Debriefing the First Democratic Primary Debates: Who is (and who isn’t) speaking the voters’ language?

On June 26 and 27, twenty candidates took the stage for the first Democratic primary debates of the 2020 electoral season.  Photo provided by author.

On June 26 and 27, twenty candidates took the stage for the first Democratic primary debates of the 2020 electoral season. Photo provided by author.

On June 26 and 27, 20 candidates took the stage for the first Democratic primary debates of the 2020 electoral season. Communication is key to any successful campaign, and each candidate took this lesson to heart. Some pandered to foreign demographics via bilingual interjections — and thus inspired plenty of memes and hot-button discussion — whereas others used their policy proposals and general demeanor to connect with voters. Yet we must ask ourselves: which approach is more effective? Who is — and who isn’t — speaking our language as we kickstart primary season?

On night one, former U.S. Representative Beto O’Rourke exchanged blows with fellow Texan and former HUD secretary Julian Castro. As they discussed immigration reform, O’Rourke and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker crossed their own border of sorts — more specifically a language barrier, as the two presented key arguments in Spanish in a blatant attempt to relate with ethnically-diverse viewers. For O’Rourke particularly, this tactic backfired. In fact, it made him seem disingenuous, especially when Castro — the only major Democratic candidate of Hispanic descent — attacked O’Rourke’s insubstantial proposals and spoke in his native tongue during his closing remarks. In short, O’Rourke no se comunicó muy bien.

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren — standing aside O’Rourke — took center stage both physically and metaphorically.

The crux of the issue becomes ever more apparent when you juxtapose O’Rourke’s approach with those of his high-profile peers. Night one, viewers didn’t have to look too far for an appealing alternative, as Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren — standing aside O’Rourke — took center stage both physically and metaphorically. Without speaking out of turn, engaging in petty squabbles or reopening a can of worms by citing her partial Native American ancestry, she explicitly outlined her policy proposals with a vigorous passion that only further cemented her frontrunner status.

The following night, California Senator Kamala Harris — and South Bend Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, to a lesser extent — shone brightly. While Buttigieg’s heartfelt and honest pleas certainly resonated with viewers, Harris ultimately stole the show. With a refreshing blend of composure, intelligence and empathy — alongside the occasional witty, perfectly placed soundbyte — she presented herself as the adult in the room who can combat social injustice and stand strong in a heated battle against incumbent President Donald Trump. Without acknowledging her Jamaican-Indian heritage, Harris nevertheless exemplified a diversity that carried her atop the pack — an especially admirable feat considering she was onstage with former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, the top two polling candidates thus far.

On some level, I sympathize with O’Rourke and the lower-profile candidates. After all, it must be awfully difficult to stand out among such a crowded pool, and in theory the prospect of attracting a wide array of ethnically diverse constituents doesn’t sound too misguided. Yet the effectiveness of their best efforts in these regards simply pales in comparison to that of Warren’s policy proposals, Buttigieg’s earnestness and Harris’s gravitas. Now these are the languages that’ll translate most smoothly with voters. All other candidates, take note.


Michael Katz is a contributor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at michael.katz@uconn.edu.