Who Won the First Debate? Experts on the Left and Right Weigh In

Senator Elizabeth Warren, the only person on the stage Wednesday polling in double digits, was expected to be the star of the first Democratic debate — and for the first half-hour, she was. But by the end, several lower-polling candidates had taken the spotlight: Senators Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar, and especially Julián Castro.

Twitter is a bad gauge for public opinion, but a decent source for the assessments of political experts, including those who know the stakes of debates best: veteran campaign strategists and consultants from both parties. Here is a sampling of their responses.

[Here are seven takeaways from the first Democratic debate.]

In the first segment, which focused on the economic issues on which Ms. Warren is particularly passionate, there was little contest.

“Twenty minutes in and from the economy to health care, @ewarren is simply crushing the debate stage.” — Adrienne Elrod, former senior adviser to Hillary Clinton

“They could teach classes in how @ewarren talks about a problem and weaves in answers into a story. She’s not just wonk and stats.” — Christina Reynolds, spokeswoman for Emily’s List and former Clinton and Obama staffer

“The candidate who is speaking the most effectively to Democratic primary voters so far is Elizabeth Warren, hands down.” — Frank Luntz, Republican consultant and pollster

As the debate went on, though, and other candidates began to shout over each other and jostle for speaking time, Ms. Warren became less dominant. That’s when things got good for Mr. Castro.

Mr. Castro started to stand out as the debate turned to immigration, and liberal activists were thrilled at his answers on abortion and transgender rights.

“For sure @ewarren is crushing this debate, but without a doubt, @JulianCastro is the surprise breakout star tonight, boldly championing reproductive justice and connecting his LIVED experienced to his policy proposals.” — Abigail Collazo, former spokeswoman for Stacey Abrams

“By dominating on the issue of immigration, Julián Castro has breathed fresh new life into his struggling campaign.” — Patti Solis Doyle, senior adviser to the 2008 Obama campaign

“Look, this is a Julian fan account tonight but CAN YOU BLAME ME? This is A+ debate performance. So presidential!” — Jess Morales Rocketto, political director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance

[Here’s a look at who got the most speaking time.]

Though they did not get as consistently good reviews as Mr. Castro, two of the senators in the race — Mr. Booker and Ms. Klobuchar — had some strong moments. The experts especially liked Ms. Klobuchar’s retort when Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington claimed to be the only person onstage who had “passed a law protecting a woman’s right of reproductive health and health insurance.” (“There’s three women up here that have fought pretty hard for a woman’s right to choose,” Ms. Klobuchar responded.)

“That was quite a moment for Klobuchar, stepping in on behalf of the other women on stage and talking down Jay Inslee’s chest pounding over passing a health care law.” — Natasha Korecki, Politico reporter

[email protected] serves a reality sandwich about the dislocation of single payer – millions of Americans who like their employer-provided insurance would lose it. Then a populist attack on prescription drug prices, and a down-home metaphor ‘All foam and no beer.’” — Paul Begala, former adviser to Bill Clinton

“Grounding health care policy in education, jobs, and retirement security (plus mentioning the racial gap!) is very smart from @CoryBooker.” — Jess McIntosh, SiriusXM host and former spokeswoman for Mrs. Clinton

“Tonight was the best I’ve ever seen Booker.” — Matthew Miller, former Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman

The experts were split on who else did well. Several other candidates — including Bill de Blasio, Beto O’Rourke, John Delaney and Tulsi Gabbard — had one or two strong answers, but none of them had the electric, campaign-launching moment they were hoping for.

“Underdogs, @JohnDelaney and @BilldeBlasio inserting themselves in debate. Not waiting to be addressed with questions. Smart for them.” — Patti Solis Doyle

[email protected]sio attacks @BetoORourke, a bad look for him. Then @JohnDelaney steps in as the voice of reason: ‘We need to be the party that keeps what is working and fixes what is broken.’ Strong moment for @JohnDelaney. Beto probably wishes he’d said that.” — Paul Begala

“Beto has a very good answer to the health care question. Democrats legitimately differ on this, and Beto’s is a coherent explanation of a more moderate and incremental strategy.” — Jill Filipovic, lawyer and former Guardian columnist

“She’s a long-shot to win the presidency, but Tulsi Gabbard is sounding like a prime candidate for Secretary of Defense.” — Frank Luntz

“Warren tonight has completely set the tone on the economic discussion, with others reacting to her. Castro tonight has completely set the tone on the immigration discussion, with others reacting to him.” — Mo Elleithee, former spokesman for Mrs. Clinton and the Democratic National Committee

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