The first 10 Democratic candidates staged the inaugural presidential debate of the 2020 election cycle on Wednesday night, and spent much of their limited time talking over one another in an attempt to set themselves apart from the unmanageably large field.
In the days before the first debate — which continues tonight, with an additional 10 candidates — ThinkProgress reached out to our member network, comprised of some of our most loyal readers who contribute a small monthly donation to help fund our journalism.
We asked members to provide us with real-time feedback on each of this week’s debates, to help us better understand how the candidates were received by progressive voters across the country.
Predictably, a few candidates managed to stand out to our cross-section of readers, while others came across…less charitably.
Among the leading candidates on stage Wednesday — Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas, and Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey were polling highest — Warren stood out to our readers the most, while Booker satisfied a majority of our readers with his responses.
Gun control came up early in the night, and Warren’s answer, while perhaps unconventional, was well received by ThinkProgress readers.
“I was impressed by Warren saying that she favors having research done on how to lessen gun violence, and then implement whatever it comes up with that is doable by a president,” said Andre Mirabelli, one ThinkProgress member.
Gina Restivo was also taken in by Warren’s now-trademark grasp of facts and statistics, on gun and most other policy matters. “Great facts,” she said, recounting Warren’s answer on guns. “Sensible to double down on research.”
Lee Lipps was less impressed with Warren’s answer on guns, and thought it was Booker who was on the right track by talking about gun buyback programs and required licensing. For Lipps, who came in supporting Warren, Booker’s performance was enough to trigger some second guessing.
“She was at the top of my list going into this debate, but she dropped a bit behind Cory Booker,” he told ThinkProgress.
Beto, meanwhile, fell short in the estimations of our makeshift focus group.
Richard Earl was unimpressed with O’Rourke’s lack of details in response to questions about the economy, while Restivo posited he “needs more seasoning” before running for president.
Kathy Wilharm put it even more bluntly. “Beto was terrible,” she said, before voicing an opinion that many others have shared as well: “He should have run for Senate again and not jumped into this race.”
But Warren and Booker were not the only candidates on stage to raise eyebrows. Among the rest of the field on Wednesday, several candidates who have lagged well behind in the polls managed to score high praise from ThinkProgress readers, particularly former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.
“I’m a Warren fan,” Wilharm told ThinkProgress. “Think she has done well for sure. But more impressed with Castro and Booker than I thought I would be…I appreciated Castro’s points on police and justice reform.”
During one of the more heated exchanges on the debate stage Wednesday, Castro and O’Rourke got into it over immigration, with the former grilling the latter over his reluctance to support a call to decriminalize undocumented entry into the country. O’Rourke offered an explanation for his reticence, but it was Castro who glowed to our readers. “Castro is great on immigration,” offered Earl. “Castro impresses!” was an immediate reaction via text message from reader Joe Lawson.
Not everyone was enamored with Castro’s aggressive posture on immigration. Restivo, a retired attorney who was watching the debate with her sister, thought Castro was too aggressive on the night. Lipps didn’t much care for Castro’s antagonism of Beto either.
“Julian Castro started off strong as I expected he would, but then went badly off the track when he attacked Beto,” Lipps told ThinkProgress.
But Castro did earn points with Lipps and several other respondents with some of his other answers on policy, including his comments on reproductive rights.
“I liked Julian Castro‘s addition of including reproductive justice to reproductive choice, and his declaration to appoint judges that would follow the current laws,” said Lipps. Restivo also appreciated Castro’s distinction of reproductive justice, and when he went out of his way to include the transgender community in conversations about reproductive rights.
Despite receiving less speaking time than anyone else on stage, Inslee made the most of it, impressing several respondents with his focus on climate, an issue that most of our respondents listed among their top voting issues.
“Inslee talks about the paramount issue,” said Lawson. “I am glad he is here. I would love his voice to be amplified.”
Restivo appreciated the fact that Inslee offered details and specifics to go along with his broader policy proposals, and came away from the debate with a high impression of him, as did Lipps, who put Inslee’s performance behind only Warren and Booker at the end of the night.
There was also plenty of criticism on hand for the debate itself, both its concept and execution.
“Wednesday again showed that debates are a bad format for learning about and deciding between candidates,” bemoaned Mirabelli. The network’s technical difficulties midway through the night didn’t go unnoticed either.
“How long has NBC had to get ready for this debate?,” wondered Earl. “Tech problems? Inexcusable.”
Restivo was among those who found it difficult to come to any conclusions with so many choices on stage, a sentiment Wilharm agreed with.
“Really hope the field gets cut soon,” she said.