Beto O’Rourke sus­pended his cam­paign for the Demo­c­ratic pres­i­dential nom­i­nation in the 2020 election. | Flickr

Pres­i­dential debates are game-changers: the bright lights of network tele­vision, the intense ques­tioning from the mod­er­ators, and the searing attacks from other can­di­dates can melt and destroy even the most pol­ished politi­cians.

Can­di­dates such as Rick Perry have gone from fron­trunner status to an after­thought in a matter of days. Even world class orators Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama suf­fered embar­rassing losses in the first debates of their reelection cam­paign.

The Demo­c­ratic primary debates revealed a party torn between nom­i­nating the most elec­table can­didate or embracing fire­brand pro­gres­sivism. Rather than pro­viding clarity in who will emerge as the eventual nominee, these debates have exposed an emerging dichotomy between the Estab­lishment and the new Demo­c­ratic-Socialist bloc.

The impli­ca­tions of this divide could prove dev­as­tating for Democrats in November. Even with a majority of Amer­icans dis­ap­proving of Donald Trump’s per­for­mance as pres­ident and even backing his removal from office, a shat­tered and unen­thused Demo­c­ratic base could spell doom for the eventual nominee. A repeat of the 2016 primary debacle, where dis­gruntled Bernie Sanders sup­porters nearly hijacked the con­vention and stayed home in November, would almost cer­tainly sweep Trump to reelection.

Former Vice Pres­ident Joe Biden has been repeatedly pil­loried for refusing to back Medicare-for-All, the Obama-era depor­ta­tions of undoc­u­mented immi­grants, and his leg­islative record. Sen­ators Eliz­abeth Warren, D‑Mass., and Bernie Sanders, D‑Vt., face ridicule from more mod­erate can­di­dates for the imprac­ti­cality of their pro­posals.

There are two obvious losers that suf­fered the most from the debates: Beto O’Rourke, D‑Texas, who earlier this week announced he will be ending his cam­paign, and Sen. Kamala Harris, D‑Calif.. Both entered this year with a great deal of excitement sur­rounding their can­di­dacies. From the moment the debates began, however, public per­ception shifted for each of them.

Once gar­nering com­par­isons to Bobby Kennedy, Beto O’Rourke instead came across in the debates as a dull hipster who would be more suited as the pres­ident of a Pink Floyd fan club than the com­mander in chief of the United States. Kamala Harris, mean­while, was evis­cerated in the second debate when Tulsi Gabbard ripped to shreds the former Cal­i­fornia attorney general’s pros­e­cu­torial record.

Clearly, O’Rourke and Harris suf­fered the most from the debates. And while the rest of the field has not seen their stock fall as sharply, the debates have not boded well for the standing for most other can­di­dates.

Biden began his cam­paign polling as high as 41%. After a string of mediocre per­for­mances, he’s strug­gling to stay above 25%. He has fallen as low as fourth place in surveys of Iowa voters, an embar­rassing crash in support in an important caucus.

Mean­while, Warren’s per­for­mance in the most recent debate in Ohio exposed glaring weak­nesses in her Medicare-for-All plan and tax pro­posals. Sanders is strug­gling to recapture the energy of his 2016 cam­paign; no longer the belle of the pro­gressive ball. Further back in the field, Amy Klobuchar, D‑Minn., and former Sec­retary of Housing and Urban Devel­opment Julian Castro con­tin­u­ously fail to dif­fer­en­tiate them­selves from the field.

The only can­didate who has con­sis­tently per­formed well in the spot­light is Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana. From the beginning of the cam­paign, Buttigieg demon­strated excep­tional skills as an orator and debater. He remains hand­i­capped, however, by his lack of exec­utive expe­rience, having merely served as a small-town mayor, and a lack of popular support in the black com­munity. Fur­thermore, while Buttigieg’s recent tack to the center may help him with the broader elec­torate and dis­en­chanted Biden sup­porters, it will undoubtedly raise the eye­brows of pro­gres­sives within his party.

Debates are designed to assist voters in deter­mining the best pos­sible can­didate. Yet all these early debates have done is soil a field nearly thirty-deep.

Once per­ceived as the best chal­lenger for Trump, Biden now looks like a washed-up relief pitcher trying to start Game 7 of the World Series.

After nine months of suc­cess­fully mar­keting herself as the underdog can­didate with a plan for every­thing, Warren is strug­gling to operate as a fron­trunner and respond to crit­icism of her tax plan. And despite cam­paigning proudly as a champion of the people without need of Wash­ington, D.C. in 2016, Sanders is des­per­ately turning to “The Squad” to res­urrect his abysmal poll numbers and bland debate showings.

In many ways, this field of Demo­c­ratic can­di­dates best resembles the 1996 Repub­lican pres­i­dential primary with a series of unin­spiring options. Ranging from 72-year-old former Kansas rep­re­sen­tative Bob Dole to the eccentric and une­lec­table Alan Keyes, con­ser­v­a­tives failed to cap­i­talize on the his­toric midterm elec­tions of 1994 and the Repub­lican Rev­o­lution.

Democrats enjoyed a fruitful 2018, but these debates may have changed the game in favor of Trump next November.

Matt Fisher is a senior studying pol­itics and is a reporter for The Col­legian.