These debates have a modest impact on the nominating process because there are so many debates and because the first votes will not be cast for more than four months, but debates provide some insight into the state of the race and what we might see in the coming months. The race now looks like one where the frontrunner is flawed and perhaps out of touch ideologically with both the Democratic Party and a majority of the American people, but also where second tier candidates are struggling to break through in such a crowded field, and where the progressive vote is largely split between Sanders and Warren. Some of this may sort itself out in the next few months, but the large and impressive field, could make this a long primary season.
As the 2020 election approaches, we will inevitably encounter more commentary reminding us how the future of the US is at stake. That is clearly true, because if Donald Trump is reelected the pace of democratic rollback will be accelerated, perhaps irrevocably, while a Democratic victory may just reverse that rollback and make it possible to rebuild a cohesive and democratic country. However, despite the future being at stake, the election itself will largely be a debate about the past.
Over the last few election cycles we have learned pretty definitively that we know a lot less about electability than we think we do. Our last two presidents, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, were both viewed as axiomatically unelectable when they began their campaigns for the White House. Moreover, most candidates have both positive and negative and electoral traits so their overall electability becomes a post facto assessment rather than having any predictive value. For example, in 2016 Hillary Clinton was very electable until she wasn’t. Similarly, had John Kerry beat George W. Bush in 2004, the punditry would have explained that as a war hero with years of experience he was the perfect candidate, but he lost narrowly, so we have been told he was a northeaster liberal with limited charisma and therefore a week candidate. Given this, when somebody tells you they think a particular primary candidate is electable, what they usually mean is simply that they are supporting that candidate.
The presidential race has moved on and Sanders is no longer leading a political revolution, but is trying to remain relevant, and maintain some leverage, in a fast-moving election where fear of the Republican nominee has, as expected, helped solidify the Democratic base around Ms. Clinton and largely put to rest concerns about Sanders supporters refusing to support the former first lady.