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Pivoting From Impeachment To the Kitchen Table

Nov. 26 2019

Wait, there was a recent Democratic debate? You’d be forgiven for not knowing.

Just a few hours before the top 10 candidates in the polls took the stage in Atlanta last week, EU Ambassador and Trump-inauguration donor Gordon Sondland delivered explosive impeachment testimony on live TV (followed a few days later, as is now expected, by an SNL cold open spoof). Sondland directly implicated Trump and several of his closest appointees in a scheme to press the Ukrainian government to announce investigations into Joe Biden in exchange for the release of $400 million in military assistance. For those who could manage to continue watching TV for several more hours, the only expectation would be for the first question of the debate to be about impeachment.

It was, for lack of a better term, an elephant in the room that couldn’t possibly be avoided.

The candidates’ handling of impeachment had one thing in common: They mostly—and smartly—avoided the issue. But just how smartly?

We took clips of the top five contenders’ comments about the impeachment proceedings to a group of more than 500 Republican, Democrat and Independent voters to score the candidates’ answers in terms of their storytelling skills. There was one clear standout in our Strategic Storytelling Index, rated most effective at conveying the essential storytelling elements of Wonder, Wisdom and Delight: Sen. Bernie Sanders.

This, and our overall results, track with a broad analysis of the candidates’ performance by Southern Illinois University debate director Todd Graham, published by CNN.com. There’s one exception, however: Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Graham believes he stole the show; but his answer to the impeachment question didn’t stand out in our analysis—but as with all things political, the devil is in the details.

Here’s a deeper look at how voters responded to each of the top-five candidates’ comments on impeachment, in descending order in terms of their Strategic Storytelling Index rankings:

  1. From the heart
    Bernie Sanders
    scored the highest across all age groups and political allegiances. It’s perhaps because he pivoted from Trump’s alleged misdeeds to kitchen-table issues of healthcare, climate change, housing and income inequality. He also challenged Congress to handle these issues in concert with impeachment, as it did during Clinton’s and Nixon’s tumultuous terms. Get Congress working: an idea everyone can get behind.
  2. Call it a comeback?
    Kamala Harris
    effectively tied Sondland’s testimony to what it means to everyday American people: that they pay harsh penalties for missing a rent or bill payment, often due to circumstances beyond their control, while the rich play by a different set of rules. This helped Harris beat Sanders in scores for both Wisdom and Wonder, but she earned lower scores from Republican and Independent voters. Still, small wins like this could breathe new life into her foundering campaign.
  3. Age-old appeal
    Elizabeth Warren
    , though still holding strong in the polls, didn’t wow. Instead of tying impeachment to everyday issues, she linked Sondland’s $1 million donation to Trump’s inauguration with her opponents’ campaign-finance practices. (Cue eyes glazing over.) While commentators like Graham appreciated this, viewers seemed not to. A bright spot, however: Warren scored highest among voters age 55 and up, a critical bloc.
  4. Details matter
    Mayor Pete Buttigieg
    , similar to Sanders and Harris, tried to move beyond impeachment to how he’ll address issues affecting everyday Americans. While his overall score was lackluster, that’s missing the point. He scored highest among voters age 18-38; and he had the second-highest total, behind Sanders, in two columns: Wisdom, among Democrats, as well as his overall score among Republicans. These stats, plus his appeal to the pundits, paint a rosy picture for Mayor Pete.
  5. Say it ain’t so
    Vice President Joe Biden
    , who normally fares well across the ideological spectrum, had a night to forget. While his overall performance was arguably his best so far, he stammered through his thoughts on the impeachment issue, which he raised in response to a question about working effectively with Republicans. This earned him the lowest marks among all five front-runners in the Delight, Wisdom and Wonder categories. More tellingly, he earned the lowest marks among Republicans, who normally buoy his overall score. The alarm bells should be going off.


The next Democratic debate, among only six candidates, takes place December 19 in Los Angeles.