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  • Writer's pictureGina Grahame

The first 2020 Democratic Debate is over; here's why 'Warren / Buttigieg' will be the ticket

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The 2020 Presidential election officially kicked off last week as 20 of the 23 Democratic candidates took to the stage for the first debate. Given the size of the roster, 10 candidates participated on each of the two nights. Rather than provide a blow-by-blow of these and future debates, below is a summary of the impact of the event, including:

  • Winners / Losers of each night

  • Who’s on the Rise / Decline

  • My prediction for the 2020 Democratic ticket

As an Executive Presence trainer and Communications Coach, I look at how effective each candidate is in the three elements of executive presence:

  • Visual: body language, clothing, appearance

  • Communication: the actual words candidates use

  • Voice: the feeling behind those words; the tone, feeling, inflection

Each element is equally important because if a candidate is going to motivate people to vote for them, voters have to believe they look, speak, and sound like their vision of the President of the United States and leader of the free world. The challenge is that few people are actually focused on watching the debate in full. Rather, they are listening while multi-tasking, watching in a bar without the luxury of sound, listening via radio or podcast, or reading transcripts online or in the newspaper.

Let’s get into it…

Night One:

Winners: Hispanic immigrants, President Trump

Losers: Middle class voters in the heartland

photo courtesy of

The surprise of the night was how quickly Spanish was spoken by the candidates, led by Beto O’Rourke in his very first answer. Corey Booker was then eager to prove his street cred and broke into Spanish a short time later.

While it’s heartening to see that candidates understand ‘the America voter’ is not a monolith, the rush to out-Spanish each other only served to alienate middle-class white and black voters in the heartland. This is the core demographic the Democrats need to win back, and that currently believe the Democratic party is more interested protecting illegal immigrants entering America than they are in the lives of Americans themselves. At least this is the perception; endlessly repeated by President Trump and Fox News, and further propagated by the candidates heavy handed pandering to Hispanics this night.

The missed opportunity of the night was for candidates to laser focus their attacks on President Trump in line with their own platforms. It’s not enough to say that ‘President Trump must be defeated’; they have to specifically state why he is unfit for office and how they are better suited. It’s not like there’s a shortage of material on any topic; so be direct, stand up for what you perceive to be right, and go after him.

On the rise:

Sen. Elizabeth Warren

Sen. Warren was certainly the frontrunner on the stage; her demeanor and answers solidified that position. Unlike many, Senator Warren’s middle-class populist positions are long-held and deep rooted, so her credibility on these issues is real.

Secretary Julian Castro

Secretary Castro’s highlight came in an exchange with Beto O’Rourke, simultaneously showcasing his strength and illuminating Beto’s weakness. Castro’s ‘do your homework’ comment took Beto by surprise and electrified his supporters. We’ll see if he can build on that moment.

Sen. Corey Booker

Sen. Booker’s passion, especially around gun control, was the source of good marks in his performance. Even though his answering in Spanish appeared clunky and pandering, he leaves this debate in a better position than where he started.

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard

Rep Gabbard’s standout moment came on foreign policy, foreign wars, and foreign intervention; an area where she stood apart from every other candidate on the stage that night. As the only military veteran on the stage, she had an the ‘defense’ lane to herself. It will be interesting to see if she can parlay that to higher poll numbers, or if she is perceived as too conservative for today’s Democratic party.

On the decline:

Rep. Beto O’ Rourke

Beto, for all the hype, looked like the guy who’s read the book but lacks any hands-on experience. It’s all theory, no practical. Beto isn’t done yet, but the comparisons to Bobby Kennedy are over. He survived this debate, but whether or not he survives the next is yet to be seen.

Rep. Tim Ryan

Coming from the battleground, rustbelt state of Ohio should be solid plus for Rep Ryan, but the combination of his ‘deer in the headlights’ look onstage, and the ‘backwards ball cap and t-shirt’ before the debate, solidified his not-ready-for-prime-time image.

Mayor Bill De Blasio

Mayor De Blasio brought the same New York brashness that people found interesting in Donald Trump in 2016; unfortunately, the uniqueness of this style is no longer new nor enticing to Democratic voters. Mayor De Blasio’s brag of being the only person to raise a black son seemed to be the worst kind of pandering. And his closing theme of ‘it matters’ was confusing and ill conceived.


Night Two:

Winners: Kamala Harris, Millennials

Losers: Boomers

If the overarching theme of Night #1’was immigration, then the theme of Night #2 was who could propose the most government services for free: healthcare, education, even a $1,000 per month dividend for all American adults was presented by the various candidates. The conversation on healthcare, as needed as it is, missed the fact that as much as people want change, they also fear that change will make things worse. Real change needs to happen incrementally if it is going to last. When the conversation and proposals appear so radically different than what people they are used to, they are more likely to stay with ‘the devil they know’ than take a chance on the extreme; a position likely more solidified by sting from the last time swing voters took a chance on radical change and voted in President Trump.

Perhaps the most striking element of the night was the visual of Vice-President Biden and Senator Sanders standing side by side, flanked by candidates up to half their age.

photo courtesy of

Rep. Swalwell’s charge for ‘passing the torch to a new generation’, while aimed at VP Biden, also found its mark on Senator Sanders. It’s hard to see how these men, who came of age doing ‘duck and cover’ drills out of fear of a Soviet Union nuclear attack in the 1950’s/60’s, can relate to the youth of today that have grown-up practicing active shooter drills, where children rehearse what to do when attacked by one of their own carrying an assault rifle. Additionally, the visual of either of these men, battling it out against another nearly-80-year-old President Trump, seems woefully out of step with a American electorate needing to address climate change: a problem perceived to be created by, and certainly worsened by, Boomers self-centeredness and lack of political action.

On the rise:

Sen. Kamala Harris

Sen. Harris was on the offense, going head-on against the front-runner, Vice-President Biden. Her attacks were pointed, personalized to her, and found the underbelly of VP Biden. For his part, VP Biden seemed surprised by the attacks and unprepared to defend and counter. Sen. Harris proved she is willing, able, and ready to aggressively go on the offense against President Trump, which will undoubtably please the Democratic base. She had the best line of the night with her “America does not want to witness a food fight; they want to witness how we're gonna put food on their table.”

Mayor Pete Buttigieg

Mayor Pete responded to questions as expected: polished, calm, reasonable, and with a confidence that comes from having actually done the homework. Mayor Pete spoke in complete thoughts, aimed at the moderators and the watching public, not in soundbites or applause lines meant for the candidate-packed live audience or the Twitterverse. While Rep. Eric Swalwell, only one year older than Mayor Pete, lead the charge for ‘passing the torch to a new generation’, it was Mayor Pete who was undoubtably seen as the next torchbearer and the beneficiary of the charge.

On the decline:

Vice-President Joe Biden

I have been a fan of VP Biden’s for some time and was genuinely surprised at how tired he appeared at the outset. The content of his answers proves his mind is still sharp, but the voracity and conviction of his answers was lacking.

Sen. Bernie Sanders

Sen. Sanders, at 77 years old, standing next to VP Biden, was in the line of fire and also hit by the ‘pass the torch’ barrage. Bernie’s message is still strong and his conviction high, but much of his platform has been coopted by younger candidates, and his answers sound exactly as they did in 2016. The challenges undoubtably still exist, but the language needs to change or it runs the risk of sounding stale, and like the message that lost the last time around.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand

The luster Sen. Gillibrand enjoyed at the start of her candidacy has waned. There’s a sense of trying too hard and of just not ready. Presidents win by activating those who believe they look, speak, and sound like their vision of the President of the United States, and I just don’t see Sen. Gillibrand fulfilling that vision better than the other women running.


2020 Ticket Prediction:

President: Elizabeth Warren

Vice-President: Mayor Pete Buttigieg

Senator Elizabeth Warren has emerged as the high school teacher most of us look back on with gratitude: you may not have liked her at the time because she was tough, but 10 years later you’re so glad she pushed you to ‘be more’ and to see that your potential is greater than you believed. Her ‘I have a plan for that’ is more than just campaign slogan; it is the result of a lifetime of learning and strategic thinking – two attributes absolutely lacking in President Trump.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg is one of the key faces of the future of the Democratic party: from the heartland, former military, diverse, smart, engaged, and emblematic of the need for generational change. Mayor Pete understands the impact student debt is, and will have, on our current and future economy. As the youngest person running, he is a poster child of the issues Millennials and Gen Z are facing such as active shooter drills in school and the normalization of mass shootings, of climate change, of LGBTQ rights, of the future stability of Social Security, the Equal Rights Amendment, and many more challenges.

There's still a long way to go until November 2020. Let's see if, how, the landscape changes before then.

Gina Grahame is Communications Coach at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, defacto trainer of Executive Presence at Google, and a political junkie from Macomb County, Michigan, now living in San Francisco.

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