Read on for our experts’ insights.
‘Bloomberg was the new pledge in the fraternity. The hazing was inevitable.’
Larry J. Sabatois founder and director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics and is a contributing editor at POLITICO Magazine.
This is the first 2020 debate I’ve actually enjoyed. I laughed, I cried; it was better than “Cats” (at least the movie version).
You could smell the desperation among the candidates, save frontrunner Sanders. If they can’t break out and win big over the next few weeks, their White House dreams will evaporate.
Bloomberg was the foremost loser. To be blunt, he was terrible. It’s been about a dozen years since his last debate, so I didn’t suppose he’d shine. But I never expected him to look timid and act nervous. Bloomberg was the new pledge in the fraternity. The hazing was inevitable. His deer-in-the-headlights look was not. He was mayor of ferocious New York City for three terms, after all. Not to worry, his massive TV ad buy will soon take over again, and, lucky for him, the spots reach far more people than watched this debate.
Some have been comparing Sanders to Trump, but they are fundamentally different in ways other than ideology. Trump entertains, Sanders inspires. Sure, Bernie may inspire terror in those who dislike his plans for democratic socialism and think he’ll lead the party to a big loss in the fall. But his millions of supporters are true believers and cannot be moved. Nothing happened in this debate to change that. He’s still running well ahead of his divided foes. And those opponents, with the possible exception of Bloomberg, failed miserably to cut him down to size. They will all deeply regret it later, maybe when it’s too late.
If Biden comes back, this debate won’t be the cause (even though his closing statement in the face of disruptions had heart). Any Biden revival will happen because Democrats think, in the end, he’s more likely to beat Trump than anyone else. That’s the ultimate goal, right?
If Warren reverses her slide, her strong debate performance may really be a factor. It’s just tough to see an easy pathway since much of the left has been moving to Sanders.
As always, Klobuchar and Buttigieg were fun to listen to—Buttigieg because of his agile, impressive mind, and Klobuchar because of her fight and willingness to speak her mind. Toward the end, though, the two had an unpleasant, more personal confrontation that made them both appear small. I suspect most of the audience had drifted away by then, so perhaps it won’t matter.
‘Absolutely satisfying to watch’
Amanda Litman is co-founder and executive director of Run for Something.
No question: Warren won the debate, raised amassive amount of moneyand proved that while some might be counting her out prematurely, she’s not going down without a fight. Will any of it matter? Probably not in the grand scheme of things. The debates haven’t dramatically moved the needle as of yet. But it was absolutely satisfying to watch.
Warren may have excited her supporters, but turned off other voters.
Michael Starr Hopkinsis a Democratic strategist who has served on the presidential campaigns of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Delaney.
The winner of Wednesday night’s debate was the Republican Party. A presidential cycle that has looked like an episode of “Friends” quickly turned into “Lord of the Flies.” On a stage that looked more like a prizefight than a Democratic primary debate, haymakers were thrown and glass jaws were exposed. Every single candidate on stage left the stage more bloodied and bruised than they did prior to the start of the debate.
The Democrats on stage were tougher on each other than they were on Trump, which could be a disaster when it’s time for a general election. Warren came out swinging in Las Vegas and leveled some awfully personal attacks against every Democrat on stage. Warren’s Shermanesque salting of the Democratic primary soil will undoubtedly get her clicks, but it will do nothing to unite the party or breathe life into her campaign. To put it succinctly, Warren will not be the nominee. She may have excited her supporters, but she turned off voters whom she needed to bring into her campaign.
Bloomberg’s debate performance strengthened over time, but it couldn’t have been the first impression that his team hoped for.
Mayor Pete stole the spotlight and fought off attacks from Sanders, Warren and Klobuchar, while standing out during an uneven debate performance by Bloomberg. Buttigieg clearly got under the skin of Klobuchar and knocked her off of her script. If Democrats wanted clear distinctions, they got them in Las Vegas.
Warren gave the best performance, but that doesn’t mean she won.
Sophia A. Nelson is an American author, political strategist, opinion writer and former House Republican Committee counsel.
Warren was the best debate performer, hands down. She has nothing to lose, so she seems to have made a calculation to speak the raw truth and to just say what she believes is the best way forward for America. The problem, however, is that women get penalized for being tough, smart and landing punches on the debate stage. Just ask Kamala Harris how that worked for her in the early debates when she laid hands on Biden over busing and segregation; it backfired badly.
Biden wins the Mr. Congeniality prize. He looked presidential and statesman-like. Bloomberg had an awful performance. He was smug and defensive, and he crashed and burned badly on the question about whether he would release women who sued his company for sexual harassment or gender discrimination from their nondisclosure agreements.
Klobuchar and Buttigieg were like a teenage brother and sister fighting at the dinner table. It was ridiculous. I lost a lot of respect for Klobuchar Wednesday night, with her temperament and lack of composure. As for Sanders, he is still the frontrunner. But Bloomberg performed poorly and that should help Biden.
‘Bloomberg was totally unready’
Alan Schroederis a professor in the school of journalism at Northeastern University in Boston. Schroeder is the author of several books, includingPresidential Debates: Risky Business on the Campaign Trail.
The beauty of live debates is that they hold politicians accountable—unlike campaign commercials, over which candidates maintain complete control. In his ubiquitous TV ads, Bloomberg depicts himself as an Obama-like progressive with the passion and know-how to set the country on a correction course. But in his first debate, Bloomberg came off as something quite different: a bland, clueless billionaire with feet of clay. Despite extensive preparation, Bloomberg was totally unready for the rough-and-tumble of a presidential primary debate, unready even for issues he must certainly have known would come up. Democratic voters hoping that Bloomberg might swoop in and grab the nomination on the basis of charisma and superior performance skills instead ended up with one more name to cross off their list.
In fairness it should be noted that this was a particularly aggressive debate, presenting a tough challenge for the newcomer who joined the cast of veterans onstage. The gathering in Las Vegas seemed to release a lot of pent-up hostility among the candidates, who did not hold back in going after each other. Bloomberg may have drawn the most fire, but there was plenty of clashing among the other participants as well.
This debate lacked an obvious winner. Klobuchar gave another mostly strong performance, though she did not offer a satisfactory explanation for why she could not name the president of Mexico in a recent interview. Buttigieg likewise had a good night, appearing more relaxed and human than he has in previous debates. Sanders, comfortable in his newfound frontrunner status, made effective use of Bloomberg as a foil, but he less effectively addressed the issue of his problematic supporters.
Biden and Warren, impelled by declining poll numbers, both put a lot of energy into this debate. Warren’s makeover as an attack dog was successful at times, especially against Bloomberg, but she is hardly a natural at delivering insults. And Biden came across as overly frantic, shouting his responses and delivering everything at a fever pitch.
Ultimately, however, this night was about Bloomberg, who, like Tom Steyer before him, demonstrated conclusively that money cannot buy prowess on the debate stage.
‘Bloomberg failed miserably’
Michelle Bernardis a political analyst, lawyer, author and president and CEO of the Bernard Center for Women, Politics & Public Policy.
After 10 weeks of hype, millions of dollars spent on ads, endorsements from highly respected members of the African American community and a double-digit surge in the polls, we learned that Bloomberg does not deserve any of the African American support he has received to date. From stop and frisk to overt and unapologetic sexism, the former mayor appears to be nothing more than Trump bathed in blue.
I watched this heavily anticipated debate wondering whether Bloomberg and his billions can beat Trump and herald in an era of racial, gender and religious justice—all casualties of Trump’s presidency. Bloomberg failed miserably.
It doesn’t matter how many African Americans of note endorse him. In his debate performance and his failure to respond to questions about stop and frisk and discrimination against communities of color, Bloomberg gave me no reason to believe that if elected, he would be any different than Trump. There was no real apology. No declaration of shame. No statement about the need for racial or gender justice.
In watching him on the debate stage, I saw only the faces of Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, Atatiana Jefferson, Michael Brown, Natasha McKenna, Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo and all of the other African Americans who have been persecuted by and lost their lives as a result of police violence. I saw all of the black boys and men in New York thrown up against walls, terrorized and searched repeatedly by NYPD because of a bigoted assumption by Bloomberg that brown skin is to be equated with criminality. In Bloomberg, I saw “Golfcart Gail,” “Permit Patty,” “BBQ Becky,” “Cornerstore Caroline,” and all of the white women who have called the police on black people for things like yelling instructions at their own child during a soccer match or charcoal grilling without a permit. And in Bloomberg, I saw white men scheming about ways to suppress the black vote and laughing behind the backs of women they “would do in a minute.”
The emperor has no clothes.
And then, there was Warren, who took one helluva a stand. She skewered Bloomberg, making sure that America knows that Bloomberg is no different than Trump, as evidenced by his reportedly calling women “fat broads” and “horsey faced lesbians.” On Bloomberg’s stop and frisk, Warren declared: “This isn’t about how stop and frisk turned out. This is about what it was designed to do to begin with. It targeted communities of color. It targeted black and brown men from the beginning.” She forced the issue of environmental justice and the impact of environmental policy on communities of color. She masterfully attacked the issue of nondisclosure agreements relating to the treatment of women in Bloomberg’s workforce, using the term “muzzle” in a way that any woman in the workplace could relate to. Warren dispelled any doubt that she can beat Trump, and she proved that she is everything women and communities of color could want in the next president of the United States.
They needed to get Sanders, and they didn’t.
Charles Ellison is a political strategist and talk-radio host.
The stronger performances were Buttigieg, Biden and Warren, in that order. Main takeaway: Democrats don’t know how to debate (seems like only Buttigieg did with the most memorable lines, like the one about not having to choose between the guy “who wants to burn this party down and another candidate who wants to buy this party.”
Others seemed to have meltdown moments. Bloomberg completely bombed on questions surrounding stop and frisk and sexism, clearly unprepared. Perhaps he should’ve skipped this debate altogether, though he found a groove on matters of money, taxes, climate and trade. Sanders showed that he will start spiraling into old-man-in-the-yard meltdown if you hammer him relentlessly, something Buttigieg prepared for, knives out. Klobuchar got wobbly when under fire. Warren was steady and solid, but she seemed to have this peculiar habit of reaching for ”communities of color” as a sort of life raft when she felt like she was fading. Biden was more energetic, but was it enough for him to place second in Nevada, and then first in South Carolina?
Missed moments: All the contenders needed to do Wednesday was get Bernie, but they let him skate. Who will ask, flat out: “Hey Bernie, how many bills did you pass over 30 years in conference?” How angry are “all women” over Bloomberg’s sexist jokes when 54 percent of white women, real talk, voted for the current misogynist-on-tape in the White House, who was not only a friend of Jeffrey Epstein but was sued (in a case that was laterdropped) for underage rape? And, why is Bernie blanket knocking folks for simply making money?
Leave it to the moderators and you would walk away believing that all black voters care about is “stop and frisk,” full stop. To adequately answer for “stop and frisk,” all Bloomberg needed to do was pivot immediately to the structural, bread-and-butter issues that black people are worried about. And, on the question of using his money to win the election, all he had to was say: “How much money have you spent buying ads on black radio and newspapers? Oh, yeah, thought so … ”
Maybe Bloomberg didn’t lose.
Beth Hansen is a Republican political strategist and the former campaign manager for John Kasich.
The winner may have been Tom Steyer, for missing a particularly hostile debate marked by personal attacks. It was a far different night than two weeks ago in New Hampshire.
If there was a winner on stage, it was Biden, who was focused, passionate without being angry and stayed largely above the fray. It is very difficult to arrest momentum—either upward or downward—in a presidential primary, but his positive performance in Wednesday night’s atmosphere may have been enough to steady his campaign and begin a climb back up in the polls.
Klobuchar and Sanders held steady, although neither was as crisp and appealing as in previous debates.
It was unusual to hear Buttigeig so long on the attack—particularly against Klobuchar, in a manner that approached condescension. His policy prescriptions still make the most sense for the middle of the country; he would be better served to focus on those.
Warren seemed exasperated but made strong policy points. This debate won’t be enough to change her trajectory, but she did no harm.
It’s difficult to say whether Bloomberg emerged a winner or a loser. He was under blistering attack and hit a particularly rough patch while answering questions about lawsuits and disclosure agreements. But he remained calm, answered questions with policy solutions and was more engaged in the second half of the debate. The former mayor is not running a traditional campaign, so it is not clear that this debate will hurt him with voters looking for a different approach than that being offered by the remaining candidates.
If there was a sense that the path for the Democratic nominee was becoming more clear, that changed Wednesday night. With the entry of the outsider candidate (Bloomberg), and a good performance by the former vice president heading into South Carolina, the nomination could be secured by anyone on the stage.
I miss Andrew Yang, whose sense of humor would have lightened a stormy debate!
That was fun, but probably meaningless.
Michael Kazinis a professor of history at Georgetown University and co-editor ofDissent. He is writing a history of the Democratic Party.
Since the debate in Las Vegas was the most contentious one held so far, it was also the most entertaining. And most of the entertainment came at the expense of Bloomberg, who kept taking hard punches from Warren and others while straining to land a few harmless rebuttals.
Yet since this is the ninth debate everyone on the stage except the hapless multibillionaire has taken part in, it probably mattered less than most pundits understand. By now, anyone who has watched more than one of these debates ought to be entirely familiar with what each of the other candidates will say and how they will say it. Sanders will rail at billionaires and vow to build a welfare state for all; Warren will mention her working-class childhood and talk about her plans to drive corruption out of Washington; Buttigieg will calmly vow to unify the country; Klobuchar will brag about how much people in Minnesota like her; and Biden will equate his decades of experience with the ability to win the election.
Familiarity seldom changes many minds or votes. Sanders did nothing to sway the roughly one-third of Democrats who now support him. The nasty argument between Buttigieg and Klobuchar made both sound rather desperate, an emotion that will help neither in the contests to come. Despite his flashes of emotion, Biden seemed as much a figure of the past as ever. And although Warren snapped off most of the best lines of the night, how will they help revive her standing among voters who have strayed to other candidates?
So, in the end, the rumble in Vegas will probably change nothing in the race—except maybe puncture Bloomberg’s gaudy balloon. And even then, many more people will see his TV ads than watched the debate. Democrats are still headed for what may be a long and contentious spring.
‘Sanders prevailed, by default’
Jennifer Victor is a professor of political science at George Mason University, a co-editor of theOxford Handbook of Political Networksand a member of the board of directors of the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics.
Wednesday’s Democratic event was appropriately placed in Las Vegas, but this debate was more boxing match than card game. Blood was spilled in the opening moments when Warren directly attacked Bloomberg. In Vegas style, the debate included a lot of bluster and show, but it was not a particularly substantive event. There were no policy details or deep questions. Every candidate onstage dealt and took blows.
When the dust settled, Sanders prevailed, by default. He’s the frontrunner in recent polls and was not more bruised Wednesday night than anyone else was. If anything, Bloomberg took more shrapnel than anyone, and came away badly damaged. It turns out that hundreds of millions of dollars can buy a polling surge but cannot guarantee a good debate performance. While each candidate had moments to be proud of in this debate, any competition that leaves frontrunners no more damaged than anyone else is a win for those frontrunners. In fairness, there may not be a real frontrunner right now. Bloomberg has more money (his own—not a sign of general support); Bernie has more poll support; Biden has the most endorsements; Buttigieg has the most delegates; and Warren and Klobuchar have momentum in their campaigns. Under these conditions, the polling leader (Sanders) remains unchanged. As competition intensifies, the rhetoric will intensify. This debate’s vitriol was just a taste of what’s to come.
‘Sanders made plain that he intends to tear the party to pieces’
John Neffingeris a speaker coach, lecturer on political communication at Georgetown University and Columbia Business School, former communications director of the Democratic National Committee and co-author ofCompelling People: The Hidden Qualities That Make Us Influential.
What a night! Warren sneaked a flamethrower past security and laid waste to nearly the entire rest of the field, none more so than Bloomberg, who isn’t used to being asked about the many nondisclosure agreements he thought had put his sexual harassment troubles behind him. Not to be outdone, Mayor Pete coolly got Klobuchar’s hair vibrating over forgetting the Mexican president’s name and again for voting for Trump’s nominees.
Bloomberg, who had a case to make but was not prepared to take incoming fire, didn’t make a strong case for his progressive credentials and showed no charisma or spark—suggesting that it might be a dreary four years with him on our screens and radios every day. Warren did much to revive her campaign, making a strong case she could debate Trump or anyone, though she was not the happiest of warriors doing it. Klobuchar needed another winning debate to keep her momentum past the lily-white initial states, and instead she was off her game, like offering odd ideas such as nominating a woman candidate could reduce online sexism. (We tried that, and it didn’t work out so well.)
Not much changed for Biden and Buttigieg. Mayor Pete showed up as the happiest warrior on stage, not just torturing Klobuchar but making a good case for where he fit between Sanders’ radicalism and Bloomberg’s billions. Biden did alright, had some fun and made some decent points, though he’s often tense, rushed and flustered in his responses—the opposite of the adult-in-the-room leader his fans look to him to be.
Most ominous perhaps was Sanders. Most of his performance was his standard fare, but during this debate Sanders made plain that he intends to tear the party to pieces. He’s less interested in answering his critics than ever. He’s not going to show you his medical records or tell you how his health care math works. He said 99 percent of his supporters’ online behavior is perfectly fine. The real reason he doesn’t care if they antagonize all the other candidates’ supporters is that he plans to get to Milwaukee without the majority the rules require to win and then demand the nomination with just a plurality. That would make this debate’s remarkably feisty conversation look downright courtly.
‘What was said in Vegas will not stay in Vegas’
Jacob Heilbrunnis editor of the National Interest.
It was a big roll of the dice for Bloomberg to show up for the debate in Las Vegas, but he should have remembered that the house always wins. Biden, Sanders and Warren pummeled Bloomberg, who has dropped a cool $409 million on the race, for his various nasty comments, including referring to women as “fat broads” and “horse-faced lesbians.” Bloomberg countered by declaring that Sanders is espousing “communism,” but it came across as thin-skinned and overheated. The real winner, of course, was Trump, who spent much of the evening mocking his rivals, especially Bloomberg. Trump is on a roll, eviscerating his opponents as well as the rule of law, while his opponents remain in la-la land. There was ample fodder furnished by the debate for a welter of general election campaign ads trashing the Democrats. The fratricidal warfare on display was tailor-made for Trump, who will indubitably ensure that what was said in Vegas will not stay in Vegas.
‘A lifeline for Biden, and he took it’
Jennifer Lawlessis a professor of politics at the University of Virginia whose research focuses on political ambition, campaigns and elections, and media and politics.
Wednesday night’s debate provided answers to three key questions Democrats have been musing about since the candidates last shared the stage a couple of weeks ago:
Does Bloomberg have what it takes—beyond money—to win the nomination and, ultimately, the White House?
Can Sanders—the new frontrunner—quell concerns that he can’t possibly defeat Trump?
Is it time for the remaining candidates—Biden, Warren, Buttigieg and Klobuchar—to pack it in and go home?
After 120 minutes of feisty, often frenzied infighting about strategy, politics and policy, the answer to each of these questions is a resounding no.
To say that Bloomberg underperformed is to understate how poor the former mayor’s performance really was. He was disengaged, ill-prepared to respond to questions he was sure to be asked—from allegations of sexism to racism to classism—and seemingly unaware that he needed to convince Democrats that he could defeat Trump. He exhibited neither the fiery energy embodied in his recent tweets nor the acumen of a politician who needs to seal a deal.
Sanders didn’t fare much better. To the senator’s credit, he’s completely comfortable being attacked and defending himself with vigor. But every time the word socialism is uttered, every minute spent discussing whether billionaires should be able to keep their money, every time his co-partisans distinguish themselves by identifying as capitalists is an opportunity to reinforce many Democratic voters’ concerns that Trump will eat Sanders for breakfast.
And that’s excellent news for Biden. Why? Two reasons. First, neither Bloomberg nor Sanders assuaged voters’ concerns about their respective candidacies. Second, Warren, Buttigieg and Klobuchar reinforced those concerns. The trio seemed to have already counted Biden out, so when they weren’t fighting with each other, they directed their venom at Bloomberg and Sanders. Together, they offered persuasive arguments about why neither should be the nominee.
This confluence of events amounted to a lifeline for Biden, and he took it. He made the case that he understands the working class better than anyone else on the stage; that he can represent communities of color better than the other candidates; and that he has the track record to prove it. He wasn’t always eloquent. And his closing statement was an utter mess. But Biden brought energy, passion and an underdog status to the fight. Given their choices, voters in Nevada and South Carolina who had moved on from Biden might find themselves coming home (even if the trek is a little uninspired).
It’s almost over.
Sean McElwee is a writer, data analyst and co-founder of the progressive think tank Data for Progress.
Wednesday night, Bernie proved the other candidates can’t beat him. The only question is when they’ll join him.