Biden supporters in Florida and Trump supporters in Iowa will be watching closely, hoping to glean clues about who will prevail in a race the American people view as unusually unsettled.
Four candidates were in the lion’s den for their debates on Wednesday night. Here are six takeaways from the debates:
1. Trump is still in the hunt: The New York businessman is not the prohibitive favorite of his advisers, who long ago decided he needed to cut into his rivals’ leads. But he is now competitive in the delegate count, and, most important, he’s begun to cut into the lead that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton enjoys in national polling. He won both of his debates in open-air arenas, not the closed settings that marked his previous encounters. Trump’s gaffes will not go unnoticed — he was too rehearsed to say, for example, that he would “get us out of ISIS,” as if that was something his opponent had already done. But he has given them much better material to work with.
2. Carly Fiorina did fine in her first debate appearance: She was unquestionably the shocker of the second debate, but as she is maturing into a greater-than-her-instincts candidate, her unsteady moment in the first debate did not signify a drop-off that will make her look like a fraud.
2. Bernie Sanders is in it to win it: His campaign insists that his showing in the first debate does not matter. (In fact, he was in a much stronger position in the most recent analysis that than two weeks ago.) But the list of major candidates who have spent a lot of time in Iowa — and who have easily persevered in the face of an expected massacre — suggests that he cannot afford to look like the candidate who cannot win.
3. Trump cannot win without Latinos: The American Hispanic community is not monolithic, but it does share some characteristics with Republicans. Those who are most likely to vote in the midterms will not be Republican, but Trump cannot defeat Clinton without them. An appearance by former Mexican President Vicente Fox on Fox News this weekend was especially telling, because it was not him that caused controversy, but rather Sean Hannity. A Fox News debate with Trump in the arena will draw a big crowd — and it is unclear that Trump has any strategy for turning out Hispanics to vote in November.
4. Bernie was a breath of fresh air: The liberal-minded Sanders is far better positioned than Clinton to attract college-educated white voters, the best way of answering accusations from the Democratic establishment that she is unelectable. But it is too soon to dismiss concerns about Sanders’ tactics. His most distinctive appeal came in the form of anger and disdain, especially toward Clinton. He can have success, but only if he is more temperate the next time he faces Clinton.
5. Biden looks good: He may not be a natural communicator, but he has good instincts and that’s an essential trait for a serious candidate in an era when voters want to know how the candidates plan to solve the country’s problems. And the risk is that some voters may be turned off by the whole subject matter of his memoirs, which includes some candid descriptions of his personal life.
6. Voters want a peaceful transition: There is a tendency to overplay each debate as an indication of who will emerge as the choice in the general election. But that’s a mistake. The appeal of one candidate may not be as strong in the longer run as in the first few weeks of campaigning. And for a moment on Wednesday night, he seemed to do just that: He appeared to be laying the groundwork for his own candidacy.
By the time I get to Austin: However it plays out, the first debate of the 2016 race will be viewed as one of the most important in American history. From the length of the debates to the scoring of the pre-debate jabs, to the end-of-the-debate crosstalk and stage debate after, the greatest hallmarks of presidential campaigns are rarely figured in the short debates. But that is the best way to gauge whether the contest is healthy or not.
No matter how it shakes out, I will be watching. I’m looking forward to watching the first debate in Austin.