Thirteen quick takes on the November Democratic debate

With four presidential contenders packed closely together at the top of the field and a majority of Democratic voters not yet committed to a candidate, televised debates could make or break several campaigns between now and the February 3 Iowa caucuses. As Dan Guild discussed here, debates have fueled breakouts for some lower-polling candidates in past election cycles.

If you missed the fifth Democratic debate on November 20, you can read the full transcript here. My thoughts on the evening in Atlanta:

1. The four moderators did very well. Andrea Mitchell, Rachel Maddow, Kristen Welker, and Ashley Parker asked substantive questions and raised topics not covered in previous debates, such as reproductive rights, housing, and paid family leave. They allowed some back-and-forth between candidates without losing control of the dialogue. They managed the clock fairly; while leaders appropriately had more opportunities to speak than long-shots, the imbalance in speaking times was less extreme than in the earlier debates.

2. No one made a catastrophic mistake. Joe Biden was his usual self, but I didn’t hear any campaign-ending stumbles on the level of Rick Perry’s mental malfunction during the November 2011 Republican debate.

Taking the rest of the candidates in descending order by speaking time, according to the Washington Post:

3. The champion high school debater Elizabeth Warren continues to be extremely effective in this format. Not only is she well-versed on the issues, she almost always ties the matter at hand to her central campaign message: the need for “big, structural change” to combat the political corruption blocking progress. Facing criticism of her tax and health care proposals, she articulated strong rebuttals. Her closing statement was the best of the night, which is saying something, because several of her competitors were solid in that department too. I doubt anyone leaning toward Warren would change their minds after this debate.

Here’s that closing statement:

4. Pete Buttigieg turned in a strong performance as well. He didn’t face the onslaught one might expect after Selzer’s latest Iowa poll for the Des Moines Register indicated he’s the new front-runner here, but he did have to defend himself several times. He decimated Tulsi Gabbard without sounding mean (more on that below). Challenged on his relatively short political resume, Buttigieg delivered a memorable rebuttal: “Washington experience is not the only experience that matters.”

A message of inclusion has contributed to Buttigieg’s rise in the polls, and he returned to that theme several times, including in his closing statement.

One more thing: Buttigieg excels at not taking the bait. That skill was on display in a post-debate interview, when CNN’s Dana Bash asked about Amy Klobuchar’s assertion that a woman with Buttigieg’s experience would not be taken seriously as a presidential candidate. He wisely did not criticize Klobuchar or deny the double standard exists. Rather, he said she raised a valid point about sexism, not only in politics but in society as a whole, adding that he has promised to appoint women to at least 50 percent of cabinet positions in his administration.

5. It wouldn’t be a Democratic debate without a few Biden gaffes, right? The sad part was the former vice president was doing so well for the first hour and a half or so. He absolutely crushed it when asked whether President Donald Trump should be subject to a criminal investigation after leaving office.

Later, Biden claimed to have been endorsed by the “only African-American woman” elected to the Senate, with Kamala Harris standing right there. (He was talking about Carol Moseley Braun, the first black woman to serve in the Senate.) Touting his work on enacting the Violence Against Women Act, Biden used an unfortunate metaphor: “No man has a right to raise a hand to a woman in anger […]. And so we have to just change the culture, period, and keep punching at it and punching at it and punching at it.”

His closing statement (starting around the 12:00 mark of this video) struck an oddly angry tone and didn’t explain why voters should choose him over anyone else on stage.

Biden hasn’t performed well in any of the debates. I’ve become convinced that these missteps don’t affect his appeal the way similar errors might doom other candidates. It’s part of his brand, and every voter leaning toward or seriously considering him knows this is in the package. As David Axelrod put it on CNN last night, “He kind of bumps along, you know, kind of Mr. Magooing his way through it.”

6. Bernie Sanders did better in Atlanta than in any previous debate this year. “We cannot simply be consumed by Donald Trump,” he argued. Congress “can walk and chew bubble gum at the same time” by dealing with Trump’s corruption while standing up for working families. Another highlight for me was Sanders’ answer to a question about Republicans passing extreme abortion bans.

Sanders’ closing statement was effective too. It began on a personal note, standard operating procedure for many politicians but unusual for the senator from Vermont.

7. Cory Booker is now five for five in debates. He landed a number of memorable lines last night–talking about African-American voters and joking that he thought Biden might have been high when he said he’s against legalizing marijuana. He articulated his positions on tax reforms and housing well. I particularly liked the way he connected the dots between voter suppression and extreme abortion restrictions opposed by 70 percent of Georgians.

Booker deviated a bit from his prepared closing statement, but his improvisation worked.

The senator’s campaign reported a fundraising surge following the debate, which should help him reach the donor threshold the Democratic National Committee has set for the December debate. He’s still several polls short of meeting the requirements for popular support nationally or in early voting states. I struggle to understand why Booker hasn’t moved up more in the polls, given the way Iowa audiences have responded to his appearances every time I’ve seen him. It seems Buttigieg has crowded him out; both candidates convey a unifying, aspirational message.

8. Kamala Harris had a good debate too. She exposed Gabbard’s right-wing ties. Her closing statement was cohesive, returning to her key points that “justice is on the ballot” in 2020, and she is best positioned to recreate the coalition that elected Barack Obama. One highlight was when Harris talked about Democrats taking African-American voters for granted, especially black women.

Harris also made a great case for her family leave policy. I couldn’t embed this video clip, but it’s worth watching. Why does she propose six months of family leave?

So on paid family leave, it is no longer the case in America that people are having children in their 20s. People are having children in their 30s, often in their 40s, which means that these families and parents are often raising young children and taking care of their parents, which requires a lot of work, from traveling back and forth to a hospital to daycare to all of the activities that are required, much less the health care needs that are required.

And what we are seeing in America today is the burden principally falls on women to do that work. And many women are having to make a very difficult choice whether they’re going to leave a profession for which they have a passion to care for their family, or whether they are going to give up a paycheck that is part of what that family relies on. So six months paid family leave is meant to and is designed to adjust to the reality of women’s lives today.

9. Amy Klobuchar is having a good month, ticking up in several recent polls and conveying her message well. At the Iowa Democratic Party’s Liberty and Justice Celebration earlier this month, she gave the best speech I’ve seen from her. She also did well in Atlanta. Klobuchar cracked the best joke of the evening, about the record-setting $17,000 she raised from ex-boyfriends in her first U.S. Senate campaign. She defended her less ambitious policy goals as more realistic and fiscally responsible than what some rivals are offering. Asked to elaborate her views on sexist double standards, Klobuchar stated the obvious while reminding viewers of her own accomplishments.

As she has done in previous debates, Klobuchar closed on an electability argument. Yes, we need to fire up the Democratic base.

But we also, let’s get those independents and moderate Republicans who cannot stomach this guy anymore. This is how we build a coalition, so we don’t just beat Donald Trump. We bring the U.S. Senate to some sense. We send Mitch McConnell packing. This is how we win.

So if you want to join us — and remember that this won’t be for me a personal victory, it will be a national victory, of someone that wins in red districts and suburban, purple districts, and bright blue districts every single time.

Anecdotally, I sense that point has won over quite a few of Klobuchar’s Iowa supporters.

10. How Gabbard is polling well enough to qualify for this debate is something I’ll never understand. She may make it to next month’s debate as well, but I don’t see a lot of potential to grow her support. The number of Democrats interested in a candidate pushing a foreign policy message and running down the party is limited.

Neither of Gabbard’s attention-getting moments in Atlanta reflected well on her. Harris got the better of one testy exchange with the representative from Hawaii. Later, Buttigieg delivered some devastating lines.

11. I didn’t expect Tom Steyer to qualify for later debates either. Of course it helps to be able to spend tens of millions of dollars on television, radio, and online advertising. He has also been able to distinguish himself from the other options in a few ways. He is the only candidate in the field making term limits a central part of his pitch (with Senator Chuck Grassley as one of his poster children), and the only one advocating a national referendum system.

Steyer didn’t have as much speaking time as most of the others last night, but he stayed on message when he did have the floor. While most of the candidates have proposed ambitious climate change policies, only Steyer has pledged to use the president’s emergency powers to address that issue. Here’s the key clip from last night:

12. Credit to Andrew Yang: despite never holding elected office, he has hit some campaign benchmarks that eluded many experienced politicians in the field. He still has a chance to qualify for the December debate too.

If you’ve seen Yang in person or in any previous debate, you’ve heard his case for a “Freedom Dividend,” a universal basic income of $1,000 per month. I thought his most impressive moment in Atlanta came when a moderator asked about white supremacist violence.

13. A final note: while less crowded stages have some advantages, I regret that the Democratic National Committee’s debate criteria are playing the winnowing role traditionally performed by voters in the early caucus or primary states. A number of well-qualified candidates have already dropped out of the race because they had no prospect of participating in the next debate.

Many Democrats hope the trend toward excluding more candidates continues. But I felt some important voices were missing last night. Julian Castro, Steve Bullock, and Michael Bennet have all enriched the conversation in earlier debates. Castro in particular should have been included. MSNBC’s Joy Reid put it better than I could:

At some point, is this party going to remember that it’s a diverse party? I think Julian Castro not being on that stage is a problem. You know, the diversity in this party is the story right now in the Democratic Party and that is not on display as much as it should be.

UPDATE: FiveThirtyEight and Ipsos partnered to poll a group of voters before and after the November 20 debate. Aaron Bycoffe, Sarah Frostenson, and Julia Wolfe reported,

One thing that immediately stands out: Respondents, on average, thought Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren had the strongest debate performances, which is especially notable for Buttigieg because he was slightly less well-liked going into the night. Candidates like Amy Klobuchar and Cory Booker, who are polling well behind the leaders, also got strong performance scores relative to their pre-debate favorability ratings. On the other hand, Tulsi Gabbard’s and Joe Biden’s performance scores were notably low in relation to their pre-debate popularity. […]

Despite Biden’s relatively mediocre marks for his performance, more than half of voters still said they were considering voting for him — and that number actually increased by nearly 2 percentage points post-debate. The biggest winner, though, was clearly Buttigieg, who gained just over 6 points in potential support. Only Sanders experienced a dip in potential support, and it was very small.

When the front-runners are generally well-liked by Democratic voters, lower-polling candidates will struggle more to break out.

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