On the sidelines of the first Democratic presidential debate Tuesday night, three candidates flanked Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders like backup singers: blueblooded WASP Lincoln Chafee (Baby Spice), Vietnam War veteran Jim Webb (Scary Spice), and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley (Sporty Spice). Shifting from foot to foot, they pounced at any opportunity to get a word in edgewise. But despite their best efforts, they mostly failed to distinguish themselves from the frontrunners. Their performance on the campaign trail is similar; in the most recent Fox News poll, both Webb and Chafee boasted 0 percent, while O’Malley drew a meager 1 percent. Clinton and Sanders, meanwhile, are at 45 and 25 percent respectively.
Where they succeeded, however, was in setting a reasonable tone for the debate. Chafee, Webb, and O’Malley advanced largely measured arguments on subjects ranging from gun control to climate change—a sharp contrast to the unruly Republicans exiled to the kiddie table this summer. “On this stage you didn’t hear anyone denigrate women,” O’Malley said in his closing statement. “You didn’t hear anyone make racist comments about new American immigrants. You didn’t hear anyone speak ill of another American because of their religious beliefs,” he finished. “What you heard was an honest search for the answers America needs.” (In the last two Republican debates, Donald Trump acknowledged that he had called women “fat pigs” and vowed that he would deport thousands of immigrants.)
Primary debates can occasionally give candidates a boost in the polls, propelling unknowns to the front of the field. Earlier this summer, Carly Fiorina catapulted to the top tier of the Republican field after strong debate showings. Perhaps inspired by her example, Democrats have been lobbying for more Democratic debates over the last several months, hoping that the Democratic National Committee would give them more time to preach on a national stage. When the DNC refused to yield, O’Malley fiercely criticized it for what he saw as “circling the wagons” around Clinton to insulate her from her competitors. It’s late enough in the race, though, that these candidates will soon have to face reality: If their debate performances fail to buoy them in the polls, they’ll have to drop out.
This is particularly true for O’Malley, the charismatic Maryland governor Clinton aides singled out as Hillary’s biggest competition earlier this spring. O’Malley had hoped to run as a progressive alternative to Clinton, and launched plans that would have America powered entirely through green energy by 2050 and aimed to prioritize criminal prosecutions on Wall Street. More recently, he has called Clinton out for pandering to voters, telling MSBNC’s Chris Hayes that "unlike the weathervane that blows in the wind, I know where I stand.” However, with Sanders running even further to his left on most issues, those stances have largely failed to establish his liberal bona fides.
On Tuesday night, O’Malley tried again to prove his progressivism, pointing out that under his leadership Maryland passed gun control legislation and the DREAM Act. “Whether it was raising the minimum wage, making our public schools the best in America, passing marriage equality, the DREAM Act, and comprehensive gun safety legislation, I have learned how to get things done,” he said. He was very effective at getting progressive legislation passed, but, as Washington Post’s Aaron Blake notes, “he did it as a Democratic governor with a friendly state legislature in a blue state.” He advocated for comprehensive gun safety legislation, speaking about the Phillips family, who lost their daughter in the shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. “It's time to stand up and pass comprehensive gun safety legislation as a nation,” he said.
But it didn’t seem to be enough. Without any brilliance onstage, it’s unlikely that he’ll boost his polling numbers. On Sunday, the Washington Post quoted an anonymous Democratic operative: “If [O’Malley] gives a mediocre performance, he’s done.”
Lincoln Chafee, on the other hand, spent the debate launching broadsides at Clinton. In his opening statements, Chafee proudly stated that he had never had a political scandal—“ I'm very proud that over my almost 30 years of public service, I have had no scandals. I've always been honest”—a veiled criticism of Clinton and her email fiasco this summer. He later called himself a “block of granite” who never changed his political stances, digging Clinton for her turnaround on gay marriage and the trade deal finalized last week. He pressed her hardest on her vote for the war in Iraq in 2002. “There was no evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq,” he said. “I know because I did my homework.” He voted against the war while serving in Congress, the only Republican senator to do so.
Because of the other candidates’ commitment to progressive talking points, Jim Webb was on the defensive; his more moderate (and sometimes misguided) ideas—from backing coal power to writing that affirmative action discriminated against whites—didn’t play well in CNN’s arena. “As a clarification, I have always supported affirmative action for African Americans,” Webb said. “That's the way the program was originally designed because of their unique history in this country, with slavery and the Jim Crow laws that followed.” As he noted during the debate, he comes out of the Blue Dog tradition—the conservative Democrats popular in the South. Perhaps they would have appreciated his allusion to killing a man in combat.
All three men reflect an older wing of the Democratic Party, which is embodied by Bill Clinton. In the nineties, the Democratic Party relied on moderate, working class white voters. But the Democratic Party has evolved since Barack Obama took office in 2008: Its coalition is now women, African Americans, and Latinos, relying much less on the support of working class whites. Despite their witty reposts and pointed critiques of the frontrunners on Tuesday, Chafee, Webb, and O’Malley stand little chance of making it to the big stage.