This morning's headlines following the first Florida gunernatorial debate were unusually objective. A Washington Post headline reads "Trump’s presence is felt in fiery Florida gubernatorial debate." According to CNN, "DeSantis and Gillum spar over race, Trump in contentious Florida governor debate." The first line of a NYTimes analysis reads,
"Ron DeSantis and Andrew Gillum delivered fiery exchanges in their first debate on Sunday night, showing a national audience why they are locked in a fierce, closely matched race to become Florida’s next governor."
Anyone who understands the NewSpeak of America's mainstream media (especially during election cycles) should already be able to tell who won the debate from these headlines alone.
Winning a political debate does not mean winning the hearts and minds of the opposing party. That almost never happens during an election season, and neither candidate in Florida's race came close to doing so. Most Democrats watching the debate walked away thinking Andrew Gillum won it. Most Republicans certainly saw Ron DeSantis as the victor. Neither group's opinion is objective, and so neither group's opinion matters. The political bases of both sides are entrenched, and the only further relevance they have depends on how their excitement level affects turnout on November 6.
As I explained back in August, the Florida gubernatorial race is a "battle of radicals," which ironically means that the election will be decided by moderate voters as the bases of both parties lock in stalemate. This makes the debate stage doubly important. Most voting moderates have already heard both candidates make their best campaign pitch in political advertisements, and now they are ready to see both sides in a more neutral setting. Public debates allow moderates to determine which side's arguments they think hold up best under scrutiny.
Thus, the proper way to judge political victory in yesterday's gubernatorial debate is by asking this question: which candidate best appealed to moderate voters without alienating his base? This is the perspective from which I analyze each of the debate's discussion topics, below.
1. Environment. Ron DeSantis was immediately put on the spot by the moderator regarding Climate Change, but handled it well by dismissing "alarmism" and moving on to local environmental issues. By getting into the specifics of his own environmental proposals, he came across as serious about real, tangible issues regarding Florida's environment. Andrew Gillum began his response by asserting that he "believes in science," insulting current Republican leadership by saying that belief in science "is something we have not had for a really long time." This kind of rhetoric is pleasing to the Democrat base, but moderates find it alienating. Gillum also attacked the sugar industry directly (albeit not by name), labeling them "the biggest polluters" in Florida. The contrast between DeSantis's specific environmental proposals and Gillum's vague comments about "corporate polluters" was stark. Big win for DeSantis.
2. Healthcare. This time it was Andrew Gillum who was put on the spot regarding his call to "insure all Floridians through Medicare." In his answer, Andrew distanced himself from "Medicare for All" in favor of discussing "Medicaid Expansion." This was essentially a shift from the healthcare policy of Bernie Sanders to the healthcare policy of Barack Obama. In charting this course, Andrew Gillum demoralized much of his own progressive base while not improving his position much among moderate voters. Barack Obama's signature healthcare initiative was never popular in Florida, despite the personal popularity of Obama himself. The middle ground Gillum tried to stake out was shaky, and Ron DeSantis would not let it stand, pointedly asking, "if single-payer came to your desk, would you sign it or veto it?" Andrew Gillum was stuck, and resorted to attacking DeSantis' motives. "This is all fun and games for Mr. Desantis," Gillum said, following up on an earlier comment that Ron's statements regarding pre-existing conditions should "disqualify him from the office of governor." These attacks looked petty, and did nothing to allay the fears of seniors regarding Gillum's progressive proposals. Another win for DeSantis.
3. Minimum Wage. On this issue, both candidates were able to put forward a coherent argument. DeSantis made the conservative argument that minimum wage policy is unhelpful to workers because it reduces the number of jobs. Gillum argued that raising the minimum wage will benefit everyone because consumption drives the economy. On this topic, Republicans are simply correct, economically speaking. But that does not mean that the correct argument wins the democratic debate. The debate is won by making the economic argument seem plausible to the average, moderate worker. On this front, DeSantis did as good a job as it is possible for a conservative to do—even bringing in populist fears of "automation." But Andrew Gillum also successfully made himself the advocate for lower-income families, and connected with their feelings. Unfortunately for Gillum, the Florida's moderate voters are largely in the middle class. These voters are open to liberal economic policy, but they can also be convinced that particular liberal policies are a bad economic idea. DeSantis was convincing on this point. Another win for DeSantis.
4. Taxes. This is a tricky issue where both sides have a different goal in mind. Republicans are already seen as the party of low taxes, so they typically want to reassure dependent voters that no benefit cuts are forthcoming. Democrats typically want to convince moderate voters that the the taxes they propose to increase will only affect people richer than they are. To this end, Andrew Gillum staked out a position reminiscent of Bernie Sanders, with the top 1% replaced by the top 3%. DeSantis countered with a line that could have been delivered better, but still hit home: "if you believe, with that record, that he ain't gonna raise your taxes, then I've got some oceanfront property in Arizona I'd like to sell ya." On the flip side, Andrew Gillum never put Ron on the defensive regarding the effects of tax cuts on benefits or deficits. Big win for DeSantis, here.
5. Crime. This issue was never brought up by the moderator, but it was brought up by DeSantis. This was a smart move, but Gillum defended himself well. Both sides presented a different set of facts with confidence. However, in a contest of facts, moderates will typically side against the Trump-supporter. Andrew Gillum used the term "faux-facts" to describe DeSantis' statements, which was deliberately reminiscent of Trump's campaign manager Kellyanne Conway's use of the term "alternative facts." After DeSantis cited neighborhoodscout.com, Gillum got the first laugh of the night with "who's ever heard of that?" Over all, what should have been a hard-hitting attack on Gillum's crime record ended up as a wash.
6. Corruption Charges. Andrew Gillum had a good idea, here, in theory. His goal was to defend himself by saying that he was "open and transparent" when dealing with the FBI, and contrast this with Trump's handling of the FBI. Unfortunately, this proved ineffective, and came off as mere Trump-blaming. DeSantis also hit hard with this loaded question: "Did you pay for the Hamilton ticket, or did the undercover FBI agent?" With that question, the image of Andrew Gillum being investigated for corruption was sealed in the public mind. There was really no coming back from this, and Gillum knew it. Another big win for DeSantis.
7. Racism. Andrew Gillum proved too eager to move on from the previous question into a discussion of racism. He should have waited for the moderator to bring up the race issue. Instead, Gillum jumped the gun during the previous topic, defending himself against corruption charges by saying, "I'm a hard working person—I know that might not fit your description of what you think people like me do..." Big mistake. Doing this completely undermined Gillum's case against DeSantis by making his allegations of racism look like a distraction from his own problems. Desantis' color-blind self-defense was not rock-solid, and Andrew might have been able to poke holes in it—but not after his mistake. The attack regarding a "xenophobic, racist facebook page" fell completely flat. Even Gillum's humorous comments about having "been black all my life" failed to rescue this line of attack from utter failure. No win, here—and it could have easily been a win for Gillum.
8. Israel. Bringing up this topic was a very smart move by DeSantis, not only because it diverted attention from racism charges, but also because a very large segment of Florida's moderates, both Democrat and Republican, are Jewish. Andrew Gillum defended himself reasonably well by talking about Talahassee's "sister city" in Israel. Jewish Democrats were probably appeased. However, Gillum never really distanced himself from the BDS movement, and this will probably ensure that Jewish Republicans remain firmly in DeSantis' camp. Win for DeSantis.
9. Immigration. Andrew Gillum no doubt demoralized a good chunk of his own base by saying a flat "no" to amnesty for illegal immigrants—but he had to do it. For the sake of moderates watching, he could not allow himself to be labeled the "open borders" candidate. Instead, Gillum staked out the position that Florida is not a "show me your papers state"—advocating lenient immigration enforcement and attacking the Trump administration for putting "babies in cages." DeSantis's response was masterful. He said he would work with Trump, because "the safety of our communties comes first." He then tied Gillum's lenient immigration enforcement to his lenient law enforcement and the crime problems it created for his city. DeSantis topped it off with a pointed question: "Will you honor a request from Donald Trump's ICE agency, if they provide a detainer request, will you honor it as governor?" Gillum's answer was fatal: "you may proceed with your time." Huge DeSantis win.
10. Gun Control. DeSantis did a decent job putting forward the conservative position on gun violence. He couched his vote against age-restrictions in pragmatism, claiming that such laws would be "struck down by the Courts" anyway. He then shifted the focus to law-enforcement where he could, once again, bring up Gillum's record in Tallahassee. His most effective line was "Andrew couldn't keep Tallahassee safe; he's not the guy to keep Florida families safe." In opposition to this, Andrew Gillum said "I am going to take on the NRA and hold them responsible for crime in our communities." Normally, moderates would be sympathetic to Gillum's opposition to the NRA. However, in the context of crime created by Ron DeSantis' initial answer, Gillum's response looked like blame-shifting. Tie.
11. Donald Trump. The moderator's question about Trump ("Is Donald Trump a good role model for children?") was a softball to Andrew Gillum. DeSantis squirmed, avoiding the issue of character and trying to praise Donald Trump's "leadership" for following through on campaign promises. Afterward, Gillum scored a good hit by saying that he was now "confused by the question"—which really meant that he was confused by DeSantis's obscure answer. This got laughs, and helped Gillum ramp up to an applause-line: saying he would accept high-speed rail funding from the federal government. Unfortunately for Gillum, DeSantis came back from this and got the most applause of the night by touting his productive relationship with Trump and how it will help secure Florida's interests. This was an amazing turn-around for what should have been a Gillum home-run. And, worse for Gillum, the next question reinforced DeSantis' point. Big DeSantis win.
12. Impeachment. Being asked about your stance on impeachment right after your opponent was applauded for promising to work together with Trump was brutal. Andrew Gillum was left in the uncomfortable position of continuing to criticize Trump while simultaneously attempting to couch himself as someone who will focus on Floridians. DeSantis took advantage of this incoherence and pounced, saying "Andrew wants to lead the anti-Trump resistance from Tallahassee ... [Florida's] interests will all suffer because of the radical posture he has decided to take against the president." Another huge DeSantis win, setting him up perfectly for his final comments.
13. Final Comments. I would recommend watching the final comments of both candidates. Their final answers provide a summary of what most of the debate was like. In general, Ron DeSantis came across as a policy-focused guy with fact-based concerns about Andrew Gillum's record. Andrew Gillum attempted to connect emotionally with low-income and minority voters while encouraging Floridians to see the November elections as "collective" action against Donald Trump.
In sum, Ron DeSantis not only won this debate, he likely won the general election because of it. Unlike Gillum, DeSantis did not alienate his base with any policy shifts. And, to moderate voters, DeSantis came across as the more level-headed choice.