The eleventh Democratic debate for the 2020 election cycle took place on March 16, 2020. It was held in Washington D.C. after it was moved from Arizona due to concerns regarding the coronavirus. CNN and Univision hosted the debate, with moderators Dana Bash (CNN), Ilia Calderón (Univision) and Jake Tapper (CNN) as moderators. Univision’s Jorge Ramos was forced to drop out after he came in proximity with someone who contracted coronavirus.
The debate included Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who stood six feet apart from each other in front of an empty studio, to ensure a healthy environment.
During the debate, as the coronavirus crisis raged globally and domestically, Affinity Magazine’s political team discussed the candidates’ nights and futures.
Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders discuss what they are doing to protect themselves and their campaign staff from getting the coronavirus, including not shaking hands and conducting virtual town halls. https://t.co/Fi1OPJnhZI #DemDebate pic.twitter.com/giYJ5TsWRX
— CNN (@CNN) March 16, 2020
Helen: Tonight was different than the past debates, as there were only two candidates on stage. Do you think the smaller group collection of candidates changed the night? How so?
Joanna: Yes, it for sure did, and for the better as well. We were able to hear a lot more on policy and a lot less over attacking little things (not that that disappeared completely). The smaller group of candidates allowed for a more toned-down conversation and really allowed me to explore the differences between the candidates better since they were given more time to talk.
It was overall a better setting because there weren’t so many side arguments, and we were able to focus on just one thing. Particularly, I’m glad it didn’t end up like the last debate, where everyone just yelled over each other. I think something that actually helped was the absence of a crowd, which was intended to maintain social distancing but was really useful in letting me just focus on the candidates.
Kat: Having only two candidates absolutely changed the night, for the better in my opinion. In previous Democratic debates, where there were 10 or more people on the stage, candidates often talked over each other. They were all desperate to get some screen time and make themselves stand out against their rivals. They were also under restrictive time constraints (again, so that everyone could talk), which contributed to their tendencies to interrupt each other. There was no room for meaningful back-and-forth dialogue about the issues.
I’m not saying that the back-and-forth we saw tonight was entirely meaningful, but we did see engagement between Sanders and Biden, rather than frenzied arguing. That was valuable because it allowed us, as an audience, to slow down and actually think about what the candidates were saying—and it allowed each of them to think about what the other was saying.
Helen: Strong points. Continuing on the topic of the mood of the night, in what ways do you think the coronavirus impacted the night?
Joanna: I would say that coronavirus sparked a much-needed conversation on new aspects of the economy and healthcare. After hearing sessions of repeated healthcare policy, in particular, coronavirus impacted different aspects of healthcare: particularly how a president could handle an epidemic. That led to new things like quarantine, travel bans and other issues being discussed. This was really the part of the night where Sanders was able to shine with Medicaid for All (although Biden also jabbed back successfully more than once.)
But coronavirus really extended a logical pattern for Medicaid for All, since many people now have to struggle to see if they can get tested, etc. However, one of my favorite points from Biden would have to be when he pointed out that Italy was on a single-payer system and it wasn’t working, a good counter to Sanders’s Medicaid for all.
Most importantly, the virus made it so that economic discussion was prevalent because it has been impacting so many jobs. This allowed for new economic responses from both candidates, which we haven’t seen in a long time. Overall, it opened up a new window into the debate policy-wise, which I thought was very helpful.
Kat: They spent the first forty-five minutes discussing their ideal responses to COVID-19, as well as critiquing President Trump’s response. That said, it was not at all a panicked debate—both Biden and Sanders had clearly thought about what they would be doing to quell the virus if they were President, and they presented their information in a calm and practical manner.
The debate over COVID-19 led to a broader debate about how we deal with disaster in this country, particularly economic disaster, and how our responses are tied to structural economic inequalities. Biden seemed to be shying away from that conversation at first, as he kept repeating that the COVID-19 response didn’t have anything to do with Medicare For All or the insurance debacle. But eventually, both men argued less about the virus itself and more about the inequality that was exacerbating its effect.
This was Sanders’s golden opportunity to pull out his classic rant against billionaires and Big Money, which he took with stride. He could then point out how Biden’s moderate record proved that he wouldn’t bring about enough reform to solve the problem of economic inequality. Biden led into the socioeconomic issues posed by COVID-19 as well, and while he mostly agreed with Sanders, it didn’t look as “flashy” because this was Sanders’s big shtick.
Helen: Do you think that the coronavirus will still be impacting the U.S. when the next president takes, or remains in, office?
Kat: It’s likely. The number of cases will likely have stabilized by the winter of this year, but we will have lasting economic trouble as a result of the virus. A global recession has already been predicted as a result of the closing down of businesses (though there’s still a debate over just how bad it will be), and the next President should be prepared to deal with that.
Joanna: Yes I think it will. If it mirrors anything like what we saw in China, it’s going to last a long time. Many doctors and specialists have predicted that this could become a common disease as well. It’s safe to say that it could last into the next presidency.
However, on whether or not things will be as bad, it’s likely that by the time Biden, Sanders or Trump takes office, the worst will be over. The curves showing the spread of the virus under different containment levels show that the virus will peak in either early July or late August, well before the election and far before anyone next takes office. So I don’t really think it’s going to be a hotspot issue forever, though Trump will definitely get a lot of heat from whoever the nominee is over how he handled this pandemic, so we’ll probably be hearing about it for a long time.
Helen: Joe Biden spent time framing himself as the underdog candidate during some of tonight’s debates. Do you think this is authentic or fair to the path of his campaign?
Joanna: Yes I think it’s fair because for the first part of it he definitely was. No one thought he’d last past South Carolina and he was receiving little to no funding. However, with the string of endorsements that have hit him lately, I don’t think that hook is as valid as it used to be. But I think he has the right to bring up the points over his funding to try and counter Sanders and his spending arguments.
Polling-wise right now though, Biden is definitely not the underdog and there’s no knowing if Warren will even support Sanders, unlike the moderate train that jumped onto Team Biden. Sanders is definitely the underdog right now, in terms of everything apart from funding (although after Bloomberg endorsed Biden I don’t think that Biden will be the underdog in funding for much longer either).
Kat: Biden is not an underdog. The statistical website fivethirtyeight.com puts Biden’s odds of winning more than half of pledged delegates at more than 99%. He will probably win the primary because he has wide appeal. Not everybody wants to be part of Sanders’s sweeping revolution, even amongst the Democrats.
Also, I don’t think Biden purposefully cast himself as an underdog. I think Sanders put him in that position by frequently pointing out all of the times that Biden voted in a moderate or conservative manner, which contrasted sharply with Sanders’s progressive purism. Nonetheless, I am still confident that Biden will beat Sanders.
Helen: Kat, to your point, I was referring to the way Biden was talking about the way people counted him out, but I agree with you both, especially considering the fact Biden was the perceived winner when he originally entered the race. The candidates were very focused on foreign policy during a large portion of the night. Why do you think that is so?
Joanna: I think it’s mainly still because of what happened in Iran earlier this year and because of the recent peace deal with the Taliban. But it was also good to talk about foreign policy since I don’t think we’ve heard much from either in the topic other than the back and forth on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Typically, Buttigieg and Warren (with military exp/family) dominated the foreign relations side of things during the debate and Sanders and Biden were pretty quiet over it.
Having them talk about what they would do in foreign policy was something new as well. I think that foreign policy was actually a strong showing for Biden because even though Sanders kept framing (as Kat said earlier) Biden’s more conservative voting record, Biden really hammered Sanders for his relationship with authoritarian countries like Cuba and China.
I think that boosts his electability as well since a lot of Republicans favored Trump due to his “tough on foreign policy” stance (although I wouldn’t exactly say he’s been tough on foreign leaders, but that’s another discussion.) But the never-Trump Republicans definitely could see Biden’s crackdown as a reason to elect him, which would be helpful for him I think.
Kat: I think the focus on foreign policy had a lot to do with the focus on crisis and disaster. Because we live in an interconnected world, crises almost never occur in bubbles. Almost every major crisis requires international cooperation and leadership. This applies not only to COVID-19 but also to climate change and economic downturns, both of which were discussed. There was frequent mention, especially by Biden, of the U.S. being a leader on the international stage, given our money, power, and sociopolitical influence, and being able to mobilize a variety of countries to act together to mitigate crises like COVID-19.
Democrats also tend to compare the U.S. to European countries when they talk about social issues, especially health care. It’s a valid point, how the U.S. is typically said to be a “developed” country, yet we have problems that many other “developed” countries do not, the healthcare debacle being one of them.
I also agree with Joanna that Biden was strong during the conversation about Sanders’s ties to socialist leaders, in particular, his focus on the achievements of authoritarianism in China rather than human rights violations.
Helen: Very insightful. Joe Biden was forced to defend his record on many topics everything tonight, including social security, foreign policy and gay marriage. Do you think having only two viable candidates left in the race makes these claims against him stronger? We have seen candidates like Kamala Harris try this, so do you think that this will hurt his campaign in any way?
Joanna: I honestly think that his defense was pretty solid tonight. He has definitely changed with the party and voted on party lines for many of the issues he supported. I think that Sanders needed to really jab at Biden tonight but I don’t think Biden really let his guard down. I think that he was able to point out things I wasn’t aware of (when he added to a social security bill that wasn’t supposed to pass, among other things).
I think that there aren’t as many claims against Biden as there are against Sanders because the entire moderate wing of the Democratic party (which is a majority of Democrats) has rallied to his side. It seems to be more Sanders vs. the world. I think that Sanders tried (smartly) to frame Biden multiple times throughout the night and was successful sometimes, but Biden also got good jabs at Sanders. While Sanders did try to stay on the offensive for most of the night, I think that Biden was largely capable of countering most of the claims and most established Dems wouldn’t take tonight as a sign to move away from Biden.
Harris was largely different in my opinion, I think she didn’t ever even have a response to her horrific prosecution record and that really hurt her. Biden at least has thought some of these policies out and did apologize when he needed to and defended when he needed to as well. Overall, I would say they’re not too similar and I wouldn’t think that Biden did poorly in his defense.
Kat: I don’t think that a two-person debate made the contrast between Biden and Sanders any more dramatic. We have known for years (and through months of debates) Sanders’s brand of revolution and Biden’s more cautious position as a moderate (as well as Biden’s evolution over time from a more conservative moderate to a more liberal moderate). If there were 12 people on the stage, I think Sanders would have questioned Biden about his record just as fervently because that is part of Sanders’s appeal: exposing the establishment.
I also do not think that Biden’s previous conservative votes will harm his campaign. I would wager that most voters do not meticulously research the candidates’ voting records, and even if they did and were unhappy with what they found, they probably understand that (a) people can change, and (b) the priority for the bulk of the Democratic party is defeating Trump, not picking the most perfect Democrat to run against him. Many moderates simply don’t care: they just want Trump out of office. Younger, more progressive people may take issue with some of Biden’s previous votes, but they’re less likely to support him anyway and less likely to vote.
Helen: While Biden defended his foreign policy record, Sanders defended his comments on world leaders. How, if at all, do you think the scrutiny of his comments will harm him?
Kat: I think that depends on who you talk to, especially with regard to generation. Many older people are hesitant to vote for Sanders because he is a proud socialist, and they associate socialism with the brutality and humans rights violations that some famously socialist leaders were known for, like Fidel Castro.
Sanders’s defense of his positions on socialist world leaders will hurt him with that age group—although they weren’t likely to support him in the first place. Sanders’s key base is younger people, who have seen firsthand the problems with capitalism (economic inequality, the 2008-2009 recession, unaffordable higher education, etc). To them, socialism sounds great because it is the answer to these problems that they want their politicians to fix. They associate socialism with well-off European countries like Finland, not with Castro.
Joanna: I watched SNL’s weekend update the other week and they put it well, saying something along the lines of you don’t get asked about Cuba and immediately focus on their positive record with education. I think this comes down to one thing: taking on Trump. Trump, who has been so focused on hiding shady business with Russians, who said that China was a role model, who also went on to say that he liked Kim Jong Un.
Trump’s relationships with foreign leaders are friendly. If Sanders’s is too, then what even is the difference? Biden cracking down on foreign policy makes sense. He needs to act like a tough guy to attract people from across the political spectrum. Sanders saying that he liked Cuban decisions and praising China is not really the strategy he needs to take for his electability’s sake.
Helen: Interesting takes, though I would point out the context of the conversations that Biden was referring to tonight. So this was considered an incredibly important night for both candidates. Why do you think it was important for each candidate, and how do you think they handled the importance?
Joanna: I don’t really think it was that important for Biden. All he had to do was not majorly screw up, which he didn’t really. I think it was an incredibly important night for Sanders since he’s really been on a downward spiral since super Tuesday. I think this was a huge debate for him and might be the last thing he can do to come back. I’m not sure the debate is everything he wanted it to be though. Biden seemed to prepare more than usual for it and only had a couple of minor slip-ups.
I think that Sanders needed something more to make waves with the debate. I’m not saying Biden did amazingly, but I don’t think he struggled enough to make waves for Sanders. I think that Sanders tried the best that he could and really hammered Biden on lots of issues, but it proves that Biden can debate well enough to stay above water and can also throw his own punches.
Kat: This was Sanders’s last straw. He already had an incredibly low chance of winning, and this debate was the last effort to energize his base and make a comeback against Biden. I don’t think he handled it that well. His responses in the COVID-19 conversation were good at first—he pointed out exactly how the virus would damage the already fragile economic situation in the U.S.
But then he segued back to his old rants against the billionaires. He spent the rest of the debate calling out Biden on his voting record, which was insightful at first because it captured their differences in policy, but he kept hitting again and again and again. It did look bad when, several times, Sanders alleged that Biden voted for something, and Biden said, “That’s not true,” because it opened up the possibility that either of them were lying to make themselves look good.
As for Biden, I agree with Joanna that he didn’t need to make a star of himself this time, given that he’s already ahead. He had to prove that he wasn’t about to die of COVID-19, but that was about it.
Helen: Finally, who do you think could be considered the winner of the night?
Kat: Donald Trump.
Joanna: Neither of them really won in my opinion. I feel like it sealed the deal that Sanders is basically done, but I don’t think that Biden really swept the night either. Yeah, I’ll give it to Trump, as well. Or I’ll give the winner of the night to six feet apart podiums and no live audience
Helen: Jumping off of that, what makes you say Sanders is done, compared to Biden? Very funny, though, both of you.
Joanna: I just think that he’s been losing so much in states and it doesn’t seem to be looking much better in the coming Tuesdays and primaries. I just think that this was the last major debate for Sanders to capture the attention of states voting next week and the next one isn’t for a long while.
This was his chance to really bash the establishment on the head and stumble Joe Biden and then use that as an “I’m the only one who can really take on Trump” card, but that didn’t happen. He got attacked sometimes and couldn’t really address his responses, as did Biden. Sanders needed a big debate win, like an Elizabeth Warren Bloomberg blow, to really thrive tonight and quite frankly, he didn’t get that.
Kat: Fivethirtyeight.com has been wrong before, but they’re generally reliable, and they are predicting that Biden will almost certainly win the Democratic primary.
Sanders’s supporters love him because he has a particular vision of the world. The problem is that not everybody wants to share in that vision. He’s not polling as well among women (who tend to vote more than men do) or African Americans. He scares away suburban voters who like their private health insurance just fine and don’t want it taken away. Finally, although Sanders has strong support among young people, young people are less likely to vote than older people, and older people don’t like Sanders as much (in part because of his self-identification as a socialist).
That said, I think it is important that Sanders is still vocal within the Democratic party, as he incentivizes moderates like Biden to shift their policies left and focus more on appealing to young people.
Helen: That concludes our roundtable discussion for the ninth Democratic Debate. Thank you, both!
Helen Ehrlich is Co-Senior Social Media Manager at Affinity Magazine and a staff writer. She served as the moderator for this discussion.
Joanna Hou is a politics writer at Affinity Magazine.
Kat Falacienski is a politics writer at Affinity Magazine.