Footnotes on the 2020 Caucus: LV watches the first night of #DemDebates

Footnotes on the 2020 Caucus is an occasional series observing some of the traditions, rituals and oddities of the Iowa presidential caucuses.

Video still of all the candidates in the first Democratic Candidates debate, June 26, 2019

There were 10 candidates on the stage of the Arsht Center in Miami on Wednesday night, making it the largest debate in a Democratic presidential primary. At least, until Thursday night, when another 10 candidates will take the stage.

Members of the Little Village staff decided to watch the debate together — in a 2019 way, that is, via our office Slack. Art director Jordan Sellergren, managing editor Emma McClatchey, arts editor Genevieve Trainor, videographer Jason Smith and photographer Zak Neumann weighed in from the comfort of their own homes (although comfort levels varied: “whew — guys, I found my rolling papers,” one of them wrote an hour into the debate). I watched from the office.

Occasional excerpts from our Slack session have been included below in the notes on the first night of candidate questioning.

And then there were nine. No, wait — 10

Jason, Zak and I have covered every one of the candidates who will appear in both NBC debates, some multiple times, but that doesn’t mean we are necessarily any more successful at remembering of all of them than the average person is.

The Little Village editorial room whiteboard used to track 2020 candidates. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Paul [7:45 PM]
Okay in case anyone needs a playbill to tell them apart, the order of appearance on stage is supposed to be Bill de Blasio, Tim Ryan, Julián Castro, Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, Beto O’Rourke, Amy Klobuchar, Tulsi Gabbard and Jay Inslee.

Zak [8:01 PM]
You forgot Delaney @Paul

This is not entirely surprising, despite the fact that Delaney has been running longer than anyone else in the Democratic Party. He declared his candidacy on Aug. 1, 2017, but not many people noticed. In February 2018, he became the first candidate to run a TV commercial in Iowa, still with little fanfare. After almost two years of campaigning in Iowa, he remains at 1 percent in the Iowa Poll.

Nothing that happened on Wednesday night is likely to change that.

But Delaney is also not likely to be discouraged. His campaign is almost 90 percent self-financed. So far, he’s invested $16,280,000 of his own money in his belief that most Americans will eventually decide they want him to be president.

It was not an actual debate

After decades of calling candidates standing on stage next to each other and answering questions from journalists “debates,” instead of joint press conferences, it may seem to be pedantic to point this out, but the rules of the debates, which were set by NBC News, were designed to prevent a debate from breaking out.

Instead of a give-and-take between candidates, the rules said the candidates were only supposed to speak when spoken to by a moderator. Candidates were supposed to limit themselves to 60-second answers to questions. If the moderators decided to ask a follow-up question, the candidate got 30 seconds to answer.

“We are not going to be shy about making sure the candidates stick to time tonight,” moderator Lester Holt said with a slight chuckle at the beginning of the event.

That discipline lasted a little over 20 minutes.

Jordan [8:24 PM]
Cut in deblasio

Zak [8:24 PM]
Bill with a Dikembe Mutombo block

Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York was the first candidate to break the rules, right as Beto O’Rourke was explaining why he supports private health care insurance.

“Wait, wait, wait, Congressman O’Rourke,” de Blasio said. “Congressman O’Rourke, private insurance is not working for tens of millions of Americans when you talk about the co-pays, the deductibles, the premiums, the out of pocket expenses. It’s not working. How can you defend a system that’s not working?”

After that, other candidates towards the ends of the stage — candidates were positioned according to their rankings in the polls, with highest-ranked in the center — regularly tried to speak without being called on.

Emma [9:13 PM]
Drink every time a white guy on the wings tries to claim time

The most polite was probably Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington, who raised his hand every time he wanted to interrupt. The least successful was John Delaney, who was repeatedly shut down by moderators.

“My grandfather was actually separated from his family when he came to this country,” Delaney said, as he attempted to answer a question about immigration policy without being asked. He was cut off, and his grandfather was never mentioned again.

Money talks

With the exception of Rachel Maddow, none of the moderators were particularly good. But it’s worth taking note of a set of questions asked by Today Show host Savannah Guthrie, because it highlights something so common that it usually goes unnoticed.

Guthrie asked the first questions, which were aimed at getting other candidates to criticize Warren, especially her proposals for structural changes to the U.S. economy to combat inequality.

Guthrie, like the other moderators, is a millionaire. In 2018, she told People Magazine her annual salary is $7 million (it was in the context of pointing out that her male colleagues are higher paid). Her third question went to Beto O’Rourke, whose net worth is estimated to be $9.8 million.

“Congressman O’Rourke, what we’ve just been discussing and talking about is how much fundamental change to the economy is desirable, and how much is actually doable,” Guthrie said. “In that vein, some Democrats want a marginal individual tax of 70 percent on the very highest earners, those making more than $10 million a year. Would you support that? And if not, what would your top individual rate be?”

One millionaire asking another millionaire what the proper tax rate for other millionaires should be, is extremely common in American political discourse — especially on television — but it is seldom commented on.

Bilingual (sort of)

O’Rourke never quite answered Guthrie’s question, sticking instead to general themes about economic fairness. That wasn’t unexpected.

“This economy has got to work for everyone,” O’Rourke began. “And right now, we know that it isn’t. And it’s going to take all of us coming together to make sure that it does.”

What was unexpected was O’Rourke then switching to Spanish to repeat (more or less) what he just said.

Video of still of Sen. Booker and Sen. Warren looking on, as Beto O’Rourke starts to speak Spanish.

Emma [8:08 PM]
He’s going to have to cut his answer times in half if he needs to translate

As it turned out, O’Rourke didn’t attempt to offer bilingual answers to all his questions.

O’Rourke wasn’t the only candidate to speak Spanish. Julián Castro and Sen. Cory Booker both incorporated Spanish into some of their answers.

Jordan [8:38 PM]
What’s the fluent Spanish speaker percentage among candidates?

Emma [8:39 PM]
“Fluent” may be generous, but I could be wrong

Genevieve [8:39 PM]
Buttigieg speaks Spanish on behalf of at least 4 of them.

Zak [8:42 PM]
Can’t wait to hear the Trump Train reaction to all the Spanish

Trump was watching

After an hour, NBC changed it’s line-up of moderators — Chuck Todd and Rachel Maddow taking over from Holt, Guthrie and José Diaz-Balart — but didn’t turn off the microphones of the first moderators. Their backstage small talked echoed in the auditorium preventing Todd and Maddow from asking their questions. NBC had to go to an unplanned commercial break to fix the problem.

Emma [9:02 PM]
This is the most likely thing Trump will tweet about, so far at least

And shortly after that predication:

It’s worth noting that President Trump was preparing to depart for Japan, where he’ll be attending the G20 Conference. Previous presidents would have been occupied preparing for discussions on the world economy.

Not Trump.

Warren at center stage

Sen. Elizabeth Warren was at center stage on Wednesday night, literally and figuratively. Literally, because the candidate with the highest poll numbers of the 10 — which Warren had by a wide margin — got the central podium. Figuratively, because many of the questions dealt with issues she’s published detailed plans on, and those plans helped shape the questions.

This led to an interesting phenomenon. Many people on social media came away with the impression that Warren spoke more than anyone else. For example, Vrindavan Gabbard, Tulsi’s sister, was sure Warren was getting extra time, and she used Gabbard’s official Twitter account to complain.

According to the New York Times, both Booker (11 mins., 6 secs.) and O’Rourke (10 mins., 33 secs.) got more speaking time than Warren (9 mins., 31 secs.). But even people who weren’t sure their favorite candidate was being cheated got the impression that Warren spoke more than she did.

Genevieve [4:01 AM]
I know I was in and out b/c of my toddler, but I felt like Warren dominated, and I’m pretty embarrassed by that, because it means that I likely fell victim to that thing where if a woman speaks 30% of the time, people judge her as dominating a conversation.

Candidates who weren’t Warren

Despite her sister’s concerns, Gabbard got a lot of attention from the event, shooting to the top of Google searches on candidates. The Hawaiian congressperson was extremely disciplined in her performance, not letting questions get in the way of the answers she wanted to give.

Lester Holt’s first question to Gabbard was a slow-pitched softball: “Your thoughts on equal pay [for women]?”

Gabbard replied, “Well, first of all, let’s recognize the situation we’re in. That the American people deserve a president who’ll put your interest ahead of the rich and powerful. That’s not what we have right now.” She then moved into an abbreviated version of her stump speech, recounting her service in the Army National Guard and Congress.

“I know the importance of our national security, as well as the terribly high cost of war,” Gabbard said, as she started a critique of American foreign policy.

Jordan [8:13 PM]
What was the question again?

Zak [8:13 PM]
Not that

Gabbard never mentioned equal pay.

Another candidate who saw a jump in Google searches was former San Antonio mayor and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro. Castro was the most impressive of the candidates who have not yet gotten much attention this campaign season. His answers were serious, thoughtful and he wasn’t afraid to challenge his fellow candidates.

“I think that you should do your homework on this issue,” he told O’Rourke, during an exchange on immigration policy.

In April, Castro sat down for an interview with Little Village. He discussed not only his policy ideas, but talked about his own fascinating life story, going from the barrio in San Antonio to President Obama’s cabinet.

Interview with Julián Castro at The Mill

Before his appearance on the Political Party Live podcast, 2020 presidential candidate Julián Castro sat down for an interview with Little Village. The former HUD secretary talked about growing up in San Antonio with a political activist mother, his first major challenge as an elected official and his plans for America.Full story:

Posted by Little Village Mag on Wednesday, April 17, 2019

One final prediction

Near the beginning of the event, Emma made another prediction that’s likely to come true.

Emma [8:17 PM]
Lots of second and third tier SNL cast members are going to get their shot at the spotlight impersonating all these folks

Intrigued but ignorant — I haven’t watched Saturday Night Live in years — I asked her to cast the parts.

Emma [10:12 AM]

Cory Booker – Chris Redd
Beto O’Rourke – Alex Moffat (on a stool)
Elizabeth Warren – Kate McKinnon (have no choice, she’s already been cast)
Julián Castro – Michael Che or Pete Davidson
Amy Klobuchar – Melissa Villaseñor
Tulsi Gabbard – Cecily Strong
Tim Ryan – Mikey Day
John Delaney – Kyle Mooney
Jay Inslee – Beck Bennett (again, stool)
Bill de Blasio – Lorne fucking Michaels