Election 2020: The “Winner” of the First Night of the First Democratic Presidential Primary Debate

Earlier in the week, I laid out the strategies that I thought would help candidates the most. My recommendations and interpretations are based on solid psychological research and probably differ substantially from those of others. Here’s what I think in terms of who did what and how it will affect their candidacies.

First, ain’t changing nothing. Some folks numbers will be going up some will go down, but the bottom dwellers will dwell at the bottom, the top at the top, and the middle, the middle. Warren’s numbers ain’t going down. No one will leapfrog her based on tonight. Booker will go up. Castro will go up. Klobuchar… stay the same? Beto? The other namelessfeatureless- morassofwhiteguys will remain the nameless featureless morass o white guys. Sure De Blasio and Inslee stood out. Delaney had his moments, but really? They will just remain the lump of chocolate milk mix at the bottom of the glass that won’t come out no matter how much water or how strong of a stream you use.

And, then all of this will change after tomorrow night’s debate.

We’ll take this strategy-by-strategy and not candidate-by-candidate until the very end.

The Easier Question Heuristic

The easier question heuristic is from Tversky and Kahneman’s biases and heuristics approach to decision-making. Essentially, it states that when faced with a question that would require too much rational careful thought to answer, we look for an easier related question that we’ve answered before and just use that. It actually works most of the time! As Kahneman points out, as a species over our 100,000 year give or take a few millennia history, we’ve been right a lot.

The hard question that we have to answer during tonight’s debate is Would this candidate make the best president? Man, to answer that you have to know issues and positions and their competitor’s positions and Repubes and the OTHER ten candidates that will appear tomorrow night. In other words, it is a helluva question to answer. So, instead, we answer, Does this candidate seem presidential? Can I see this candidate being president? That’s easier to answer because we simply compare their appearance and demeanor to that of past presidents.

As a strategy it means that the candidates should strive to seem presidential, which is easier for the white guys because we don’t have role models for presidential for women and candidates of color. What does being presidential look like for a white guy standing on a stage with ten others?

Be Tall

It is true that in 58% of the presidential elections from 1789 to 2012, we can include 2016 in that, too, the taller candidate won. There are some caveats, Obama was a smidge shorter than Mitt Romney. Since most of these strategies are based on perception, it is the perception of who is taller that is most important. Nowadays, we mostly experience our candidates on TV and as anyone who’s seen Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible knows, TV don’t show height well.

There were five white guys on the stage tonight: De Blasio, Ryan, O’Rourke, Inslee, Delaney. Delaney is out because he’s the shortest. He isn’t even a short person, but he’s noticeably shorter than the other guys. There isn’t enough of a difference between the others to be appreciable, so for those four, it’s a wash.

Of the male candidates of color, height will probably matter, too. Unfortunately, Castro is the shortest man on the stage. Unfortunate for him, probably good for O’Rourke, though. Booker is tall. So, at least he’s competitive.

For the women white or otherwise, it is a complete mystery because we’ve (a) never had more than one woman running directly against each other and (b) never had a close race where a woman was running against a man and won. Sorry Bernie, Clinton kicked your ass. There is no universe in which you won that election. We don’t know if it will matter that Warren is clearly taller than Klobuchar and Gabbard. We don’t know if it will make a difference that she is shorter than Biden or the Ol’ Pussy Grabber. But, Warren is tallish for a woman, she’s 5’7″ so she’s a full three inches taller than the average.


Screenshot of Delaney’s closing argument

While demeanor may be as amorphous as the lump of white at the bottom of the polls, it is important. Proof of point, and in all due respect, is that the face of a president? Seriously, when you look at that smile, he may seem like a nice guy and you might want to bring him home to meet mom or something, but no one thinks, president.

It also didn’t help that the screenshot was taken as Delaney was seeking reassurance that he was being asked for closing arguments. He was first. He shoulda known he would be first and he shoulda known where they were in the debate schedule. And, he was substantially over time. I don’t think any or many of the others were. Everyone, including Delaney, I assume, had practiced their closing. Everyone fit in the 45 second+ segment they were given, except Delaney and Ryan.

The peak-end rule means that one of the greatest influences on our perception of event is the way it ended. For Delaney and Ryan, it ended with them trying to eke out their final five seconds of unremarkable unmemorable cliche-filled trope over the objections of the moderator. That leaves a mark.

In terms of the easier question heuristic, who seemed presidential? When considering this, go with your gut. We can do a lightening round of yes or no, and if we could average that for everyone watching the debate, we could probably predict who improves in the polls and who doesn’t as a result of this debate. Feel free to give me your own impressions in the comments.

  • Delaney: No, doesn’t seem presidential in the least. In fact, it makes him the BIG loser tonight.
  • De Blasio: Yes, he seemed presidential.
  • Inslee: Not really. Something falls flat for me. I cannot picture a President Inslee.
  • Ryan: No. Why waste any more time here?
  • Gabbard: No. ‘Nough said.
  • Castro: Castro did well in the debate, but does he seem presidential? No. No, he doesn’t, I’m afraid.
  • Klobuchar: No, she doesn’t seem presidential.
  • Booker: Yes. Yes, he does. In fact, he seemed VERY presidential.
  • O’Rourke: No. No, he doesn’t.
  • Warren: Yes. yes, she does. Of all of them, she seemed polished and prepared.

Judgments of Competence

Of course, answering the question of does someone seem like a president is greatly influenced by how we felt about them going into the debate. Most of the folks on the stage tonight have pretty low name recognition and most viewers had little to no clear impression of them.

I would argue that it works against the lesser known candidates because, and rightly so, there must be a reason that they are so unknown and the well-known candidates are. Previous exposure to just a name will begin building a veneer of truthiness and in this case that lends itself to presidentialness. This means that the unknown candidates need to hit it out of the park from the very beginning. Otherwise, they are saddled with the incompetent label and will find it very hard to shake.

The Halo Effect

Probably the biggest tragedy in this presidential field is Beto O’Rourke. He started out with a huge halo. People loved him because of his run against Ted Cruz. Of course, if you can’t get some love when being compared to Cruz, then something is bad wrong. That rung is slung pretty far down there, knowwhatI’msayin?

But, because he was so universally recognized as having run such a great campaign for Senate, raised so much money, and seemed so Bobby Kennedy-esque, he had high expectations when he jumped in. And, he fumbled it from the get go. Now, instead of getting the warm fuzzy feeling of being the guy who almost Cinderella’ed himself into the Senate against the villainous Cruz, he is the guy who tarried too long with his decision to declare and couldn’t grab a headline after having done so. His gimmicks stopped working for him. Now, he’s a pretty face, but not much else.

De Blasio seems to be suffering from the horns effect. For whatever reason, New Yorkers have turned on him and he is no longer the popular wunderkind that he was when he was elected mayor of NYC. Did he help himself tonight? He came off sounding pretty good. His closing argument, I’ve done all these progressive things in NYC ($15.00 minimum wage, universal free pre-K, insuring the uninsured, etc.), but when you’re horned, nothing you say or do is given much credit.

In this group, Warren is about the only one with enough of a reputation to even discuss the halo effect and it cuts both ways for her. Some progressives don’t like her. Moderates don’t like her. Amazingly, though, she seems to be turning that around. More progressives and moderates are warming to her. And, because she has something of a halo as a result of her recent “surge” in the polls — thank you media narrative — any minor blunder she might’ve made will be papered over and ignored. She was quiet most of the night. She’s not one to try and bust in on others, and she didn’t need to be tonight.

Fundamental Attribution Error

Originally, fundamental attribution error was about how we attribute the causes of behavior to ourselves and others. We tend to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt but not for others meaning that when we do something good it is because we are good people, and bad things are because there was an excuse something in the environment caused it. And, the opposite for others. We extend this to through liking (essentially, the halo effect). If we like someone and feel positively towards them, then the good things they do are because they are good, and the bad because there is some excuse, and vice versa for those we either dislike or feel negatively towards.

But, unlike the halo effect, we make the judgment of liking and disliking, feeling positively or negatively towards someone in a nano second and therefore will commit attribution error in a nano second. You know immediately whether you like someone and feel positively towards someone or not.

So, Delaney looks like he’s something of a goof and he went way over on his closing argument time, FAE says its because he’s a dolt. Warren nailed her closing argument time, FAE says its because she’s a disciplined prepared person. See how that works?

Did anyone significantly shift perceptions of them so that they get a brighter halo, longer horns, or a more positive spin on FAE? We’ll save this one for the big stew of overall impressions at the end.

Emotions and Perceptions of Competence

We are emotional decision-makers, emotional beings, our emotions guide us through our days and lives. Behavioral economics makes this very clear, and it’s not up for debate in this post. As we’ve said throughout this post, it is our emotional reaction to the candidates that will drive perceptions and, ultimately, our votes.

Perceiving the emotions of others is important for predicting their behaviors. We evolved to be emotionally perceptive. We must have an accurate interpretation of the emotions of others and the connotation that that emotion has for our relationship to them.

For these reasons, emotional perception is considered very accurate meaning we are greatly affected by how we assign emotions to others. While there are six universal emotions, we filter our connotations through cultural norms. We assign gender roles to emotions. Men can be angry and prideful; women get all of the others. Angry people of color are threatening. Angry women are PMS’ing. Like it or not, in America, that’s the way it goes.


It has been pretty well established that angry white men are judged as more competent and given higher status than non-angry white men and everyone else regardless of their anger. One of the best things any of the nebulous blob of white could have done was seem at least somewhat angry. To my knowledge, none of them did. Inslee came as close as anyone, but he seemed condescending and morally outraged that none of the other candidates had recognized his genius as running exclusively on climate change (see my FAE coming out there?).

Angry women are penalized. People don’t seem to like it when women are angry.However, if there is a discernible reason for their anger, then the penalties are nullified somewhat. None of the women on the stage would’ve benefited from being angry.

Klobuchar’s widely noted zinger directed at Inslee over women’s reproductive rights and who fights for them — or more accurately passes legislation to protect them — came as close as any of them woulda wanted to get. And, if anyone had thought she was angry, she would’ve been granted special dispensation because of mansplaining.

Angry people of color are seen as threatening. They do not benefit from seeming angry, but both Castro and Booker stayed in their place and didn’t express any anger. Castro did say that we should be pissed off about asylum seekers dying trying to enter the country. He didn’t seem angry; he was just advocating for it. Most of us are pretty darn angry over it all, so he was preaching to the choir and probably benefited from being able to talk about it appropriately.

Other Emotions

Most of the candidates seemed like they were trying to be more in control than emotional. They seemed unsure of the emotional tenor to strike and were trying to avoid many emotional displays. Some, of course, more than others. I thought Gabbard came off as trying to control her demeanor more than almost anyone else. Warren, Klobuchar, Booker, and Castro as passionate and animated about certain issues.

Others were passionate, too, De Blasio, Inslee, Ryan, and Delaney about this issue or that, but since we don’t know them or their issues very well, it was less effective. I don’t mean that we don’t know that Inslee is running on climate change or that climate change is important, but that his passion about it is seen as being equal to our own. De Blasio boasting that he has enacted a progressive agenda in NYC or Inslee having passed legislation protecting women’s rights comes off as being more empty hype than anything else partly because if it had been more important — our internal reasoning goes — we woulda heard about it before them announcing it in the middle of a huge debate. Context matters.

Same thing for Klobuchar’s response to an LGBTQ+ rights question. Her statement of serving with LGBTQ+ folks and how it doesn’t matter in a foxhole just came off as forced or cliched or insincere partly because its never mattered to her enough to have done anything else with it before trotting it out when pressed on it. On the other hand, Castro’s statement about reproductive justice and including the trans community came off as insightful, understanding, and smart. To my knowledge, Castro has never been known for being a big advocate of women’s rights, but it was the context and didn’t seem forced, although he had to interject himself into the discussion.

The candidates who struck emotional appeals largely did it well. Otherwise, they were careful to avoid overly emotional statements and displays. I think it hurt the lesser known candidates because it was too careful and they missed an opportunity to stand out for something good. If they blew it and it hurt them, well, they were going away anyway. They didn’t have anything to lose.

Assessing the Candidates


It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that I think Delaney is the overall loser of the debate. He didn’t seem presidential when he needed to. In fact, he seemed the opposite of presidential. He didn’t use his time well to create a different impression. He stuck to tropey cliches and safe white male issues. Delaney would be wise to drop out immediately.

De Blasio

The more De Blasio talked the more he seemed to be at least presidential and competent. He’s got a lot of room to grow in, so he may have gotten the most benefit, but it won’t take him very far up the ladder since he’s starting from so far down. He also has too many negatives to overcome. I guess you’ve got to have a helluv an ego to be able to take the humiliation and slings and arrows that he’s taking and going to take before he drops out.


I just can’t get passed how whiny and complainy and lecturey Inslee seems about climate change. I guess he’s sincere, but it seems more like a gimmick for him and one that he’s miffed that he’s not getting enough credit for. Condescending entitlement is not a good emotional foundation to build a campaign on.


Another BIG clear loser tonight. What is he bringing to the race other than white entitlement and resentment that the nomination isn’t being handed to him? I honestly don’t know. His best move is to just stop now before he lands himself in significant debt.


What is Gabbard’s shtick? Is she a Russian shill? Is she just so narcissistic that she thinks she should be president? I mean, she doesn’t even have white male privilege to justify her existence in the campaign. In general, she seemed to be speaking carefully when using her prepared lines. It didn’t come off as genuine and they weren’t particularly well written, so again, why is she here?


Castro is clearly one of the biggest winners of the night. He had the floor a lot — one of the people with the most speaking time. And, every time he had it, he seemed to make a point. It benefited him. When he spoke Spanish, it seemed appropriate and not pandering. When he went after O’Rourke, he landed a clean fair hit exposing O’Rourke’s major weakness, a lack of detail. When he demanded the floor, he had something worthwhile to add. When he was asked a direct question, he had a terrific answer. Definitely improved his VP chances. Couldn’t you see a Warren-Castro or Harris-Castro or Biden-Castro ticket?


Again, my FAE is showing. I’ve always thought I should like Klobuchar more than I do. When she spoke, but especially during her closing statement, her voice was tense and she seemed unsure. Her closing statement also seemed a bit on the resentful side of white privilege for her lack of recognition a la Warren and Harris. Her whole I’m not the party establishment or political machine lines seemed more like she was excusing her failure by blaming “them” than anything else.


Booker has the hopeful aspirational better angels thing down! I just love hearing him go through his litany of leading with our values. And, he looks presidential in that Obama mode. Great vice president material, though. I could see a Biden-Booker ticket with Biden “vowing” to be a one-termer and handing it off to Booker.


O’Rourke has blown his chance. He’s been too deliberate about being the fresh new face that is going to do it his way or some other summer romcom romp plot. At best, he’ll be Warren or Harris VP. All the sage pundits will be saying he shoulda run for Cornyn’s seat or governor. All the other sages will say, “see, you gotta win something before you can be a winner,” or some such nonsense that passes for sage punditry nowadays.


Warren won by not losing. She didn’t meet expectations, but she didn’t miss them either. She didn’t gaff; she didn’t fart; she didn’t drink water or wear chap stick or ask who she was. And, she finished strong. She gave her closing statement last and it was a warm and fuzzy. Peak-end experience says it will leave folks feeling pretty good about her.

Of course now we have to wait for the second night of debates before we can come to any conclusion about this one. But right now, Castro and Warren are the big winners. Booker did well. The only other person with any place to climb to was Klobuchar. At best she didn’t hurt herself. The others may jump from 0.2% in the polls to 0.5% or even a heady 1.1%, but um… so what.

10 replies »

    • Howdy James!
      You know this is about the third time that I’ve seen someone describe her low energy. Every time I’ve seen her, I’ve been impressed by her energy. She had some passion in what she was saying during the debate, too. She didn’t break in, especially in the second hour, but that may have been more strategy than anything else. She’s got a position to protect.

      The second heat was heated, though!



      • To clarify, her debate presence reminded me too much of academic “air head” professors I taught with whose interpersonal aloofness failed to connect with their students.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. I can’t find anything in you analysis to seriously argue with.

    Delaney: Against Trump, the "job creator businessman card" is a looser.  For all its untruth, Trump owns it, unless he actually does manage to crash the economy.  And, yes, a dork. 
    De Blasio:  Talks over others too much - not likeable
    Inslee: Johnny one-note - Yes Climate is an existential issue, but not the only one.
    Ryan: Secretary of Labor
    Gabbard:  Stood at attention all night - Secretary of Defense?
    Castro: Impressive, competent, clear, and alas, short - Cabinet position, not sure which.
    Klobuchar: Seemed on the defensive - stay on Capital Hill
    Booker: Definitely in line to be on the ticket.
    O’Rourke: A disappointment
    Warren: Still top of my list - smart without being condescending, prepared to the nines, does detail, calls BS on BS without looking PMSy - clearly CARES (prime value in a female)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Howdy Bob!
      I think everyone on that stage except for Warren, Booker, and Castro should drop out of the race. O’Rourke is the biggest bust since the last NFL draft. Klobuchar just grates on my nerves… maybe that’s just me. I’ve heard that women really like her, so maybe. Everyone else is a white guy who at this point is just useless and Tulsi Gabbard who is a Russian bought and paid for shill.


      Liked by 1 person

      • I also had the thought that Gabbard is too pretty to be seen a presidential. Men don’t take pretty women seriously (the bimbo factor) (a monstrously huge mistake, but one many women have used to their advantage), although it would be worse if she was a blonde.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Howdy Bob!
          I’ve thought the same thing. It is a layer that women have to deal with along with their clothing choices and hairstyles and make up.

          Part of the problem is that we don’t have models of women presidents. We’ve had handsome sexy male presidents before. We need those strong female role models.


          Liked by 1 person

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