Gloves come off in the 9th Democratic primary debate; Warren coasts to a new high

If Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) finishes in the top three in the Nevada caucuses, her campaign will no longer be on life support, according to experts. Her performance in Wednesday night’s Democratic primary debate may help her get there, they said.

By Alison Saldanha
Medill Reports

“We are not going to beat Donald Trump with a man who knows how many nondisclosure agreements and the drip, drip, drip of stories of women saying they have been harassed and discriminated against,” said Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren about candidate Mike Bloomberg.

“Mr. Bloomberg, it wasn’t you who made all that money. Maybe your workers played some role in that, as well,” said candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders

“Let’s put forward somebody who’s actually a Democrat,” said candidate Pete Buttigieg, speaking about Sanders.

At Wednesday’s Democratic primary debate in Las Vegas, Nevada, Democratic candidates traded barbs and insults to distinguish themselves from each other in the competition for the presidential nomination.

The six candidates –  Sanders of Vermont,; former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Buttigieg; former Vice President Joe Biden; Warren of Massachusetts; Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and former New York Mayor Bloomberg, drew a record audience of 19.7 million viewers in the ninth debate, beating TV ratings for the Golden Globes and the Grammys.

By the end of Wednesday night, media reports said the debate had turned into an “all-out brawl” and “slug fest,” as the candidates wrangled over Sanders’ increasingly popular Medicare-for-All health plan, Bloomberg’s past record, and how they plan to address climate change.

Warren decisively emerged as the winner, said experts we spoke to, as she swung at Bloomberg for his past comments on women, and at Buttigieg and Klobuchar for their health plans, each of which she termed as a “powerpoint” and “post-it-note” respectively. The topics discussed allowed her to flex her achievements and her clear record did not invite attacks on her character.

Meanwhile experts noted that Bloomberg, who debuted in last night’s debate after a 10-week campaign, put on a “historically bad performance.” His billionaire status created a foil for other candidates on stage, but his inability to demonstrate how he could surmount those attacks is likely to hurt his temporary bounce in the polls.

“I think it’s that time where the candidates are trying to differentiate themselves and that’s difficult to do when they are all on the same playing field,” said Kelly Shaw, mayor of Indianola, Iowa, in a telephonic interview. He is also a senior lecturer of political science at the University of Iowa

“The goal is to ultimately defeat President Donald Trump but for that [the candidates] needed to up their own respective campaigns, up the politics,” Shaw said.

Jacob Thompson, communications professor and head coach of the debate team at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, said the primary debate is meant to draw distinctions between the candidates.

“Now, that can be done more or less civilly, and in some parts last night it was less civilly, but the subcomponent of that is there are really important distinctions between some of the candidates,” said Thompson, an expert on presidential and political campaign debates, persuasion, and argumentation theory and practice.

“Bloomberg and Sanders might as well have been from different planets, so it’s important the electorate understands those differences and those differences are dealt with and explained and investigated in the debates,” he said. “While the divisiveness of these debates can turn people off sometimes, I believe it’s on balance and healthy.”

In the recent New Hampshire primary, Sanders claimed first spot with 25.7 % of the vote followed by Buttigieg with 24.4 % and Klobuchar with 19.8% , as Warren and Biden trailed behind.

This could all change in the Nevada caucuses to be held on Saturday, Feb. 22, experts said, pointing out this may be the first real test for candidates, especially after the counting debacle at the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 3.

“Since Iowa missed the mark in terms of caucusing, Nevada will be a good test of how engaged and energized voters are about the Democratic candidates and it is also more diverse,” Shaw said.

“Right now Las Vegas is demographically representative of what the rest of America will look like in the year 2060,” Thompson said.

He described Nevada’s demographics as a bellwether.

Nevada is not New Hampshire or Iowa, two of the whitest states in the union, he said adding that the southern state differs even from South Carolina, where the diversity of the electorate is primarily African American as it also includes sizable Latinx, and Asian American and Pacific Islander populations.

“All of these communities matter a lot and candidates are working hard to reach out to them,” Thompson said.

If Warren finishes in the top three, her campaign will no longer be on life support, he said.

And for this, her performance in last night’s debate might actually matter in spite of Nevada’s early voting system already recording around 70,000 participants.

“I do honestly believe that she’s got a 50-state campaign built out, but without momentum coming out of one of the first three states [Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada], she is not likely at all to get the nomination,” Thompson said.

“It’s not often that we see debates definitively affecting the outcome of elections but I think that it’s possible to Warren’s performance last night — she could swing a decent chunk of the undecided electorate”

Photo at top: If Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) finishes in the top three in the Nevada caucuses, her campaign will no longer be on life support, according to experts. Her performance in Wednesday night’s Democratic primary debate may help her get there, they said. (Photo credit: Senator Warren’s office)