- Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro launched into a hard-hitting critique of Joe Biden‘s policies that veered into a veiled knock on his age.
- That’s exactly how debates are supposed to work.
- Other candidates didn’t like that and tried to play it safe or scold Castro for criticising a rival.
- They’re wrong. That’s a bad strategy. The polling shows that arguing with a rival has few negative consequences.
- A compelling enough critique – like Sen. Kamala Harris landed on Biden in the first debate – can solidify support as well as poach some fans from the very rival you’re slamming.
- Nobody ever increased their name recognition by sitting politely and quietly off to the side.
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At the Democratic primary debate Thursday night, Julián Castro landed a serious strike on former Vice President Joe Biden, linking a mistaken description of a policy proposal to a possible lapse in memory. It was thinly veiled swipe at the comparatively higher age of the former vice president.
Lots of candidates – possibly in the hopes that were Biden to exit the race, they would inherit his fandom – have avoided taking such a direct swipe in a debate setting.
That’s not a great strategy, and a similar strategy from Sen. Kamala Harris in an earlier debate shows exactly why.
Insider has been conducting a series of recurring polls that ask who among the candidates a respondent would be satisfied with. This allows us to gauge overlapping constituencies and look at dynamics in the race that can’t be captured looking at just the important topline numbers.
Take a look at what happened to Kamala Harris after the first debate
The last time a candidate came that hard for Biden on national television, it was in the first round of debates. Kamala Harris raked him over the coals for his policy on busing in the 1970s, personalizing the policy’s impact and landing a solid hit on the elder statesman.
Was that a bad idea? According to the polls, no. If swiping frontrunners as Castro and Harris did is wrong – a position – encouraged Thursday night by candidates like Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar – then you’d expect the following to have happened:
- Biden’s supporters would have rejected Harris for the heresy.
- Supporters of Harris who were fond of Biden would pick a side, and she would lose some of that support.
- Harris would be seen as a pariah for going low in a political debate and would struggle to gain support.
- Candidates who played nice – like Beto O’Rourke or Pete Buttigieg – would see support as viewers reward their comportment and politesse.
But here’s what actually happened after that first debate:
- Awareness of Harris jumped from 59% to 66% among Democratic voters if you compare the averages of five polls taken right before and right after the debate.
- In the polls before the debate, 83% of voters knew of Biden. In the polls after, 84% did.
- In those polls before the debate, 39% of Biden supporters were also satisfied with Harris becoming the nominee.
- In those polls after the debate, 48% of Biden supporters were also satisfied with Harris.
That’s a 9-percentage point increase in Biden supporters liking Harris as the nominee. That’s enormous.
And there were other reasons for Harris to celebrate, too. In the polls before the debate, 67% of Harris supporters also like Biden. Afterward, 62% did. Also the percentage of people who knew of Harris who were also satisfied with her as nominee jumped by seven points.
In contrast, Beto, who kept his hands clean, saw his awareness jump by a measly one percentage point. For likely unrelated reasons, the percentage who were satisfied with him fell by eight percentage points.
So by the mere act of getting in the fight with the person liked by most people, Harris increased her name recognition. She presented herself as a rival to Biden and wooed a number of his supporters even if they didn’t let go of their top choice, and she also locked down more of her supporters who had been flirting with Biden.
Her rivals, who were well-behaved, were unaffected.
Debating at debates is good, who could have guessed it!
Julián Castro is in a perfect position to take Biden on
For Castro, nobody’s in a better position to land a clean hit on Biden than this former Obama administration colleague.
Castro has so much to gain and very little to lose. Sure, about two-thirds of his fans like Biden. But remember, he’s still struggling in the single-digits anyway when it comes to polling.
Only 17% of those satisfied with Biden are also satisfied with Castro, according to the latest data. That’s really low – 11 percentage points lower than his overall satisfaction rate among Democrats – and a prime opportunity.
Castro realised that debates are a great chance to mix it up, because only by mixing it up do you have other candidates’ fans seriously pay attention to you.
Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar have it wrong
- Fully 75% of Klobuchar’s supporters also like Biden.
- A mere 17% of Biden supporters also like Klobuchar. That is below her overall performance among Democrats by 10 points.
- A third of Biden supporters like Buttigieg, but that’s a whopping 16 points below his overall performance among Democrats.
- Buttigieg’s focus on Warren makes a bit more sense in context when you realise that they are far from ideological rivals, but more than 75% of Buttigieg supporters would also be satisfied with Warren as a nominee, making her a fairly immediate threat.
This may be a wasted opportunity for Klobuchar and Buttigieg. There’s another debate for each of these middling contenders, but no guarantee they ever share a stage with the frontrunner again.
Klobuchar and Buttigieg played nice at a time when it may have been optimal to land a solid blow. Castro – and to a lesser extent, Sen. Cory Booker – saw an opportunity and went for it.
This isn’t a mixer, it’s a debate. There’s an expectation that things get political and contentious.
While some may see an advantage here in playing it cool and not coming off as feisty, that’s not actually how debates work. Only a few of the candidates have realised that, and it will soon be too late for the rest if they don’t.
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