How can candidates stand out?
WASHINGTON – As a 2020 presidential candidate, Jay Inslee says he wants to bring “hope and confidence” to the climate change fight to save a dying planet.
But on the debate stage next week, his aim is a bit more modest: Get more people to recognize his face.
In a field of more than 20 candidates, the Washington governor acknowledges it’s been tough to break through, noting “a third or less of the voters could pick me out of a lineup.”
So as candidates like former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren look to solidify their place among top-polling candidates, lower-polling candidates find themselves in search of a signature moment that will lodge their names into voters brains around the country.
A zinger. An out-of-the-box idea. A line of attack on a fellow candidate. As the clock ticks, the pressure to make a splash is intensifying. The debates on July 30 and 31 may be the last time several candidates have a chance to make the case for their presidency before higher debate qualifying standards kick in.
“I’m hopeful that after this debate a whole bunch of these folks will be forced to see the writing on the wall and end their campaigns,” said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist who worked for former Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid.
He’s not alone. Many experts believe the massive pool of 25 Democratic candidates will shrink in the immediate aftermath of the debate but, they say, there are ways for candidates to try and distinguish themselves during these pivotal events and build off momentum after the eyes of the nation are on them.
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How can 2020 candidates stick out?
On the campaign trail, Inslee wastes no time bringing up the one issue his campaign has revolved around: Climate change. But he’s routinely polling no higher than 1% and admits he needs a breakout moment on his signature issue to build momentum.
“I didn’t look at this [race] like playing the odds. I want the odds to be 100 percent that humanity is going survive. That’s the odds I’m interested in,” he said at an event earlier this month in Portland. “It’s not daunting to me that there’s a bunch of candidates. When you’re mission-driven, those odds don’t matter to you.”
Experts say at the heart of Inslee’s campaign plan is hope to differentiate himself on a specific issue, which can be effective or can backfire.
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Robert Shrum, a longtime Democratic strategist, said in this case, it isn’t working.
“Inslee is running solely on climate change but almost every Democrat on that stage fundamentally agrees with him,” Shrum said. “So, it’s not necessarily a distinguishing argument.”
Shrum said New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is doing something similar when it comes to addressing women’s issues, sexual assault and sexual harassment — issues Gillibrand has been outspoken on throughout her career but haven’t stood in opposition to her Democratic counterparts.
“I don’t think that if you just focus on women’s rights or the environment that you’re necessarily going to set yourself apart in a way that’s really needed at this point,” he added.
Issues have broken through as a success in Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s campaign. The Massachusetts senator has rolled out policies and plans on a slew of topics, giving voters a clear vision of her progressive ideas.
A large part of this could be due her focus on the middle class and the wealthy, which are broad topics and overlap with most issues; she hasn’t been pigeonholed into one set issue or category, said Kelly Winfrey, a professor at Iowa State University who focuses on political campaigns.
Winfrey said Warren also came into the race with more name recognition than many candidates and her policies as a whole have given her a persona in the race as the most prepared candidate.
“The plans that she has released, which while they all seem to go back to economic equality, they cover different issues and have helped her branch out,” she said. “I mean, climate change doesn’t give you the latitude to tie into a lot of issues, but if you target equal pay, it does.”
How a line of attack can be a catalyst
But there are other tactics to sticking out in this crowded field: attacking another candidate or having that one memorable line that sticks with voters, the latter becoming harder on crowded debate stages with 10 candidates fighting for air time.
Going after a fellow candidate has been markedly helpful to changing the dynamic of the race for one candidate: Sen. Kamala Harris.
In the first debate, the California Democrat zeroed in on Biden in a now-infamous exchange where she challenged his comments about working with segregationists in the U.S. Senate and his stance on federally mandated busing to desegregate public schools. The exchange on busing was particularly powerful with Harris noting how the issue personally affected her as a child.
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Harris took advantage of the moment as soon as the debate ended, selling merchandise with a photo of herself as a child on it. She soon after enjoyed a significant bump in several national polls.
The move didn’t target just Biden, it took on the issue of race — a central issue thus far in the 2020 race — and illustrated to voters how Harris may take on Trump, which is the primary characteristic voters will be looking for, said Democratic strategist Kristen Hawn.
“That’s what these debates are really about. In a way, it’s an audition,” Hawn said. “She looked like a fighter, she looked strong, which as a woman, it’s hard for us to come across as strong with also being likable, which is a sad truth. But she came off very well.”
But attacking a fellow candidate also can fall flat or backfire. Rep. Eric Swalwell tried to paint Biden as too old to be president in the first debate. The California Democrat quoted Biden as saying 32 years ago that it was time to “pass the torch” to the younger generation.
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While the moment gained some social media buzz, it didn’t substantially help Swalwell’s already struggling campaign. Within two weeks, he was the first Democrat to drop out of the race.
Get ready for a shrinking 2020 pool
As the Democratic field begins the inevitable shrink, this debate takes on a particular sense of urgency for those candidates languishing at the bottom of polls.
It will be the last time candidates have the attention of the nation until the September debates, where it will be harder for candidates to qualify for the stage.
The DNC doubled the qualifications candidates need to hit for those debates. In the first two debates, candidates needed to poll at 1% or have 65,000 unique donors. In the third debate in September, candidates will need to be polling at 2% or have 130,000 unique donors.
“I would expect handful, at least, to drop out after this,” Winfrey said.
She said this debate will be an opportunity for those polling low to really try to connect with voters because as the race progresses, it becomes only gets more difficult. This could likely be their last shot to become competitive.
“This is it,” she said. “If they don’t have a break-out moment in this debate, it means it will be fairly likely they won’t have the momentum to stay in the race.”
But if this round is like the last, it could mark another “missed opportunity” for longshot candidates, Winfrey added.
“Most of those candidates polling toward the bottom of the pool are saying what everyone else is saying,” she said. “They simply haven’t made the case for the White House.”
Manley, the Democratic strategist, said in reality it will all come down to one thing: money. And as time goes on, fundraising will dry up for some candidates and enthusiasm will be harder to sustain.
“I’m sure there will be some who will stay in this hoping for some momentum but they won’t be able to without fundraising. If there’s no more money, it’s over,” he said. “Money is the mother of politics.”
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Contributing: Lindsay Schnell, who reported in Portland