The Democratic debate in Las Vegas on Wednesday night came at an important, even pivotal, time in the primary. Bernie Sanders’s strong results in Iowa and New Hampshire, Joe Biden’s national decline, and Bloomberg’s ad-fueled rise have shaken up the race — and everyone’s looking to take advantage.
The result was two of the most heated hours of the primary, starting with the opening criticisms of billionaire Mike Bloomberg. The feisty tone never really let up, leading to a series of aggressive attacks from one candidate to another rarely seen in the eight previous debates.
At this important time, some candidates did well, while others … well, they had a rougher night. Here’s our sense of who came out ahead and who lagged behind.
Winner: Elizabeth Warren
The Massachusetts senator had performed poorly in the first two primary contests, declined in the national polls, and faded into the background in the past few debates. It looked like her campaign was on death’s door.
It seems like Warren needs a miracle to save her campaign, and while strong debate performances haven’t always in the past translated into good polling, Wednesday night was still one hell of a start. Warren dominated the stage, delivering striking answers in one of the best performances I’ve seen from a presidential candidate — not just in this cycle, but ever.
It helped a lot that she was facing her perfect foil for her anti-oligarchy message in Mike Bloomberg, a billionaire (strike one) using his fortune to try to buy the primary through advertising (strike two), who also has a track record of treating his female employees poorly (strike three). She wasted no time in getting after him — this was literally the first thing she said:
I’d like to talk about who we’re running against: a billionaire who calls women “fat broads” and “horse-faced lesbians.” And no, I’m not talking about Donald Trump, I’m talking about Mayor Bloomberg.
Later in the debate, Warren grilled Bloomberg on his refusal to release women who have worked for him from nondisclosure agreements, showing off her questioning skills honed on the Senate floor. She got Bloomberg to say that “none of [the women] accuse me of doing anything other than maybe they didn’t like a joke I told” — which is practically admitting on national television that he created a hostile workplace for women.
Those weren’t Warren’s only standout moments. She had characteristically strong policy answers, strong hits on other candidates, and even a reasonably compelling defense of the other woman onstage (Amy Klobuchar) in a way that bolstered her feminist positioning. She owned the night — a vital first step toward making her campaign top-tier again.
Loser: Mike Bloomberg
Up until Wednesday, Bloomberg’s campaign had been a grand experiment. It eschewed the typical marks of a political campaign — public events, speeches, actual interactions with voters — in favor of an unprecedented ad blitz funded by the former mayor’s seemingly unlimited personal fortune. Bloomberg has spent more than $400 million of his own money on political ads. As my Vox colleague Ezra Klein noted, “if you ignore Tom Steyer, the other self-funding billionaire chasing the Democratic nomination, Bloomberg has spent more than three times as much as all the other Democratic candidates combined.”
The big question underlying Bloomberg’s campaign has been whether it’s possible to win the Democratic nomination — and potentially the presidency — by muscling out the competition with massive amounts of money. He arrived at the debate with a target on his chest and spent the evening taking incoming attacks.
When he got a chance to respond to Warren’s opening, he had no real answer, instead launching into a generic speech about how he can beat Trump because, among other things, Bloomberg is a “New Yorker.”
The harsh take on Bloomberg’s performance is that a billionaire seeking to paper over his record with truckloads of money is simply not the candidate Democrats are looking for in 2020. The more charitable take is that campaigning is a learned skill, and it’s hard to compete with five grizzled veterans if you’ve spent the bulk of the 2020 primary season buying ads. Whichever take you believe, Bloomberg had a terrible night.
Winner: Bernie Sanders
Bernie Sanders went into the debate as the frontrunner. He won the popular vote in Iowa and New Hampshire (Buttigieg narrowly beat him in delegates in the first contest and tied him in the second). He’s ahead by 10 points in the national polls, according to RealClearPolitics’ average of the polls. And he’s polling well in Nevada and South Carolina, the next two states to vote.
Nothing that happened at the Nevada debate really changed that. It’s not that Sanders did particularly well, but he didn’t do anything to lose his lead. With most of the attacks of the night focused on Bloomberg, and a lot of the attention directed toward the ongoing feud between Klobuchar and Buttigieg, Sanders managed to come out of the debate with few scrapes.
When he did face criticisms, Sanders handled them well — reiterating his message instead of getting bogged down in fights with other candidates. Asked whether his single-payer plan is realistic, he pivoted to his argument that the current health care system leaves hundreds of millions of Americans uninsured or underinsured and costs people way more than health care in other countries.
Asked if he’s polarizing, he argued that it shouldn’t be polarizing to speak “to the needs and the pain of a long-neglected working class.” Asked if his self-label of “socialist” could hurt him in the general election, he argued that “we have socialism for the very rich, rugged individualism for the poor.” Agree or disagree, using attacks to simply reiterate fairly popular talking points is a proven debate strategy.
It all added up to a performance that may not win Sanders many new supporters but at least isn’t likely to cost him existing ones. As the frontrunner, that’s enough of what he wants to see.
Rather than coalescing behind one candidate and focusing on Bernie Sanders, the moderate Democrats running for president have been fighting with each other. This night was no different.
Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar — who came in second and a surprisingly close third in votes, respectively, in the New Hampshire primary last week — kept that fight alive. The two clashed first when Klobuchar was asked about a recent interview during which she seemingly forgot the name of the Mexican president. Buttigieg pounced, pointing out that Klobuchar sits on Senate committees overseeing border security and trade and was “not able to speak to literally the first thing about the politics of the country to our south.”
“Are you trying to say that I’m dumb? Are you mocking me here, Pete?” Klobuchar said. Later, she pointed out that she — not Buttigieg — has won statewide races, including Republican congressional districts.
“I will say when you tried in Indiana, Pete, to run, what happened to you?” Klobuchar said. “You lost by over 20 points to someone who lost to my friend Joe Donnelly. So don’t tell me about experience.”
Later, Buttigieg went after Klobuchar again on immigration, in particular her past Senate vote to make English the national language (a vote she recently disavowed) and for voting to confirm Kevin McAleenan, Trump’s former US Customs and Border Protection commissioner, who oversaw the agency during the administration’s family separation policy. Klobuchar seemed, to put it mildly, not happy about Buttigieg putting her on the ropes again.
“I wish everyone was as perfect as you, Pete,” Klobuchar said, her voice dripping with sarcasm, before launching into a defense of her record. “I’m so proud of the work I’ve done on immigration reform. And you know what? You have not been in the arena doing that work. You’ve memorized a bunch of talking points and a bunch of things.”
Klobuchar and Buttigieg sharpening their attacks on each other might make for good television. But electorally, it may not amount to more than mutually assured destruction — especially in a diverse state like Nevada, where both candidates are struggling to connect with nonwhite voters. In the aftermath of Biden’s poor showings in Iowa and New Hampshire, one of them could be poised for a big breakout. The debate fighting didn’t allow either of them to shine.
Sanders, the progressive polling well among Latinos, sailed through the debate largely unchallenged. Buttigieg and Klobuchar tearing each other apart ultimately won’t elevate either one; Sanders benefits the most.
The 2020 Democratic field began as the most diverse in history; now it contains just one person of color — Rep. Tulsi Gabbard — and she failed to make it onto the Nevada debate stage. Instead, leading up to the first primaries where voters of color will get a say, viewers were left with a stage that was all white. It wasn’t particularly diverse in terms of age, socioeconomics (as Buttigieg pointed out), or background. It did feature two women and one gay man, but the dearth of diverse candidates meant the debate lacked pointed, personal responses to matters related to race and class in the few times they were brought up.
There was, for example, no Sen. Cory Booker to give Americans a personal view into the effects of redlining by talking, as he often did, about his parents’ struggles to buy their first home. Instead, Bloomberg said, “It came about because the people who took the mortgages, packaged them and others bought them. That’s where the disaster was.”
Beyond this absence of narratives that speak directly to the experiences and realities of Americans of color was a relative lack of discussion about issues that affect those Americans. Warren was an exception, mentioning how pollution disproportionately affects communities of color, advocating for historically black colleges and universities, and pledging support for child care workers of color. But much of the other discussion of people of color revolved around candidates being asked to defend their records on issues affecting nonwhite Americans.
Bloomberg was attacked over his support for New York’s unconstitutional stop-and-frisk program, and Amy Klobuchar was asked about her role in sentencing a black then-teenage boy to life in prison for a shooting he says he didn’t commit. The end of the debate did feature a question on immigration, but the response was dominated by Klobuchar and Buttigieg sparring about experience.
It shouldn’t take a candidate of color to be onstage for a debate to feature substantive discussions of race in America and the unique challenges people of color face, particularly when that debate is in Nevada, where 30 percent of the population is Latinx. But it seems that it does.
Loser: “Tough on crime” policies
Something remarkable happened at the debate: No one defended “tough on crime” policies — not even the people who actually implemented such policies in the past.
It began with Bloomberg’s record on policing. At the core of his approach as mayor was stop and frisk, which deployed police officially in an attempt to get guns and drugs off of the streets, but in reality disproportionately targeted minority communities for policing and hassled people of color on a daily basis.
Bloomberg has apologized for his support of stop and frisk. But in recent weeks, a 2015 video resurfaced in which he described his past support for stop and frisk in racist terms; he claimed that “95 percent of murders, murderers, and murder victims” were “male minorities 16 to 25,” and that you could “take the description, Xerox it, and pass it out to all cops.” He added, “We put all the cops in minority neighborhoods. Yes, that’s true. Why do we do it? Because that’s where all the crime is. And the way you get guns out of the kids’ hands is to throw them up against the wall and frisk them.”
Other candidates hit him hard for both the policy and his previous defense of it. Warren, in particular, called him out for not stating clearly in his apologies that the policy seemed to target minority communities: “It targeted communities of color. It targeted black and brown men from the beginning. And if you want to issue a real apology, then the apology has to start with the intent of the plan as it was put together and the willful ignorance day by day by day of admitting what was happening even as people protested in your streets, shutting out the sounds of people telling you how your own policy was breaking their lives.”
Bloomberg apologized again: “If I go back and look at my time in office, the one thing that I’m really worried about, embarrassed about, was how it turned out with stop and frisk.”
Later on, Klobuchar faced questions about her prosecution of Myon Burrell, a black teen accused of murder, when she was the top prosecutor in Hennepin County, Minnesota. The question, though, wasn’t about whether Klobuchar was too lenient on Burrell, but if she was too tough — leading to the incarceration of a potentially innocent person. Klobuchar said she supported further investigation into the case if necessary.
These moments reflect the massive shift in crime politics in just the past two decades. It wasn’t too long ago that both parties were actively supporting draconian criminal justice approaches. It was Democrats, particularly Biden, that led the charge on the 1994 crime bill, which critics say led to harsher prison sentences, more prison cells, and more aggressive policing.
But in the era of Black Lives Matter, the candidates on the Democratic stage weren’t just distancing themselves from these policies but harshly criticizing and even apologizing for them. It’s a notable turnaround from just several years ago.
Grab your popcorn, everyone.
The Nevada debate was a far cry from a two-hour snoozefest. The gloves were fully off from the starting question, during which each candidate took a turn roasting Bloomberg before going after each other.
The barbs were plentiful. From Warren pointing out that Bloomberg had once allegedly called women “fat broads” and “horse-faced lesbians” to Klobuchar looking at Buttigieg and asking, “Are you trying to say that I’m dumb?” to Sanders and Bloomberg squabbling over the Vermont senator’s summer camp, there was clearly no love lost between many of the candidates after Iowa and New Hampshire raised the stakes significantly.
And unlike the 2016 Republican debates, which were entertaining and watchable but also petty and personal, some of the most fiery moments were also on substantive issues, like the role of money in politics (personified by Bloomberg’s presence on the stage), and some candidates’ records on immigration (which prompted a heated exchange between Klobuchar and Buttigieg).
It’s too early to tell which candidates were boosted by the debate. But boy, it was entertaining television.