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The dynamics — including the fights — to watch for in tonight’s debate

libadmin January 14, 2020

In this debate day edition: The fights that may or may not unfold, what life is like for the candidates who got clipped, and polling that explains why Biden and Sanders have taken command.

If people do enough yelling on Twitter, everything’s going to work out, and this is The Trailer.

DES MOINES — The seventh Democratic debate of this primary will be the smallest yet, with just six candidates onstage. It’s the last of these until the Iowa caucuses are over. It could be the last, period, for candidates who underperform on caucus night. And it will be the only chance candidates have to argue with each other directly — not in media scrums or through surrogates — about the issues and personal spats that lit up the past few days of campaigning. 

Here’s some of what to look for tonight, only part of which involves what was or was not said in a 2018 meeting between Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). The debate starts at 9 p.m. Eastern time.

Do Warren and Sanders really want to fight? It wasn’t the substance of this past weekend’s sparring between the candidates that made it compelling. It was that the two candidates were arguing at all, after a years-long detente.

Until Sunday, when Warren cried foul over some suggested volunteer talking points from Sanders’s campaign that said she couldn’t expand the Democratic coalition, the two senators had really argued in only October’s debate, when their rivals used his willingness to raise taxes to portray Warren as evasive. Even then, and in subsequent interviews when asked about Warren’s plans, Sanders would criticize something technical (on Medicare-for-all, she preferred employer taxes to income taxes) and quickly move on.

Does Sanders still want to avoid a confrontation with Warren? Does Warren want to avoid grappling with him? A lot of that is up to the moderators, who are free to keep asking about the talking points and the 2018 meeting that Warren and Sanders describe differently. Warren, on the record, has said that Sanders “disagreed” with the idea that a “woman could win” in 2020, while Sanders, on the record, has called this “ludicrous” and said he told Warren that Trump was “a sexist, a racist and a liar who would weaponize whatever he could.” 

There are two clear questions for Sanders. First, did he agree with the campaign talking points that suggested Warren could not win working-class voters? Second, did he dispute what his campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, said about the 2018 meeting — that the exchange never happened? There’s an obvious question for Warren: If she’s trying to unify the party, why did someone in her orbit gossip about this private meeting?

Much less clear is whether Warren and Sanders really want to argue about this. Sanders despises frivolous campaign coverage and questions and sees any time spent on scandal or drama as time stolen from a discussion of the issues. Warren, who again has the highest favorable rating of any Democratic candidate in Iowa, does not want her highest-profile appearance in the state to be defined by a petty dispute and is far less comfortable challenging the media’s premises. It’s not likely that they’d let CNN and the Des Moines Register pull them into a fight, one that many outside liberal and left-wing groups are warning them against, and one they’d rather have with Biden, who has said in public that a male candidate would be immune from the sexism that hurt Hillary Clinton.

All that said, since the last debate, Sanders has come out against the updated NAFTA (USMCA) passed by the Democratic House of Representatives, while Warren has come out for it. That’s the sort of dispute Sanders would actually want to have onstage.

Does Biden want to go blow-for-blow with Sanders? Just 72 hours ago, Sanders had no intention of arguing with Warren. He wanted the debate to be a reckoning for former vice president Joe Biden, who Sanders sees as a potentially disastrous general-election candidate.

“It’s just a lot of baggage that Joe takes into a campaign, which isn’t going to create energy and excitement,” Sanders told The Post’s Robert Costa two weeks ago. “He brings into this campaign a record which is so weak that it just cannot create the kind of excitement and energy that is going to be needed to defeat Donald Trump.” Sanders has repeated that case at campaign events and on Twitter, but they did not get the pickup of the “a woman can’t win” fight.

None of this was new. Sanders believes that Biden shares some general election vulnerabilities with Clinton: a vote for the Iraq War, coziness with big donors, and support for trade deals that labor unions are against. And Biden has not responded forcefully, tending either to dismiss Sanders (“I don’t respond to Bernie’s ridiculous comments”) or to get bogged down in details. His campaign has looked vulnerable on the Iraq question, especially after former secretary of state John F. Kerry, a Biden endorser who also backed the war, insisted that Biden did not really support it.

“What we were doing was listening to a president that made a pledge, that he was going to do diplomacy, he was going to exhaust diplomacy, build a coalition,” Kerry said in a Sunday interview on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

Bidenworld’s struggle to come up with a consistent, convincing answer on Iraq has delighted Sanders, who has caught Biden flat-footed in their previous brief debate arguments. But the rising tensions with Iran have raised the salience of foreign policy for Democratic voters, and polling has found that Democrats instinctively trust Biden on that issue. He has an advantage on Iran, in particular, that Clinton lacked: Restoring the Obama-era status quo is now a more popular pledge than was a pre-2016 promise to continue it. 

Does Pete Buttigieg still match the moment? The former mayor entered the last debate on the rise in Iowa. He has entered this one on a decline — still drawing big crowds, still in command of a gigantic organization, but losing some support to candidates with more experience. He has often referred to his own military experience when taking questions about Iran, but he has been less steady and less specific than Biden, Warren and Sanders, and polling has found that voters don’t see him as a particularly strong foreign policy candidate. Buttigieg’s discussion of his service in Afghanistan has focused partly on how it informed his strategic thinking; just as often, he has cited it to say that it would be tough for President Trump to attack his patriotism. (“I’ve seen worse incoming than a misspelled tweet,” he often says.)

Still, Buttigieg has the highest favorable ratings in Iowa of any Democrat save Warren, and he has not been dragged into the past week of interfamily arguments. He enters in a good position to do what squabbling candidates can’t stand: condemn the bitterness and division and warn that it’ll just hurt the party in November. (The squabbling candidates hate this because voters tend to like it.) 

Who does Amy Klobuchar warn about? The Minnesotan has come through a series of debates in the same position — rave reviews from the media, some more interest from moderate voters, and polls finding her well behind the top four candidates in Iowa. But those candidates are arguing about topics she’s comfortable with, from whether sexism is keeping voters from supporting another female candidate to whether higher-polling candidates would divide the party. She’s also game to talk about a topic CNN has previewed ahead of the debate: the unprecedented cost of Sanders’s agenda, with promises that have helped him win the support of grass-roots groups but that moderate Democrats worry would be toxic in a general election. 

All that said, Klobuchar’s gotten glowing reviews for doing that in debate after debate and remained stuck in fifth place. The optimal result for her tonight: something that does damage to the Democrats running ahead of her and leaves her untouched.

Tom Steyer is still here. The billionaire candidate is running a kind of parallel campaign, uninterested in attacking his rivals, frequently focused on issues (term limits, for example) that they don’t care about. That, plus more than $115 million in campaign spending, has helped him zoom past candidates such as Klobuchar and Buttigieg in later-voting states. Steyer could be dragged into debate fights about money in politics, and he is, like any first-time candidate, vulnerable to foreign policy questions designed to test whether he belongs on the stage.


“Buttigieg woos moderates — and Republicans — in his push to close the deal in Iowa,” by Chelsea Janes and Holly Bailey

The hunt for voters who don’t usually caucus.

“Why Trump has a huge advantage over Dems with low-information voters,” by Peter Hamby

Twitter isn’t real life, and that can matter for campaigns.

“Sanders-Warren feud takes a turn onto the dangerous turf of gender,” by Annie Linskey and Sean Sullivan

He said, she said.

“Why voters are nervous about Amy Klobuchar,” by Michael Kruse

Why even a moderate Democrat is vulnerable to fear that voters won’t elect a woman.

“Cory Booker was a candidate of grace in an ugly political climate,” by Karen Tumulty

An appreciation for a candidacy that even opponents thought would do better.

“The third rail of calling ‘sexism,’ by Rebecca Traister

How the fight over a 2018 meeting could help Joe Biden.


NEWTON, Iowa — All Andrew Yang wanted was a spot on the debate stage. Any spot would do.

“They don’t even need to put me on one of the ends,” Yang said after a town hall at an American Legion hall in this small city east of Des Moines. “They could put me over in one of like the corners, like off on my own. Like, I was like the kid in class who, I don’t know, had a cold, or something.”

That was not going to happen. Yang, who surprised his rivals by making it into the first six debates, had touted that fact to swat away any questions about his seriousness. He made a similar point in Newton, telling a crowd of around 50 voters that he’d outlasted a crew of senators, governors and members of Congress, which he had.

But the debate rules required that candidates hit a donor threshold, which Yang did, and a polling threshold, which he narrowly didn’t. The Democratic National Committee required that candidates hit 5 percent in any four party-approved polls, or 7 percent in two polls of early states. Yang hit 5 percent in two polls, so he was out, and that made him and his supporters nervous.

“Viability is a huge concern,” said Tamara Barrett, 40, who had traveled from the Portland, Ore., suburbs with her husband to campaign for Yang. “When we knock on doors, he’s always the top three candidates people mention, but they think that he can’t win.”

Six of the Democrats running for president did not make tonight’s debate stage. Most of them — Yang, former Maryland congressman John Delaney, Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii — had made it in the past. One of them, former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg, had self-exiled from the stage by refusing to take donations. The final candidate, former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, has struggled to gain attention since his last-minute campaign launch and has not come close to the polling or donor thresholds. In a statement Tuesday morning, Patrick joined the chorus of Democrats who worried that a debate without black, Latino or Asian candidates was leaving out crucial parts of the American experience.

“No one on that stage knows what it’s like to fear for their safety when pulled over for a routine traffic stop,” said Patrick, who had previously joked that the harsh tone of the debates made him feel pretty good about missing them. “No one on that stage has ever been questioned about their citizenship or if they’re a ‘real’ American or been followed by store security when shopping. No one has ever asked themselves whether a rejection for a job or an apartment or a loan was because of their race — though millions of Americans still do.”

A candidate who entered the race in November, and missed some ballot deadlines, was one thing; Yang was another. The first-time politician has raised $31.5 million for his campaign, more than any other candidate who has ever been kept off a debate stage. The previous record belonged to former Texas congressman Ron Paul, who had shocked his party and raised $27.6 million before being locked out of a 2008 Fox News-hosted debate in New Hampshire. Back then, the network defended its decision by saying that its venue space (a TV truck) was too limited; here in 2020, the DNC has simply pointed out that it’s sticking to its rules.

Just hours before Yang spoke in Newton, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey had ended his campaign for president, saying his inability to get back on the debate stage meant donations he needed to continue had dried up. Yang, who talks often about his friendship with Booker, said it was “really tough” to see him go. But he was doing just fine as an offstage candidate, and he was sure he’d climb back on.

“It’s the will of voters here in Iowa, it’s the will of voters around the country, that I am on that stage,” Yang said. “Over 400,000 Americans have donated to my campaign. So it’s very frustrating that I’m out of there, but it’s going to be even more frustrating to them after I make the next debate stage and demonstrate that this one was just a blip.”


The latest on the impeachment of President Trump


Joe Biden, “Talking About.” Most Biden spots have attempted to time-jump to the general election, with the statesmanlike former vice president asking the country to return to decency. This does that in a livelier-than-usual way, chopping together a series of Trump utterances of “Biden,” to suggest that the president is fixated on the one Democrat who could beat him.

Elizabeth Warren, “Fight from the Heart.” The Massachusetts senator’s ads have not been overly memorable, focusing on a specific policy at a time and putting Warren in front of a camera to explain them. This one changes things up, portraying Warren as the single most dynamic candidate in the race, with footage of voters calling her a “hero” and praising her ideas and energy as she bolts around to talk to voters.

Bernie Sanders, “Strive.” A Democratic gripe with Sanders, which has never really stuck, is that he has refused to join the party and instead run as an independent who gets Democrats not to run their own candidate. That’s what makes this spot striking: It invokes John F. Kennedy’s fight to put a man on the moon, arguing that any “big” idea is possible if a leader wills it. “President Kennedy knew settling for half-measures wasn’t good enough,” Sanders says. 


Nevada caucuses (Suffolk/USA Today, 500 likely caucusgoers)

Joe Biden: 19%
Bernie Sanders: 18%
Elizabeth Warren: 11%
Pete Buttigieg: 8%
Tom Steyer: 8%
Andrew Yang: 4%
Amy Klobuchar: 4%
Tulsi Gabbard: 1%
John Delaney: 1%

Nevada and South Carolina vie for the title of least-polled early state, but we’ve now seen two surveys that come out in similar ways: Tom Steyer in the mix, and a Biden/Sanders battle for first place. The third- and fourth-voting states will remain fairly starved for attention this month, and every poll suggests that the numbers will move once Iowa and New Hampshire chop down the field. That makes this poll mostly relevant for debate staging; Andrew Yang, who was so confident that he could hit the DNC’s numbers in Nevada that he released an internal poll to prove it, fell short here by one point.

California Democratic primary (PPIC, 530 likely voters)

Bernie Sanders: 27% ( 10)
Joe Biden: 24% (-)
Elizabeth Warren: 23% (-)
Pete Buttigieg: 6% (-1)
Amy Klobuchar: 4% ( 3)
Andrew Yang: 3% (-2)

As it did in 2016, California looms large for the Sanders campaign’s national strategy. Four years ago, the state voted in June, and Sanders parked himself there for weeks in the hopes of a win that would so rattle Democratic insiders that they would shift their support to him and give him the nomination over Hillary Clinton, who held a delegate lead. This year, California votes March 3, and whether it offers a delegate haul for one candidate or a scramble between several candidates is not yet knowable. Sanders has moved up quickly since Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) quit the race, but Biden and Warren are also running strong enough to get delegates statewide and from congressional districts. The biggest loser, again, is Yang, who had touted strong polls in California as a ticket to the debate.

Which candidate would best handle foreign policy? (Quinnipiac, 641 Democrats)

Joe Biden: 46%
Bernie Sanders: 12%
Elizabeth Warren: 10%
Mike Bloomberg: 5% 
Pete Buttigieg: 4% 
Andrew Yang: 3% 
Tulsi Gabbard: 2%
Amy Klobuchar: 1%
Deval Patrick: 1%

Foreign policy was not a particularly relevant topic to likely Democratic voters in 2019. That changed quickly this year, with the airstrike that killed an Iranian general and raised tensions between the Islamic Republic and the United States. So far, the insertion of that issue has been mostly helpful to Biden, after a campaign when the former vice president took only scattered criticism on his record as a senator, and his vote to authorize the invasion of Iraq.


… six days until the Iowa Brown & Black Forum 
… 14 days until the special legislative election in Texas
… 20 days until the Iowa caucuses
… 28 days until the New Hampshire primary
… 39 days until the Nevada caucuses
… 47 days until the South Carolina primary
… 50 days until Super Tuesday



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