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DemDebate Roundtable Season 9: In Conversation with Affinity’s Politics Team

The February 19th Democratic Debate was hosted in Las Vegas, Nevada. It was hosted by NBC, MSNBC and the Nevada Independent. NBC sent moderators Hallie Jackson, Chuck Todd, Vanessa Hauc and Lester Holt. The Nevada Independent sent founder Jon Ralston. The debate featured six participants, with five veterans and one newcomer. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Former Vice President Joe Biden and Former Mayor Pete Buttigieg. New to the stage was Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, from New York. 

As the lights dimmed in Las Vegas, select members of the Affinity Magazine politics team gathered to discuss the events and policy from the debate. Here’s what happened: 

Kat: All right then, let’s get started. This was our first debate with Mayor Bloomberg onstage. How did his presence affect the debate?

Joanna: I would say that Bloomberg’s presence was a gamechanger for the debates, which have been drying out recently. The Iowa and NH debates were both stuffed with repeated points and there wasn’t any new information. Bloomberg was a new target for most of these candidates, and his presence meant that they dived into issues that haven’t been discussed before. Take, for example, Warren’s huge win tonight with her statement calling Bloomberg out on his non-disclosure agreements, or the larger focus on police searches and prosecution. Those things have been brushed over much quicker in the past. Ultimately his presence helped Warren the most though, I would have to say.

Helen: Going into this debate, it was clear that Mayor Bloomberg was going to shift the dynamic. His ad campaigns rocked the boat for a lot of campaigns. His President Obama ad pulled from Vice President Biden’s use of President Obama on the campaign trail (despite their “complicated” history). The clearest campaign that came into the debate frustrated with Bloomberg is Sanders’. A “Bernie bro” ad set to attack Sanders supporters upset a lot of people online and directed the discussion for a portion of the debate. Furthermore, a lot of candidates came in with a view of Bloomberg as the candidate necessary to take down, since he has been functioning outside of their circle throughout the race.

Kat: Has Bloomberg managed to improve his chances of getting the nomination at all? Or has his idealistic TV-ad image been brought into perspective? Regardless of what he says in the debates, he’s going to keep buying ads and people will continue to see them. How much does his debate performance matter?

Joanna: No, he hasn’t. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the debate really hurt him and didn’t help him at all. Bloomberg wasn’t able to respond to anything and kept spewing tons of polarizing, inorganic information. He compared Sanders’s democratic socialism philosophy to communism, hid the fact that his workers everywhere were disgusted by his behavior, and tried to pretend like his non-disclosure agreements were no big deal at all. His debate performance was actually pretty embarrassing since he was hardly able to stick up for himself in any regard (from frisking to moneymaking.) He went as far as to say he was proud to be making an extreme amount of money and still went on to say that he wouldn’t create a wealth tax. His ideologies almost line up more with Republicans than with Democrats and he seemed to be tackling almost every progressive policy. After the debate, the Washington examiner even praised Bloomberg for calling out Sanders. His presence added a new level of polarization and seemed to be very out of line with where any other Democratic candidate stood on any issues (even the moderates, Klobuchar, Biden and Buttigieg) seemed uncomfortable with what Bloomberg was saying.

This debate performance is going to matter a lot I think, mainly because from just a quick scroll through news feeds, his NDA attack is getting spread everywhere. This means that the regular voter is probably going to see one of his worst blunders on loop for the coming days, especially in Nevada, which means that Bloomberg is only going to fall from here. His inability to address any of his misogynistic tendencies and comments looks very similar to the downfall of Sen. Harris after she couldn’t address any of her prosecution blunders either. He’s been called out on something that he can’t run away from and now everyone knows about it, all the news and media, his ads aren’t going to hold the same power they did.

Helen: This did not improve Michael Bloomberg’s chances in any way, realistically. He seemed flustered, annoyed, less confident and inexperienced compared to the other candidates. Two candidates who arguably came to take him down tonight were Senator Bernie Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren. Their efforts were certainly successful in most regards, especially during Bloomberg’s discussions that were one-on-one with Sanders, and Warren’s deeply cutting remarks about him. It will be up to the people, but Bloomberg’s performance tonight was not one to tout. This also really demonstrated what is likely to continue coming for Bloomberg if he maintains his practice of running relentless attack and spin ads, especially if he continues to be the frontrunner.

Bloomberg’s ads are incredibly important to his campaign, as that is how a great deal of Americans get their information. Bloomberg’s campaign is certainly relying on that, to an extent. These ads have painted him as this working-class hero that he really revealed himself to not be tonight, especially with lines like, “I make a lot of money!” It’s very useful that his campaign has this barrier from this version of Bloomberg, because they can simply opt to not include such moments in those advertisements. Bloomberg has actually been able to create his own media bubble through his ads and philanthropic pressure. This is incredibly similar to the utilization of TV ads, certain media outlets and Twitter by President Trump this election, along with the full financial support of the Republican Party. The lack of exterior information present in Bloomberg’s campaign mirrors Trump’s. This debate may never touch the minds of some people, and in those cases that will likely be by Bloomberg’s design.

Kat: Going back to Helen’s earlier mention of Bloomberg’s attack ad against the “Bernie Bros”, the debate opened with several questions about Sen. Sanders (his conflict with the culinary union, his cardiovascular health and instances of his supporters attacking other people online). What was the purpose of the moderators asking these questions? They weren’t about policy.

And was Sanders able to appropriately address them?

Joanna: Sanders has been winning big lately. A recent recount of the Iowa caucuses showed that he came much closer to winning the state than the original poll predicted. That means that all of the spotlights are on Sanders now, since he’s definitely, at this point, the top leader in the playing field. I think that at this point, the debates are on an infinite loop of asking about the same policies, etc. Moderators have already exhausted any questions on Sander’s policy records so that means that they have to start targeting other things. I think that the debates also are trying to expose viewers to multiple facets of a candidate’s personality and character, which means addressing more than just policy. Overall Sanders did a decent job. He thanked Las Vegas for his excellent hospital care, which was a smart move since it connected him with voters. And he made a fair point about how he didn’t stand with voters who criticized other members of the party.

Helen: To be frank, this was likely done to stir up some controversy from the beginning. Sanders has been surging in the polls with little retaliation in past debates, so moderators likely wanted to make sure the playing field began with some very intense competition. These are also topics that have been flying around on Twitter for the past few days. Arguably and conversely, these could be seen as attacks meant to harm Sanders’ campaign. There will probably be Sanders supporters pointing this out on Twitter for a long time. 

Personally, I would say the Culinary Union question was answered very well, as Sanders has repeatedly denounced those who attack the Union’s workers and representatives. Sanders has a pretty impeccable record in terms of supporting unions, and he made that very clear. The cardiovascular health topic was rockier, as that appeared to be one of the topics Bloomberg actually came ready to parry about tonight. Sanders’ answer to the “Bernie Bro” question was about as strong as it could be, and he brought up valid points about Russian bot interference and the struggles of his own campaign. Mayor Buttigieg did use that as a moment to prey on him. Some of these issues have only begun to really pose threats to Sanders’ campaign in recent weeks, with the intensification of Bloomberg’s smearing. Sanders managed to answer a great deal of these questions without fully isolating or denouncing his base, which is not an easy position for any candidate to have to handle.

Kat: Staying on the topic of Sanders, the other candidates seemed especially eager to distance themselves from him tonight. The socialist/capitalist conflict was evident, as several candidates have already stated that they are not comfortable with his self-declared socialism, and Mayor Buttigieg said twice that Sanders wanted to burn down the Democratic party. Even Warren, whose policy is pretty similar to Sanders’s, insisted that she was a capitalist. What was the point of all this, given the repeated talk of unity and of their ultimate goal of defeating Trump?

Joanna: Sanders is leading right now and it’s obvious that he’s attracting a very specific (rather large) group of voters. He’s going after all the voters who are pretty progressive and basically has adopted an all or nothing philosophy. However, that means that Sanders is ignoring a large pool of voters. A NY Times post earlier in 2019 showed that a good majority of Democrats are actually “silent,” meaning that while their social media presence isn’t as heavy, they are actually a huge force and much more moderate than Democrats on social media. This is the group of voters that Buttigieg, Klobuchar and Biden particularly are going after. This means that these candidates, in particular, need to gauge their distance from Sanders and need to attack him, which they did. Voters who are turned off by Sanders’s extremism will find more comfort in Buttigieg and Klobuchar (and that’s why they were able to win in Iowa and NH.) As for Warren, the story is a bit different. She and Sanders are running in the same sort of progressive boat, but unlike Sanders, she wasn’t able to fuel the fire that Sanders has. That’s why a majority of progressive voters went after Sanders, not Warren. So Warren needs to distance herself from Sanders to prove that a) there is a difference in her platform and that b) she’s a progressive who can be more kind to these moderate voters. So Warren has to start insisting that she’s different to gain more votes because the part of the party she originally targeted went for Sanders.

Helen: This has been a point of discussion for a long time, but with Sanders in the lead, this is a definite way to bog down his support. The label of “socialist” is jarring for a lot of older voters, in a much stronger way than the term “capitalist” is unsettling for some younger voters. Sanders has never shied away from referring to himself as a Democratic Socialist, and there would be no way for him to run his campaign without being open about this. Other campaigns clearly continue to see this as a way to sway voters away from him. This really started to become a point of attack in the last debate, but Sanders has been pushing the rebuke that large companies are engaging in “corporate socialism” for quite some time. It should be pointed out that regardless of who the nominee is, Trump will be referring to them as a socialist.

Kat: That’s true, but there is a difference between Trump calling Sanders a socialist, and people being able to brush it off as yet another instance of our President attacking his political rivals, and Trump calling Sanders a label that he himself embraces. This article from the NY Mag explains it pretty well.

Kat: Buttigieg challenged Sen. Klobuchar on a variety of issues (such as her voting to make English the national language of the US). Is Klobuchar a real threat to Buttigieg’s possible nomination, given that she has yet to win a primary and is still behind in the polls?

Helen: Yes. Even if Senator Klobuchar is unable to beat Pete Buttigieg, she is still able to detract from some of his support. This is a key issue for Buttigieg, as both of them are trying to pull the same demographic: moderate, Midwestern and White. Furthermore, their dynamic is not one that is appealing to voters, with many of his flaws being repeatedly listed by Klobuchar. It doesn’t look particularly good for either candidate, since two lower-ranking candidates fighting is not as good for campaigns as a smaller candidate facing off with a leader. We saw both candidates have surprise moments in New Hampshire, with Klobuchar jumping to third place. While this may not be maintained in other states, their five-point gap is not an exceptionally distancing lead. Even if Klobuchar doesn’t act beat Buttigieg, she still has the capability to harm his campaign, which could even be enough for their competition to succeed.

Joanna: New Hampshire was a shock for Klobuchar and makes her more of a threat to Buttigieg than she has ever been before. The primary saw that Klobuchar was gaining ground around Buttigieg, something that was really unexpected. As previously said, they are both more moderate Democrats that are definitely going for the same exact areas, since they’re both from the Midwest (Minnesota and Indiana.) This means that they’re largely similar to Sanders and Warren: same voters and nearly identical views at times. But the pair have been different from Sanders and Warren because they’ve consistently bickered back and forth on nearly every debate stage. The two have from day one, separated their platforms mainly based on experience, with Klobuchar tackling the old establishment (who like experienced politicians) and with Buttigieg acting as more of an inexperienced underdog (although he does have strong military experience and was Mayor.) Klobuchar is finally proving that she can win though. Iowa was a big loss for her but she really came back with New Hampshire, and that proves that she can be a real contender. That, lined up with her consistently strong debate performances means that she is a threat to him, now more than ever.

Kat: And how did Sen. Warren do? Joanna talked earlier about how Warren is at a disadvantage because she initially tried to out-Bernie Bernie, and now that he is popular she must differentiate herself from him in order to be recognized. Throughout the debate she constantly had her hand up and was clamoring to speak. Was her performance strong enough to bring back some of her previous momentum?

Joanna: Oh yeah, Warren creamed her competition tonight. She absolutely split herself form Sanders in every way possible, especially when she called him out on healthcare and was adamant about the fact that she was capitalist. Looking back at the debate in NH, the difference is huge. Back then, Warren was just extending and repeating major points of her party platform. During the debate (especially the first hour) tonight she soared. She delivered the major lines of the night and absolutely creamed Bloomberg. From around three minutes in, when she said something along the lines of, “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” Warren was already on a roll. Voters needed to see that the Senator could stand up to Trump and speak up for her own personal views, which she did. As the NBC news moderators said today, voters care about who can take on Trump. Bloomberg is similar in many ways: he’s a billionaire, he’s made offensive comments, the list goes on. The way Warren was able to corner him on the stage tonight shows that she can definitely tackle the current president, something that will probably help her a lot.

Helen: Senator Warren came in with the intention of reminding America that she is still in the race, and she made that clear from her very first line, “I’d like to talk about who we’re running against — a billionaire who calls women fat broads and horse-faced lesbians. No, I’m not talking about Donald Trump. I’m talking about Michael Bloomberg.” Gasps were heard in the audience, and around the country. There was no way she would be able to regain her footing if she did not dominate in this debate, and she arguably did so. She was quick, sharp, prepared and relentless. Her jabs were even, arguably, the polished versions of Klobuchar’s infamous quips that a lot of Americans have been waiting to hear. Warren set the pace of the debate, immediately establishing that this would be a fight, compared to the New Hampshire debate, which was more routine. Warren concluded with a number of successes. She had the most speaking time at 16 minutes and 25 seconds. She also raised $425,000 in 30 minutes alone of the debate, according to the Chief Mobilization Officer. This is incredibly beneficial for Warren, as her financial support had flatlined after Iowa, and a departure from that stagnation will be able to provide support. Arguably one of the most important takeaways for her of the night, is that she got people talking about her for the right reasons. Warren has struggled with a great deal of negative press, and a lack of press. Her performance in this debate served as the kick start her campaign needed to gain momentum again.

Kat: Turning to the topic of immigration, there was mention of protecting Dreamers and Klobuchar’s apparent vote to confirm Kevin McAleenan, the former head of Customs and Border Protection who initiated the practice of separating families. Other than that, there was not much talk about immigration, in this debate or in any others. Why was that?

Joanna: Immigration has been on the die down since Castro’s drop out, to be honest. He was the only Democratic candidate who really put the issue at the top of his list. Also, family separation has died down in coverage rates overall lately, with other big-box topics like impeachment and coronavirus overriding immigration. To add to that, in previous debates, candidates have largely been in agreement over immigration policies and welcoming people at the border so there likely wasn’t much to talk about. Klobuchar is getting prodded now more than ever though likely because of her strong performance in New Hampshire, which prompted a lot of journalists to take a closer look at her profile these couple of weeks.

Helen: Other than the fact Klobuchar has voted to confirm almost ⅔ of President Trump’s judicial nominees, there was very little discussion of immigration, which directly contrasts previous debates. When Secretary Castro was on the stage, and even when Beto O’Rourke was on the stage (though that may now seem to feel like a strange, distant dream), immigration was a tense and consistent topic. It seems to have left the minds of a lot of candidates on the stage, especially since most candidates have poor records (or no records) on the issue. There were chanting protestors who were rallying against Biden’s deportation record, but other than that the candidates seem to be more focused on issues that are more appealing to voters in current and rapidly approaching states on the trail. This was a concern that was posed when Castro dropped out, as he provided a great deal of passion on the subject.

Kat: Last question. One of the last questions of the debate concerned the possibility of a contested convention. The Democratic party is quite divided, particularly between Sanders and Buttigieg. None of the candidates may reach the required 1,991 delegate threshold. All of the candidates but Sanders believed that it was best to “stick to the rules” and not nominate someone who had less than those 1,991. If that’s the case, and if no one breaks that threshold, how can the Democrats expect to defeat Trump?

Joanna: Well, the field has been all over the place this year, largely because of the massive amount of people who started out running for the Democratic Party. It’s a bit too early to answer this question since it’s likely that Nevada and South Carolina will see a couple of these leading candidates dropping out of the race. From there, it will be interesting to see where their voters go. For example, if Biden doesn’t perform well in South Carolina or Nevada (he’s better with minorities) his voters are going to have to go with their second or third choice. As seen with the protestors towards the end of the debate, Biden might not do very well. It’s also too soon to know what might happen to Bloomberg after this awful debate. Although he’s fueled by his own money, ensuring he’ll stay in, his voters might transfer. There are a lot of factors that make it too soon to determine if Democrats can unite. All the candidates have also said they’ll support whoever clinches the nomination, so there’s some hope for unity with that.

Helen: In Iowa, a great deal of candidates were unable to maintain viability, and there is a solid likelihood that will continue in Nevada. Second choices will have to be selected and granted, begrudgingly. Elizabeth Warren should not be counted out of consideration prior to the caucuses, as she just had a very strong night, but also because she has Castro as a surrogate in the state. Castro was really banking on Nevada when has was running, so the support he generated in the state may be transferred to Warren. Nonetheless, people being forced to not go with their first choice will likely not garner a lot of support or enthusiasm from voters, especially because they have to be convinced to vote again in the general election.

 

Joanna: Thanks for coming to our panel, we really appreciate it! As we wrap the night off, we wanted to say that our team handed the win to Sanders, Warren and Buttigieg (33.3% each) and the loss to Bloomberg (100%).

 

Kat Falacienski is a politics writer at the magazine. She served as the moderator for this debate. 

Participants: 

Helen Ehrlich is a Senior Social Media Manager at the magazine

Joanna Hou is a politics writer at the magazine

 

Featured Image via Tristan 

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