Tonight’s Democratic primary debate: the biggest winners and losers

Tonight’s Democratic 2020 primary debate was the last one before the South Carolina primary and Super Tuesday – and at the rate these debates are devolving, many voters may be wishing this was the last debate, period. This debate was loud, chaotic, combative, often difficult to watch, and at times unintentionally funny. Here’s who won and lost:

Biggest winner: no one. Back in 2016, we all made fun of the Republican presidential primary candidates for dissolving into such a shouting match, the closed captioner famously gave up and put the words “unintelligible yelling” on the screen.” Tonight’s debate wasn’t quite that bad, but it was pretty bad. So did any of these candidates manage to score even a partial victory amidst all this sludge?

Winner: Joe Biden (we think). In a muddled mess like this debate, trying to determine the winner is like trying to figure out which football team has the ball during a blizzard. But even as the other candidates went on the attack in various directions and all largely seemed to cancel each other out, it was Biden who managed to pull off a few key presidential moments – even if he did get tongue tied and say “homeboner.” Of course this assessment will only ring true if Biden ends up winning South Carolina this weekend.

Loser: Mike Bloomberg. Elizabeth Warren once again came out swinging at him from the start, and once again she landed several key blows. Bloomberg managed to rebound somewhat in the second half of the debate, and he ended up having a better overall performance than last time. But once again he’ll come out of this debate having to play defense against the scandals and accusations that were just hurled at him on live national television. He didn’t have a good answer for Warren’s “kill it” allegation, and he’s going to need one.

Loser: Bernie Sanders. We all knew that the other candidates were going to try to gang up on Sanders, after he won two out of the first three states, and he spent the week saying divisive and dumb things. The question was going to be how well he handled the onslaught. He responded by yelling even more abrasively than usual, as it became clear that he had no answers. That’s not just our view; large chunks of the debate audience ended up booing Bernie at various points. If there’s an upside for Bernie here, it’s that the Fidel Castro question didn’t come up until the second half, by which time it had already devolved into an unintelligible free for all. And the moderators never did ask about his campaign staffer who was caught yesterday making sexist and homophobic remarks about other democratic candidates. This went poorly for him, but it could have gone worse for him.

Sideways: Elizabeth Warren. She won the last debate by focusing on the many scandals of Mike Bloomberg, who had the momentum at the time. But she used this debate to largely focus on Bloomberg again. In fairness, she should have focused on the many scandals of Bernie Sanders, who came into the night with the current momentum. As long as Warren continues to act like she’s afraid of offending Bernie, she’s not likely to make any gains. Which is sad, considering she’s the smart and capable candidate whom progressive voters should be getting behind.

Everyone else: Amidst all the chaos and inept moderation, it’s honestly difficult to assess how Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar did tonight. Tom Steyer talked a lot but probably didn’t pick up any votes.


Biggest loser: the moderators. It can’t be easy to try to moderate a debate when this many strong personalities are on stage. But this was one of the most mishandled debates we can recall in a long time. The moderators asked a number of absurdly unimportant questions, including one involving Mike Bloomberg and soda. They also ignored a number of pressing topics, which the candidates then had to try to find a way to insert into the conversation themselves. And there were long stretches where the moderators seemed to completely give up, in favor of just letting everyone yell at each other. Perhaps the moderators went for a soda break.

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