Debate Night 1: The ‘On Politics’ Breakdown

Hi, and welcome to a special post-debate edition of On Politics. I’m Lisa Lerer, your host.

Before the first Democratic primary debate, there were a lot of comparisons to the Republican circus from last cycle. Then, like now, the stage was crowded with candidates. One in particular used the face-offs to his advantage: Donald J. Trump, whose debate performances catapulted him to the front of the race.

Last night’s debate was definitely not that. There were no fireworks. No personal insults. And certainly no taunting. This was policy heavy. Platitude heavy. And, perhaps, a touch plodding.

The roughest response came from Mr. Trump himself, an avid cable news watcher, who reviewed the whole event as “BORING!”

Even though the president may have changed the channel, we certainly learned a few things about the candidates.

So what can we take away from the first debate of the Democratic primary cycle?

When it comes to policy, the game is being played on Senator Elizabeth Warren’s turf. Ms. Warren took a chance by adopting a policy-first strategy. It seems to have paid off: The first section of the debate underscored how much she has set the tone, with other candidates being asked whether they agree with her positions on issues like taxing the rich or breaking up big technology companies. She, meanwhile, made a notable switch to fully embrace Senator Bernie Sanders’s position on “Medicare for all.”

• I don’t believe in debate winners and losers. But if I had to crown someone, it would be Julián Castro. There wasn’t a lot of room for a second-tier candidate to break out, but he seemed to have accomplished that goal. Mr. Castro, the former Housing and Urban Development secretary, hit his stride during the second section of the debate, speaking passionately about immigration and going after his fellow Texan Beto O’Rourke. Google reported that searches for his name spiked 2,400 percent during the debate, giving him a much-needed boost.

• At a time when some primary voters worry that the country won’t elect a woman or candidate of color, the stage — with a Latino candidate, three female candidates and an African-American candidate — displayed the historic diversity of the race. A trio of candidates, Mr. Castro, Mr. O’Rourke and Senator Cory Booker, dipped into Spanish. (Though some were better than others.) How those performances shape voters’ perceptions will be interesting to watch.

The format was hard. With 10 candidates on the stage, answers had to be crisp to make an impact. That wasn’t ideal for storytelling candidates like Mr. O’Rourke and Mr. Booker, but they may need to find a way to adjust to a crowded stage — next month’s debate will feature 20 candidates. And at least eight are expected to qualify for the third debate, in September.

America has never seen a doubleheader presidential debate. I’m curious whether they actually want to. Asking voters to tune in for four hours of debate, six months before the first round of voting, seems like a lot. And NBC’s technical difficulties heading into hour two may have prompted some to turn off their televisions. I’m slightly embarrassed to admit this, but it definitely went past my bedtime. (I have little kids! They wake up early!) I suspect I’m not the only one yawning at 10 p.m.

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