January’s Democratic debate could wind up being the most important of the 2020 primary. It’s the final face-off between candidates before the Iowa caucuses on February 3, the results of which will likely jumble the field ahead of primaries and caucuses in New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina, and California.
Winning Iowa turned John Kerry and Barack Obama from underdogs into frontrunners in 2004 and 2008, respectively, and it could do the same for one of the six candidates who debated on Tuesday — especially if the victor is someone other than former Vice President Joe Biden.
Any one of Biden, Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg could be ahead in the state, depending on the polling you believe, and with the race that close, a standout performance on Tuesday night could tip the scales to the eventual victor.
The debate was not an especially flashy event with a runaway winner. But here’s our best guess as to who left the night worse off, and who heads to the caucuses with the wind at their back.
Winner: Bernie Sanders
An Iowa win might very well propel Sanders to the nomination. He’s already very well positioned narrowly behind Biden in New Hampshire and leads in California.
And while there wasn’t one breakout winner in Tuesday’s debate, Sanders had a great night. He solidly owned discussions of health care and climate change, and he solidified his status, recently regained from Warren, as the leading voice of the party’s left.
There were several high points. He and Warren elegantly defused their conflict about comments Sanders supposedly made in 2018 about women presidential candidates; he also hammered home his antiwar credentials against the formerly pro-Iraq War Biden.
Particularly impressive, though, was Sanders’s ability to continually return the discussion to climate change. It would have been a mistake to let Tom Steyer own the issue, especially if that’s part of the reason for Steyer’s surprisingly strong polling in early states, and Sanders did not cede the issue.
He even refused to let it go when asked about topics nominally unrelated to climate. Asked about the new US-Canada-Mexico free trade agreement, he explained: “Every major environmental organization has said no to this new trade agreement because it does not even have the phrase ‘climate change’ in it. And given the fact that climate change is right now the greatest threat facing this planet, I will not vote for a trade agreement that does not incorporate very, very strong principles to significantly lower fossil fuel emissions in the world.”
And he connected it to Iowa’s farming industry directly, “The drought here in Iowa is going to make it harder for farmers to produce the food that we need.”
Climate change is the second-most-important issue to Democratic voters, according to Pew, narrowly behind health care. And Sanders commanded the issue on Tuesday. It contributed to a strong overall performance that puts him in a good position as we head to the Iowa caucuses.
Winner: Pete Buttigieg
If Buttigieg has a real shot at the Democratic nomination, it runs through Iowa. The state has long been his strongest, and at least one recent poll found him tied for first, with the others putting him not far behind.
And while it was close, and all four top candidates had fine nights, I think Buttigieg narrowly put up the best performance of the group.
Let’s break it down. The night began with a discussion of foreign policy, which arguably should be Buttigieg’s weakest area. Being mayor of the fourth-largest city in Indiana does not exactly make you Talleyrand. And the moderators explicitly framed the discussion as a challenge to Buttigieg, asking Sen. Amy Klobuchar, “You’ve publicly questioned Mayor Buttigieg’s experience when it comes to being commander in chief. Why is your time as a US senator more valuable than his time as a US naval intelligence officer in Afghanistan and as mayor?”
But Buttigieg more than held his own, deftly reframing his lack of experience with a more forward-looking response: “The next president is going to be confronted with national security challenges different in scope and in kind from anything we’ve seen before,” he countered. “Not just conventional military challenges, not just stateless terrorism, but cybersecurity challenges, climate security challenges, foreign interference in our elections.”
Translation: Your experience is not relevant, or at least not more relevant than mine.
Another strong moment was his answer on health care, bragging that his public option plan, while milder than Medicare-for-all, would be the “biggest thing we’ve achieved on health care in the last half-century.” It made his platform seem measured yet somehow bold and visionary at the same time. I don’t know if I buy it, but it was persuasive in the moment.
His performance wasn’t spotless; his answer on his lack of black support was awkward and underlined the struggles he’ll face once the primaries move on from lily-white states like Iowa and New Hampshire.
But Sanders and Warren will likely be holed up in Washington before the Iowa caucuses, focusing on the impeachment trial of President Trump. That gives otherwise unemployed candidates like Biden and Buttigieg an opportunity, and Buttigieg’s debate performance was him seizing that opportunity.
Winner: Brianne Pfannenstiel
The Des Moines Register chief political correspondent who co-moderated the debate isn’t a household name. But she distinguished herself, putting on a better performance than the well-known television journalists with whom she shared the table.
Meet Brianne Pfannenstiel. She's one of the co-moderators of tonight's #DemDebate and the chief political reporter for The Des Moines Register, the Iowa newspaper with an outsize role in picking presidents. https://t.co/kJg5Q09K3K— The New York Times (@nytimes) January 15, 2020
Pfannenstiel took over questioning half an hour into the debate, after CNN’s Wolf Blitzer and Abby Phillip had conducted an anemic and un-illuminating segment on foreign policy. Her question to Sanders on the USMCA trade deal (a.k.a. NAFTA 2.0) set up the stakes in an interesting way:
Sen. Sanders, you have said that new deal, the USMCA “makes some modest improvements,” yet you are going to vote against it. Aren’t modest improvements better than no improvements for the farmers and manufacturers who have been devastated here in Iowa?
Sanders’s defense of his position — essentially, that modest improvements aren’t good enough, particularly given environmentalist opposition to the deal — led to a very interesting short exchange with Warren, who supports the deal, that was essentially over how left-progressives should think about this. It was the kind of discussion that actually informed viewers, and it owed a fair amount to Pfannenstiel’s direction.
When you compare her lines of questioning to what you saw from the other hosts — particularly Wolf Blitzer, whose questions sent the foreign policy section spinning into pointlessness — it’s hard not to come away both impressed and reminded of the value of local journalism (which, incidentally, is in crisis as an industry).
Plus, she’s important representation for people with tough-to-pronounce last names — a cause that’s near and dear to my heart.
Winner: Warren and Sanders on a woman president
Warren and Sanders entered the debate in the midst of a bitter conflict: Warren said that in 2018, Sanders told her a woman couldn’t win the presidency in 2020. Sanders denies he ever said this, and the fight, some worried, would sow division among progressives and benefit centrist Joe Biden — and possibly President Trump. But when they were asked about it on Tuesday, both candidates focused attention back on their strengths.
Warren made the point that when it comes to winning elections, she and Sen. Amy Klobuchar actually have a better record than some of their male opponents: “The only people on this stage who have won every single election that they’ve been in are the women: Amy and me.” (Tom Steyer, a hedge fund billionaire, has been in zero elections.)
Later, she noted the importance of women candidates and voters in delivering the House and state legislatures around the country for Democrats in 2018. And she offered a clear and concise argument for herself as the woman and person to beat Trump in 2020: “We need a candidate who will excite all parts of the Democratic Party, bring everyone in, and give everyone a Democrat to believe in. That’s my plan, and that is why I’m going to win.”
Sanders, meanwhile, was in the difficult position of defending himself against allegations of sexism while also arguing that he, a man, would be the best choice for president. His hair-splitting with Warren over how many years it’s been since he beat a Republican wasn’t particularly compelling, but he finished out his argument strongly, pointing out that Hillary Clinton actually won the popular vote in 2016. And, like Warren, he gave a clear statement of why he was the best choice of nominee, “The only way we beat Trump is by a campaign of energy and excitement and a campaign that has, by far, the largest voter turnout in the history of this country.”
Ultimately, Warren and Sanders entered the debate in a fight that seemed unwinnable, over a question that’s based on biased assumptions. Both not only repudiated flawed notions of “electability” but also focused attention on their campaigns’ core messages. It was a win for everyone.
Loser: Tom Steyer
There is one question surrounding Tom Steyer’s presence at Tuesday’s debate: Why?
Steyer isn’t going to win the nomination. He’s polling in the single digits nationally, and there isn’t a single state, based on the RealClearPolitics polling average, where he breaks the top three. He only clinched the polls he needed to qualify for this debate in the past week. After multiple debates — most of them with Steyer participating — his poor support has shown few signs of changing.
At the same time, Steyer hasn’t really claimed an issue that makes him feel necessary in the 2020 race.
Although he has argued that he’s the candidate of climate change, that hasn’t caught on in the way it did for Washington Gov. Jay Inslee when he was in the race — in large part because Steyer has done a poor job at these debates of articulating what is so different about his vision for global warming compared to the other candidates on the stage who have also made sweeping proposals during their presidential campaigns.
Some of his answers also came off as random. When asked about tariffs, he went on about how he’s the climate candidate and the threat of global warming. When asked about health care, he talked about term limits.
(And while it’s not the most important thing in the world, Steyer also has a habit of staring directly at the camera, instead of at the moderators and the other candidates, when he’s answering a question. That may net his campaign better video clips from the debate, but it’s kind of unnerving.)
There just weren’t any moments in which Steyer broke out — and that’s what he needs from debates above all else. Without that moment, the question remains: Why is he here?
Loser: Wolf Blitzer’s impeachment questions
The impeachment of President Trump isn’t a topic that sheds much light on interesting differences among the Democratic candidates; they all support it, and it has nothing to do with how they’d act as president. For that reason, previous debate moderators have tended to avoid it. But Blitzer did choose to turn to it late Tuesday — and the questions he chose were abysmal.
Blitzer led by saying that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would send the impeachment articles to the Senate Wednesday but that the Republican-controlled chamber “has signaled that it is likely to acquit him.” So he asked his first question: “Vice President Biden, if you’re the nominee, is it going to be harder to run against President Trump if he’s been acquitted and able to claim vindication, especially after what he’s said about your family?”
It was an insipid question. It didn’t relate to anything any of the candidates onstage can control — Trump’s fate is in the hands of Senate Republicans, not them. It was suffused in the thinking of horse race punditry, with the framing around whether this thing Democrats can’t control will make it “harder to run against” Trump. And it was irrelevant to the substantive matters at hand, such as, is Trump actually guilty, and is what he’s saying about Biden actually true?
After an unrevealing answer, Blitzer turned to Klobuchar. “Do you worry President Trump will be emboldened by acquittal?” he asked. Again, the framing was bizarre, as if Blitzer thought the candidates were running for pundit-in-chief. (Klobuchar pivoted to talk about the importance of calling witnesses and the Army–Joseph McCarthy hearings.)
Then, after a brief exchange with Steyer (Blitzer asked whether funding the “Need to impeach” drive was a mistake given Trump’s likely acquittal, and Steyer said no), it was Warren’s turn for an impeachment horse race question. The trial would keep her in Washington a lot before the Iowa caucuses, Blitzer said: “How big of a problem is that for you as you’re making your closing pitch to voters here?”
Now, the Senate trial is indeed an annoyance to the Democratic senators running for president. But this campaign logistics question hardly seemed worthy of airtime in the final debate before Iowa.
Loser: Puerto Rico
Candidates called for better disaster preparedness as part of their discussion of climate policy on Tuesday night, with Buttigieg saying that the next president should “make sure communities are resilient” in the case of natural disasters.
But the candidates neglected to mention Puerto Rico, which has been wracked by unceasing earthquakes over the past two weeks. It’s also still suffering from the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, which killed almost 3,000 people in 2017, and is mired in a $70 billion debt crisis.
The island has been hit with more than 1,280 earthquakes since December 28, including dozens of magnitude 4.5 or more, according to the US Geological Survey. More than one million Puerto Ricans lost power due to substantial damage to the island’s main power plant. Over 550 homes have been destroyed and more than 2,000 Puerto Ricans are living in shelters.
The lack of discussion of Puerto Rico’s state of crisis drew criticism from leaders in the Latino community, including Latino Victory, a political action committee that supports Latino candidates, and Voto Latino, a group aimed at increasing Latino turnout.
Candidates are talking about climate change, yet they haven't uttered a word about Puerto Rico.— Voto Latino (@votolatino) January 15, 2020
It's insane how much pain and suffering our people in Puerto Rico have endured, yet no one is talking about PR. #DemDebate
The Trump administration has withheld disaster relief funding from Puerto Rico without explanation. On Tuesday, Senate Democrats wrote a letter to President Trump urging him to disburse $8.3 billion in such funds, writing that there is “no substantive reason to withhold this congressionally mandated disaster aid for our fellow Americans.”