Posted on February 20, 2020

3 Winners and 4 Losers from the Nevada Democratic Debate

Zack Beauchamp, et al., Vox, February 19, 2020


Winner: Elizabeth Warren


It seems like Warren needs a miracle to save her campaign, and while strong debate performances haven’t always translated into good polling in the past, Wednesday night was still one hell of a start. Warren dominated the stage, delivering striking answers in one of the best performances I’ve seen from a presidential candidate — not just in this cycle, but ever.


Loser: Mike Bloomberg

Up until Wednesday, Bloomberg’s campaign had been a grand experiment. It eschewed the typical marks of a political campaign — public events, speeches, actual interactions with voters — in favor of an unprecedented ad blitz funded by the former mayor’s seemingly unlimited personal fortune. Bloomberg has spent more than $400 million of his own money on political ads. As my Vox colleague Ezra Klein noted, “if you ignore Tom Steyer, the other self-funding billionaire chasing the Democratic nomination, Bloomberg has spent more than three times as much as all the other Democratic candidates combined.”

The big question underlying Bloomberg’s campaign has been whether it’s possible to win the Democratic nomination — and potentially the presidency — by muscling out the competition with massive amounts of money. He arrived at the debate with a target on his chest and spent the evening taking incoming attacks.

When he got a chance to respond to Warren’s opening, he had no real answer, instead launching into a generic speech about how he can beat Trump because, among other things, Bloomberg is a “New Yorker.”

The harsh take on Bloomberg’s performance is that a billionaire seeking to paper over his record with truckloads of money is simply not the candidate Democrats are looking for in 2020. The more charitable take is that campaigning is a learned skill, and it’s hard to compete with five grizzled veterans if you’ve spent the bulk of the 2020 primary season buying ads. Whichever take you believe, Bloomberg had a terrible night.

Winner: Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders went into the debate as the frontrunner. {snip}

Nothing that happened at the Nevada debate really changed that. It’s not that Sanders did particularly well, but he didn’t do anything to lose his lead. {snip}


Loser: Moderates

Rather than coalescing behind one candidate and focusing on Bernie Sanders, the moderate Democrats running for president have been fighting with each other. This night was no different.


Later, Buttigieg went after Klobuchar again on immigration, in particular her past Senate vote to make English the national language (a vote she recently disavowed) and for voting to confirm Kevin McAleenan, Trump’s former US Customs and Border Protection commissioner, who oversaw the agency during the administration’s family separation policy. Klobuchar seemed, to put it mildly, not happy about Buttigieg putting her on the ropes again.

“I wish everyone was as perfect as you, Pete,” Klobuchar said, her voice dripping with sarcasm, before launching into a defense of her record. “I’m so proud of the work I’ve done on immigration reform. And you know what? You have not been in the arena doing that work. You’ve memorized a bunch of talking points and a bunch of things.”


Loser: Diversity

The 2020 Democratic field began as the most diverse in history; now it contains just one person of color — Rep. Tulsi Gabbard — and she failed to make it onto the Nevada debate stage. Instead, leading up to the first primaries where voters of color will get a say, viewers were left with a stage that was all white. It wasn’t particularly diverse in terms of age, socioeconomics (as Buttigieg pointed out), or background. It did feature two women and one gay man, but the dearth of diverse candidates meant the debate lacked pointed, personal responses to matters related to race and class in the few times they were brought up.

There was, for example, no Sen. Cory Booker to give Americans a personal view into the effects of redlining by talking, as he often did, about his parents’ struggles to buy their first home. Instead, Bloomberg said, “It came about because the people who took the mortgages, packaged them and others bought them. That’s where the disaster was.”

Beyond this absence of narratives that speak directly to the experiences and realities of Americans of color was a relative lack of discussion about issues that affect those Americans. Warren was an exception, mentioning how pollution disproportionately affects communities of color, advocating for historically black colleges and universities, and pledging support for child care workers of color. But much of the other discussion of people of color revolved around candidates being asked to defend their records on issues affecting nonwhite Americans.

Bloomberg was attacked over his support for New York’s unconstitutional stop-and-frisk program, and Amy Klobuchar was asked about her role in sentencing a black then-teenage boy to life in prison for a shooting he says he didn’t commit. The end of the debate did feature a question on immigration, but the response was dominated by Klobuchar and Buttigieg sparring about experience.

It shouldn’t take a candidate of color to be onstage for a debate to feature substantive discussions of race in America and the unique challenges people of color face, particularly when that debate is in Nevada, where 30 percent of the population is Latinx. But it seems that it does.

Loser: “Tough on crime” policies

Something remarkable happened at the debate: No one defended “tough on crime” policies — not even the people who actually implemented such policies in the past.

It began with Bloomberg’s record on policing. At the core of his approach as mayor was stop and frisk, which deployed police officially in an attempt to get guns and drugs out of the streets, but in reality disproportionately targeted minority communities for policing and hassled people of color on a daily basis.

Bloomberg has apologized for his support of stop and frisk. But in recent weeks, a 2015 video resurfaced in which he described his past support for stop and frisk in racist terms; he claimed that “95 percent of murders, murderers, and murder victims” were “male minorities 16 to 25,” and that you could “take the description, Xerox it, and pass it out to all cops.” He added, “We put all the cops in minority neighborhoods. Yes, that’s true. Why do we do it? Because that’s where all the crime is. And the way you get guns out of the kids’ hands is to throw them up against the wall and frisk them.”

Other candidates hit him hard for both the policy and his previous defense of it. Warren, in particular, called him out for not stating clearly in his apologies that the policy seemed to target minority communities: “It targeted communities of color. It targeted black and brown men from the beginning. And if you want to issue a real apology, then the apology has to start with the intent of the plan as it was put together and the willful ignorance day by day by day of admitting what was happening even as people protested in your streets, shutting out the sounds of people telling you how your own policy was breaking their lives.”

Bloomberg apologized again: “If I go back and look at my time in office, the one thing that I’m really worried about, embarrassed about was how it turned out with stop and frisk.”

Later on, Klobuchar faced questions about her prosecution of Myon Burrell, a black teen accused of murder, when she was the top prosecutor in Hennepin County, Minnesota. The question, though, wasn’t about whether Klobuchar was too lenient on Burrell, but if she was too tough — leading to the incarceration of a potentially innocent person. Klobuchar said she supported further investigation into the case if necessary.

These moments reflect the massive shift in crime politics in just the past two decades. It wasn’t too long ago that both parties were actively supporting draconian criminal justice approaches. It was Democrats, particularly Biden, that led the charge on the 1994 crime bill, which critics say led to harsher prison sentences, more prison cells, and more aggressive policing.

But in the era of Black Lives Matter, the candidates on the Democratic stage weren’t just distancing themselves from these policies but harshly criticizing and even apologizing for them. It’s a notable turnaround from just several years ago.

Winner: Viewers

Grab your popcorn, everyone.

The Nevada debate was a far cry from a two-hour snoozefest. The gloves were fully off from the starting question, during which each candidate took a turn roasting Bloomberg before going after each other.