It’s up to the voters now. Tuesday’s debate was Iowans’ last chance to see the Democratic primary contestants compete onstage before the caucuses on Feb. 3, and that time will be even more precious for the candidates who will be sidelined the next few vital weeks by an impeachment trial in the Senate. But despite the stakes—or possibly because of them—the night didn’t include as many fireworks as pundits expected.
We asked 16 experts, insiders, activists and political professionals for their analysis—who won, who lost, what’s changed. They told us that a pregame blowup between the Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders campaigns was left unresolved, but both are probably better for it; Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg were notably restrained, which is either good or bad, depending on whom you ask; Amy Klobuchar was solid, but maybe more vice presidential than presidential; and everyone is still wondering why Tom Steyer was there.
The field is narrowing. It was the smallest stage of the primary campaign thus far. But with recent polling in the first-in-the-nation state showing a near dead heat at the top, it’s still anyone’s game among the frontrunners. Read on for our experts’ insights.
‘The best the Democratic candidates can do is quibble politely with one another?’
Jacob Heilbrunn is the editor of the National Interest.
It was a good night for two New York billionaires, Donald Trump and Mike Bloomberg, who can only be chortling over the soporific nature of a debate that was barely one at all. The Democratic field ended up impeaching itself. Warren was composed but uninspiring and Biden faltering until his brief, final remarks. Buttigieg, the most facile of the bunch, looked as though he was comatose for much of the evening. In the end, Biden won the debate by default. But good grief: At a moment when the president’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani was apparently consorting with a Republican flack who had the American ambassador to Ukraine under surveillance and was musing about whacking her, the best the Democratic candidates can do is quibble politely with one another about soybeans and a “Medicare for All” proposal that will never see the light of day?
‘This year, Dems don’t much like attacks on other Dems’
Larry J. Sabato is the founder and director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics and is a contributing editor at POLITICO Magazine.
A forgettable debate. No one’s fortunes were made or smashed by anything that happened, no matter what pundits may claim. Mainly, the candidates played to type and reinforced the images they already had.
I’ve spent 45 years grading, and I rarely give As or Fs, so here goes:
Sanders and Warren each get a B. Many of Sanders’ lines were oldies but goodies, delivered with genuine passion that his base loves. But nothing that expands his base. Warren was crisp and gave policy-rich answers for the most part. However, maybe there’s grand strategy behind the tiff with Bernie (consolidate liberals) but the “he said-she said” on whether a woman can win the White House is unresolvable unless there’s a tape. This year, Dems don’t much like attacks on other Dems.
Biden gets a B minus. Same strategy as before: Sit back, let others quarrel, hope viewers see you as the only one who can win. He had a strong finish, for those who were still watching.
Buttigieg also gets a B minus. As always, smooth, polished answers—almost too polished. Articulate, but rarely eloquent—his Iran response was the exception. At heart is a problem that won’t go away: the lack of top-level experience, accented by his very youthful appearance. Also, he had no convincing answer about how he’s going to attract African-American votes. After 91 percent-white Iowa and 93 percent-white New Hampshire, this will matter enormously.
Klobuchar is between a B minus and a C plus. She’s a good debater overall, knows what she wants to say and finds a way to insert it. But she wasn’t as good as she was in the December debate, and she can’t shake the impression many have that she’s a backup candidate in the moderate lane. Maybe a VP pick.
Steyer gets a C. It’s one thing to look great in expensive TV spots that are aired more frequently than erectile dysfunction ads. It’s quite another to out-debate five politicians who have been on the public stage for decades. He didn’t.
Now that the DNC has managed to reduce the field dramatically, can we please do away with this awful format? Instead, have the candidates sit at a roundtable with a moderator whose sole job is to introduce topics and equalize time. Let the candidates take it from there.
‘If you liked Biden or Warren or Sanders going in, you probably liked them two hours later’
Jennifer Lawless is a professor of politics at the University of Virginia whose research focuses on political ambition, campaigns and elections, and media and politics.
With only six candidates on the stage, voters finally had an opportunity to hear each contender speak about many issues—Iran, North Korea, health care, child care, education, climate change, to name just a handful. They also saw candidates spar over whether millionaires’ kids should have to pay for public college, U.S. troops should remain in the Middle East or a female candidate could defeat Donald Trump. Given the wide-ranging ground the candidates covered and the fact that there’s no clear frontrunner in Iowa, we might be tempted to conclude that Tuesday night’s debate really mattered. But it probably didn’t, for three basic reasons.
First, the debate was pretty boring. The candidates decided not to take the bait, so they avoided major fireworks and personal attacks. Look no further than Warren’s decision not to call Sanders out for denying that he told her a woman couldn’t be elected president. A substantive debate that covers a wide variety of domestic and foreign policy issues is great for democracy, but just not that interesting to the American people or the media. So right off the bat, it’s likely that in a week, or even in a day, most people will be hard-pressed to recall any specific statement any of the candidates made.
Second, it’s unlikely that voters learned anything new about the candidates’ positions, temperament or experience. Viewers were treated to two hours of questions about policy, electability and vision for the future. But there were no surprises. As a result, if you liked Biden or Warren or Sanders going in, you probably liked them two hours later. If you were a Klobuchar or Buttigieg fan at 9 p.m., you still were at 11 p.m.
Third, next week’s impeachment trial looms large over the three senators on the stage. This is important because Sanders, Warren and Klobuchar will spend a chunk of the next 20 days in Washington, rather than in Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Decorah or Waterloo. So regardless of their performances Tuesday night—Warren and Klobuchar were especially solid—they can’t use them to build much momentum from 1,000 miles away. On the other hand, Biden has three weeks to make voters forget his lackluster performance (powerful closing statement notwithstanding). And Buttigieg has three weeks to try to reclaim the lead based on his steadiness and competence on the debate stage.
Combine all these dynamics and the debate did little more than maintain the status quo.
‘Few punches were even thrown let alone landed’
Michael Steele is a political commentator, host of The Michael Steele Podcast and a former chairman of the Republican National Committee.
Tuesday night’s Democratic debate was not necessarily for “us” but rather for Iowans. Well, it should have been. Each candidate attempted to do what was necessary (yes, even Steyer) to begin building toward that 15 percent threshold needed to get delegates or at least be somebody’s second choice. Some were a bit better at it than others (e.g., Klobuchar and Buttigieg), and they each had a moment, but few punches were even thrown let alone landed except for the moment when Warren essentially emasculated her male opponents: “Look at the men on this stage. Collectively they have lost 10 elections. The only people on this stage who have won every single election that they’ve been in are the women.” Ouch.
Even with that, I don’t see this taking too much off the numbers for any one candidate, which should have been the first order of business three weeks out from the Iowa caucuses, so Tuesday night was largely a draw. No one seemed too interested in taking out their nearest opponent (remember: the top four are tightly bunched together), and consequently the candidates wound up playing it safe. Even in the exchange between Warren and Sanders on whether a woman can be elected president, with no follow-up by the CNN moderator, both candidates were content with the “he said-she said” narrative—leaving unresolved whether Sanders was lying when he said he didn’t say it, or Warren was trying to create a moment when she said he did. It didn’t help that she refused to shake Bernie’s hand at the end. Advantage: Biden.
It’s Sanders versus Biden.
Michael Starr Hopkins is a Democratic strategist who has served on the presidential campaigns of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Delaney.
On a night when many expected fireworks, viewers got anything but. A smaller stage certainly benefited the candidates on stage, but won’t do much to change the minds of voters. Sanders and Warren played around the edges but never actually threw or landed any punches on each other. Warren needed to win over Sanders voters to stand any chance at winning the Iowa caucuses. Unfortunately for her, Sanders seemed to do enough to keep her at bay. Warren and Sanders will continue to split the voters they both need to defeat Biden and win the nomination. At this moment, only Sanders looks like he has the momentum to pose a real challenge to Biden. Sanders and Biden look destined to face off in a one-on-one battle to become the nominee of the Democratic Party.
Madam Vice President?
Sophia A. Nelson is an American author, political strategist, opinion writer and former House Republican Committee counsel.
The two women left standing stood tall Tuesday night. Warren and Klobuchar were the clear winners, the men were underwhelming and Biden was just not where he needed to be. He did no harm, but he scored no points. Biden is still my top choice, because when all is said and done, I know exactly what I’m going to get: No drama, a good statesman, a great first lady, a strong player on the world stage, Obama’s wingman.
Sanders is passionate, but I continue to believe he is too far left for the center-right nation that America is. I think that Mayor Pete—well, actually former mayor, as his term is now ended—was good, but not quite good enough to best Warren and Klobuchar. As for Steyer, he seems like a sincere man, but he does not belong on that debate stage simply because he can buy his way there.
But can a woman win? I do not think in the sexist, mean, hateful, unkind, uncouth age of Trump that America will elect a woman president; but I do think we are ready for a Vice President Warren, Klobuchar or Harris.
Painful to watch.
Liz Mair is a Republican campaign communications consultant.
Biden won (barely). The entire viewership and, really, America as a whole lost. It was a truly terrible debate, despite good questions from the moderators. I think after this, the Steyer vanity exercise fizzles out, Klobuchar fades and we probably move closer to a Biden-Bernie showdown with Warren having royally pissed off the Sandernistas and Buttigieg cementing his viable VP choice status. It’s probably good that the Bloomberg team engaged in some odd Twitter behavior since it gave pundits something to watch that was less painful than what was on TV.
A win for progressives.
Dan Lavoie is a progressive communications strategist.
This wasn’t the debate that cable TV wanted. But it was exactly the debate that progressive Democrats had hoped for.
What was billed as a looming clash between Warren and Sanders turned, instead, into a platform for the two most left-leaning candidates of my lifetime to shine—and show what a truly progressive American agenda could look and feel like.
Warren and Sanders brought the most to the podium all night—the best lines, the most well-articulated ideas and the most charm. The rest of the candidates, meanwhile, faded into the background, hemmed in by scripted zingers or lost in a fog of half-remembered policy pitches. There was even a period where I legitimately forgot Mayor Pete was onstage at all.
Meanwhile, Warren and Sanders were crisp and hopeful and—except for one bizarre exchange about whether 1990 was actually 30 years ago—supportive of each other. If you came into the night undecided (as many, many early-state Democrats are) it’s hard to see the case for a bumbling Biden, a don’t-dream-too-big Klobuchar or a too-scripted Buttigieg. But if you like forceful passion in your politics, Bernie brought a heaping plateful. And if you like smart, bold, empathetic policies served up with a soft Oklahoma twang, Warren’s got you covered.
Warren and Sanders were the night’s clear leaders and both should feel good heading into the caucuses. But if I had to choose a single winner, Warren edged ahead in her closing statement with perhaps the best line of the night: “I come here tonight with a heart filled with hope.” We knew she was smart. We knew she was a fighter. And now we know she’s a happy warrior. That mix worked well for Barack Obama in the 2008 Iowa caucuses. We may see a repeat in 20 days.
‘Women are absolutely electable’
Amanda Litman is the co-founder and executive director of Run for Something.
Reality check: The debates will continue to change absolutely nothing about this race except to the extent that the candidates are able to raise money off them. Even if someone gets a slight polling bump, it won’t last into the caucuses.
That said, Warren made a compelling case that if past is prologue, women are absolutely electable—and even better, she did it while lifting up Klobuchar, the other woman on the stage. If that’s the only moment that lasts past the debate, I hope it inspires even more women to consider putting their names on the ballot, too.
‘The clear winner is Biden’
Michelle Bernard is a political analyst, lawyer, author and president and CEO of the Bernard Center for Women, Politics & Public Policy.
Anne O’Hare McCormick, the renowned foreign news correspondent and a woman ahead of her time, once said: “The real test of power is not capacity to make war, but capacity to prevent it.” It is through this lens that I believe many Americans viewed Tuesday night’s Democratic presidential debate. Foreign policy and what U.S.-Iranian relations will look like in 2020 and beyond were the only issues of any consequence.
If I were a betting woman, I would argue that in the wake of the killing earlier this month of General Qassem Soleimani in a U.S. drone strike, Iran’s subsequent attack of the Ayn Al Asad airbase in Iraq and the threat of a looming war with Iran, most Americans couldn’t care less whether Sanders told Warren that a woman can’t be elected as president of the United States. This sentiment probably goes equally for women and men.
In this time, when Americans worry about the possibility of a retaliatory strike by Iran or war, raising this issue looked like throwing spaghetti at the wall, hoping it would stick and that American women would look at Sanders as a buffoon and cast their ballots for Warren simply to prove him wrong and punish him.
For any American woman whose only 2020 concern is to elect a woman as the next president of the United States, Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss is more than enough reason to cast a ballot for Warren or Klobuchar, the two women on Tuesday night’s debate stage. What was said between Warren and Sanders in a private meeting will not be the issue that gets a woman elected in 2020.
At this moment in time, there are more important questions that transcend any voting gender gap. Who will keep us safe? Who will protect our nation and our democracy? Who will protect the lives of our troops? Who will protect our sons and daughters from an unnecessary war with Iran? Who has the foreign policy experience, ego and self-restraint necessary to prevent an unnecessary war? Looking through this lens, the clear winner is Biden. In this unfortunate era of zealotry both in the White House and in Iran, Biden’s calm and professorial demeanor was soothing. He was the dignified, restrained and highly knowledgeable foreign-policy statesman that the country yearns for. Biden was the candidate who appeared to have the best capacity to prevent war. In the scope of things, nothing else mattered.
‘The women prevailed’
Alan Schroeder is a professor in the school of journalism at Northeastern University in Boston. Schroeder is the author of several books, including Presidential Debates: Risky Business on the Campaign Trail.
This is an easy call: The women prevailed. Warren, whose execution in these first seven debates has been erratic, consistently hit her marks. At her best, she comes across as an inspiring teacher whose straightforward intelligence seems almost contagious. It was this side of Warren that was on display in Des Moines.
Of all the candidates, Klobuchar appears most at home on the debate stage. She has cracked the code of TV debates, striking just the right balance between policy chops and affable delivery. Klobuchar projects a remarkably sympathetic persona as a debater, which is a tough thing for any politician to do in this cynical age. Let us note that vice presidential candidates are often selected with an eye toward their potential as general election debaters—in this regard, the senator from Minnesota has done herself a world of good, not just with the Iowa debate but throughout the series.
It was not a stellar night for Biden, who seemed to be marking time as much as engaging in the exercise at hand. Sanders performed more crisply in the first half of the debate than later on. Buttigieg is never less than nimble, never less than articulate, yet bright as he is, he has not found a way to shoehorn these strengths into the particular vehicle of a live television debate, even as the calendar closes in.
Vanity candidate Steyer was granted way too much airtime in this debate. Moderators are under no obligation to give equal treatment to a candidate who has purchased his way into the arena. Steyer’s presence served mainly to give the other debaters, not to mention viewers at home, a chance to collect their thoughts whenever he got called upon to speak. May this be the last time his personal treasure chest affords him such a platform.
More than any previous debate in this cycle, the six-way duel in Des Moines made clear that Democrats are a party of paradox. On the one hand, progressives such as Warren and Sanders joust with moderates such as Biden, Buttigieg and Klobuchar over how far-reaching and expensive their desired changes in the economy and the expansion of the welfare state would and should be. On the other hand, all the candidates agree on the major goals the federal government should pursue; and even the most modest of their agendas, if enacted, would make the country a far more egalitarian, environmentally responsible and decent society than it is now. As if to prove that point, Steyer, the only candidate on stage who has no chance to win the nomination, kept stating how much he agreed with one opponent after another.
If winning debates led inevitably to winning the race, Hillary Clinton would now be planning her reelection campaign. But Warren probably had the best performance Tuesday night because she made a calm, articulate case for how she might be able to unify a party of diverse constituencies, in which mutual mistrust can run high. Deciding to run on her identity as a woman gave her the best line of the night. Meanwhile, her septuagenarian male rivals stuck to their familiar talking points: Sanders thundered against the “greed and corruption” that he believes keep working people from achieving the social democratic (not “socialist”) order they deserve, while Biden kept reminding people about the last government job he had and vowed, rather haltingly, that he can heal a nation that Donald Trump has done his worst to keep divided. If recent polls are correct, the two white-haired gentlemen are leading the now diminished pack. But over half of Democrats remain uncertain about which candidate they think can win and thus which one they can support. If Warren managed to make this majority begin to see her as a practical alternative to Bernie/Biden, the debate could be a meaningful one after all.
‘The race is still Biden’s to lose, and he’s not losing’
Jennifer Victor is a professor of political science at George Mason University, a co-editor of the Oxford Handbook of Political Networks and a member of the board of directors of the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics.
This final Democratic debate before the Iowa caucuses showed these six remaining candidates to be skilled and informed debaters. As the field has narrowed and the stakes raised, it seemed likely that we might see some fireworks or direct attacks Tuesday night, but they never really materialized. Candidates were direct, polite and downright adult-like as they fielded questions on foreign policy, trade, health care, climate change and more. The journalist moderators asked aggressive questions and enforced the time limits ruthlessly.
The race is still Biden’s to lose, and he’s not losing. No candidate made major blunders; however, there were some sharp distinctions drawn between some candidates. Warren and Sanders sparred directly on gender equality, although it came across as more of a difference in what each of them remembered than an actual difference of opinion. Steyer’s lack of experience in political office was apparent in his answers. Buttigieg appeared noticeably younger than the rest of the field, especially during the questions about international affairs, perhaps because he’s had less experience. Overall, the field has narrowed and sharpened, and is about ready to face voters.
‘No one has a theory of how to pull down Biden’s consistently high numbers’
Sean McElwee is a writer, data analyst and co-founder of the progressive think tank Data for Progress.
Right now, no one has a theory of how to pull down Biden’s consistently high numbers. There is a real chance he closes this out before progressive voters coalesce around one candidate. No one is saying Warren and Sanders shouldn’t disagree, but right now these disagreements aren’t advancing discourse on the progressive issues and policies that matter.
The climate group Sunrise got a much deserved shoutout. However the debate plays out, the 2020 Democratic nominee will be held to a high standard on the climate crisis and equity in climate plans in the general election.
Progressives broached the electability conversation, and discussing issues like affordable drugs is the exact way to do it. The biggest threat to Biden is that his moderate instincts prevent him from going big on populist issues like affordable drugs that have delivered consistent wins for Democrats.
Candidates of color were missed.
L. Joy Williams is a political strategist and consultant, the creator and host of the podcast Sunday Civics, and the chair of Higher Heights for America PAC.
For a national televised debate, the limited focus on issues is emblematic of how the current Democratic primary process limits the voices of its most consistent voters. The fact that none of the candidates brought up the lack of diversity on the stage and that moderators did not lean into issues relevant to that base, makes me fear the road ahead. It makes me fear that, absent a leading candidate of color, our issues—or the racial context of issues like health care, housing and the economy—will be relegated to surrogate speeches in targeted radio spots and at get-out-the-vote rallies in October.
The standout moment from the debate will obviously be the exchange between Sanders and Warren and her point on the electability of women. But the opportunity to make women—the key to a Democratic general election victory—the central focus of this debate was missed. Women outperformed at the polls in 2018 and were responsible for the majority of flipped House and gubernatorial seats. Turnout among black women in particular is key to Democratic wins. Yet our issues have been left on the table.
I don’t believe Tuesday night’s debate significantly changed any minds or won new voters for any of the campaigns. We’ve reached a point in the contest where people who have made their choice are doubling down and donning a cape to defend their candidate from any and all attacks, while others have a first and second choice and will make a decision when they arrive at their polling site. Sadly, for a number of voters in later states, their choice will be influenced by the winner of the first—less-diverse—contest.
‘A tame, play-it-safe affair’
Charles Ellison is a political strategist and talk-radio host.
We entered the first Democratic primary debate of 2020 and the last before the early primaries with an all-white cast that would put even the Oscars to shame. But no one should be surprised. What did folks expect? Does an electorate so dipped in an icy political climate of uncertainty, chaos and fear really want to gamble with something that feels or looks new, or would it rather go with the simple, superficial racial notions it’s always known? To contain the damage, candidates gave “Black and Brown” their shoutouts, and the white women on stage hyped up how much they’ve won. But that only catches the attention of those on social media and the people watching around the nation. Not so much in very white Iowa.
Candidates still stumbled on health care, struggled to just say “Affordable Care Act,” and continued making the issue unnecessarily complex and voters much more nervous.
Meanwhile, a much smaller pack of fighters in the MMA ring allowed more space for a flurry of nasty elbow strikes—but, those didn’t happen. This was a tame, play-it-safe affair. Candidates were disciplined in awkward pivots to keep the mission on defeating Trump. The highly anticipated brawl between Sanders and Warren was corny snark over campaign trail gossip. Warren might have been solid; Sanders seems increasingly exasperated; both forgot to mention Trump in their closing remarks, as if that doesn’t matter. Biden tried maintaining an elder-statesman-above-the-fray stance, fumbled around at the start, but finally found his stride. Steyer went for the simple approach, emphasizing his experience outside Washington. Buttigieg was more restrained and less on the prowl for exposed pressure points. Klobuchar was constantly stealing time off the moderator clock and overdoing it in the red. Ultimately, this debate probably didn’t change much.