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Jonathan Bernstein

Now that we’re a week out from the second round of Democratic debates, and a handful of polls are in, it’s a good time to reassess where things stand.

On the surface, the main development was a slump for Kamala Harris, who has now dropped back to fourth place in the polls. But I’ll stick with what I said going in: Harris, Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren didn’t really have much at stake in this round of debates. None of them had much to gain or lose from a modest shift in the polls. They’ll all be around for months, and will probably compete seriously in Iowa. And if Harris had to have a bad debate, this was probably the time to do it; she can learn from the experience and do better when more voters are paying attention.

The candidates with the most at stake were those who were in grave danger of failing to qualify for the September debates but might have still have had a realistic chance if they did well. None of them came close to doing what they needed to do. Michael Bennet, Steve Bullock, Kirsten Gillibrand, John Hickenlooper, Jay Inslee? None of them is any closer to qualifying, and that may mean the end of the road for them.

Two from this group are particularly disappointing. Gillibrand was a reasonably well-regarded senator from a large state who showed no ability at all to gain the support of high-profile party elites – she managed just one endorsement, a single member of the House from New York. Inslee, meanwhile, had a great gimmick: He was theoretically running as a single-minded climate activist. He at one point answered a question by arguing that climate isn’t one issue; it’s all the issues. That’s a great line that he could’ve pivoted to when asked about immigration, jobs, foreign policy or health care. But in the two debates and a CNN town hall I watched, he repeatedly failed to. Inslee’s a perfectly good politician who has advanced various liberal causes, and every time he went off script it was the well-rounded candidate who emerged, not the single-issue crusader. The climate deserved better.

It’s a little trickier for the group with the next-most at stake: Cory Booker, Julian Castro, Amy Klobuchar and Beto O’Rourke. On the down side, none of them moved up in the polls. But overall, it’s been a very good week for them. First, the Democratic National Committee decided that anyone who qualifies for the September debates will also be included in the October round, thereby taking some pressure off. Second, nobody else moved up in the polls either. Of the improbable candidates, only Andrew Yang and one or two others will likely make the next cutoff. So everyone in this group (assuming Castro qualifies, as seems likely) will join Biden, Buttigieg, Harris, Bernie Sanders and Warren on the stage. Eliminating several potentially serious rivals, along with a few distractions (no more John Delaney sucking up debate time!), is a real step forward for these four.

So the next big question is whether the dozen or so candidates who won’t qualify for the next debate will end their campaigns. Already, there’s been some speculation about Hickenlooper and Seth Moulton. Expect more of that talk about others. But will they really drop out? No way of knowing.

I still agree with Ariel Edwards-Levy that the real leader right now is “Undecided.” But we may be down from a dozen or more candidates with serious chances to as few as eight or nine. Given that it’s still a long time until the Iowa caucuses, that’s not bad.

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Contact Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net.

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