’s running a contest in which 10 Americans who submit the best ideas will win $1,000 every month for a year. Great entertainment, maybe — but it didn’t move his candidacy forward. From the opening and throughout her responses, Harris used most of her time to dump on Trump.
The next debate takes place in Ohio in mid-October. Let’s see what happens between now and then.