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Did Tuesday Night’s Democratic Debate Do Anything To Break The Logjam In Iowa?

Welcome to a special, post-debate edition of FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

sarahf (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): Just six candidates made the debate stage on Tuesday night, and with less than three weeks to go before the Iowa caucuses, this was the last time voters will see these candidates gathered on one stage before the voting begins. And the race in Iowa is currently very tight — in fact, best described as a four-way tie in our forecast. So, here’s the first of our five post-debate questions …

Did the debate change how you think about Iowa?

danjhopkins (Dan Hopkins, political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania and FiveThirtyEight contributor): To me — and definitely according to the FiveThirtyEight primary forecast and recent Iowa polls — Iowa is very much up for grabs, and I don’t think that tonight was anything like the game changer needed to fundamentally reshape the race. Basically, all the candidates seemed to have their moments, but if you are an Iowa caucusgoer waiting for something to break the logjam or convince you that someone is more or less competitive versus Trump, I don’t think you saw it.

julia_azari (Julia Azari, political science professor at Marquette University and FiveThirtyEight contributor): Maybe slightly. One thing I was thinking about was that the ideological lanes are now clearer. Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg are competing in Joe Biden’s moderate/establishment lane, although both are pretty far behind him (Klobuchar even further behind than Buttigieg). Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are still competing for the “left” lane of the party. The other lanes I thought would emerge have mostly disappeared.

I’m not sure where this leaves Tom Steyer, but I’m not sure it matters.

I guess that’s not specifically about Iowa, per se, but one implication of what I’ve laid out is that those may be the stakes of the contest. Or there may be two winners — one in the moderate lane and one in the liberal one — in the sense that those lanes are still both up for grabs and vying for dominance.

geoffrey.skelley (Geoffrey Skelley, elections analyst): Man, it’s hard to say how much this might have changed things in Iowa. On the one hand, the debate was pretty uneventful outside of a couple moments. However, more people may have been watching than in many previous debates, particularly Iowa caucus-goers who have to vote in less than three weeks. So it’s possible that someone had a good night and moved the numbers.

That might have been Buttigieg, who I thought was generally strong, both when he was making the case that a health care plan doesn’t have to have a huge price tag to represent a big change or when he was openly referencing his faith. Or maybe it was Warren, who had a potentially viral moment about sexism and the “electability” question that has dominated recent news cycles, whether a woman can win the presidency. (Women face a bunch of gender-based hurdles in elections that men do not, including in the 2020 primary. But ultimately the research, and recent history, suggests that it is very, very possible for those hurdles to be overcome.)

sarahf: We’ll have results from our post-debate survey with Ipsos Wednesday afternoon to answer this next question more rigorously, but give me your first impressions …

Biden, Sanders neck and neck In Iowa

Who had the best night?

julia_azari: I didn’t feel like anyone really stood out. Warren and Klobuchar both seemed like they took up more space on the debate stage than in the past; for a candidate of Warren’s stature, she’s had relatively few truly memorable moments or confrontations. But that started to change in December with her exchange over fundraising and wine caves with Buttigieg. And as Geoffrey said, this time it was her exchange with Sanders over whether women can win the presidency.

danjhopkins: I don’t think Biden had a great night — there were again, times that I was confused as to precisely what he was talking about. But at the same time, he’s not the most formidable front-runner, and so I think that at this point, anything short of a significant win for an opponent is probably good for him. I could see an argument that Sanders, Buttigieg, Warren or Klobuchar did fine — but this isn’t a case where everyone can win.

julia_azari Klobuchar had some stumbles, but it’s hard to know if these will matter. After all, she’s not really in the top tier, and still pretty far behind the top four.

geoffrey.skelley: I’ll go with Buttigieg and Warren as my picks, though I’m not sure anyone had a truly great or truly bad night.

Buttigieg, I thought, did a good job of incorporating his experiences into some of his answers. For instance, when he talked about avoiding endless military campaigns in the Middle East, he referenced a time in his military service when he watched a fellow soldier leave behind a young child. And I think among the more moderate candidates, Buttigieg did the best job in challenging the progressive premise that something that’s not “huge” on health care is small potatoes. But I also think Warren’s exchange with Sanders over whether women can win the presidency will get talked about a lot, too, including when she pointed out that the men on the stage had lost a lot of elections, and the women hadn’t.

danjhopkins: To me, one of the fundamental challenges here is that Democrats, especially those still looking for a candidate, seem to really care about electability and beating Trump. But how exactly do you perform electability in a debate?

Who failed to make an impression?

danjhopkins: Deval Patrick?

sarahf: Ha! They have to be on stage, Dan.

geoffrey.skelley: I think Steyer best fits this category, at least among those on stage. I’m not sure he gave a particularly good answer to why he’d make a good commander-in-chief — “I worked internationally around the world for decades” in business. That answer could be given by a lot of people.

He also seemed to say “I agree with [insert candidate]” more than the others on stage, so I’m not sure he was really adding all that much.

But then I immediately question those takes because I do think Steyer does a good job of mostly looking directly at the camera when responding, something I recall Trump doing a lot in the 2016 Republican primary. It can be off-putting but may actually be pretty effective.

julia_azari: Steyer did have some good lines about climate change, though, and may have done some to push the other candidates to address it in their remarks.

I also wanted to add a glib line about the lack of candidates of color on that stage, but I also didn’t want to annoy my editor after we’ve all been up too late covering the seventh debate of this primary season.

danjhopkins: But yes, to Julia’s point, I think the debate topics and tenor have shifted a bit as the candidates of color have dropped out, or not met the debate thresholds.

julia_azari: I mean, not to be super-obvious about it, but tonight was a lot less about race.

The moderators did ask Buttigieg about his lack of support among African American voters, and many of the candidates talked about racism and racial justice. In some ways, the fault lines of previous Democratic contests are what failed to make an impression — that is, they didn’t show up as much. There was agreement about changing the approach to foreign policy, curbing executive power, tackling racism. The health care divide remains the most significant policy one.

sarahf: And, to zoom in on the front-runner

What about Biden?

julia_azari: What about him? I mean, he kinda did what he always does. Talked about his record. Talked about Trump. Talked about how he was Obama’s VP …

geoffrey.skelley: He offered some nice platitudes about fighting to help middle class and working class Americans.

danjhopkins: As I hinted above, one of the issues with electability is that it’s something you show. It can be hard (or at least awkward) to talk about, but Biden was able to point to the breadth of his support as evidence of his electability when he outlined how he was really the only candidate up there who has a coalition that “represent[s] all elements of the party.”

That said, he certainly doesn’t have the witticisms of Klobuchar, the memorable images of Buttigieg, the show-stopping zingers of Warren, or the righteous indignation of Sanders, and so maybe that limits his appeal.

julia_azari: One thing that’s kind of interesting is that the other two candidates vying for his lane (Buttigieg and Klobuchar) weren’t really in a position to attack him. He’s somewhat personally insulated because of his biography, particularly the unimaginable amount of personal loss he’s suffered. But also no one trying to succeed in that lane wants to attack the Obama administration (even Buttigieg when railing against Washington, for instance). And that’s maybe because they’re trying to carve out the same policy area as Biden, or at least a similar one.

geoffrey.skelley: Yes, Julia, I noticed that too. Neither Buttigieg nor Klobuchar really took shots at Biden. I wondered about that pre-debate, as I was assigned to watch Klobuchar. Her attacks on Buttigieg made sense, but she probably needs Biden to slide some, too!

But I don’t know. Biden’s performance was probably the sort of thing where he did well enough to not lose much support, but also didn’t really gain much support, either.

danjhopkins: What’s challenging about handicapping this debate is that the candidates needed very different things from it. Klobuchar likely needed a tremendous performance given where she stands in the race, whereas Biden and Sanders didn’t need to be much more than themselves.

sarahf: OK, and finally …

How did the moderators do?

julia_azari: I was pretty frustrated with questions in the vein of “don’t the voters deserve to know,” and it felt like a few of the moderators were putting words in the candidates mouths with some of the questions they asked, like when Wolf Blitzer compared Klobuchar’s record in the Senate with Buttigieg’s military service.

geoffrey.skelley: I’ve never moderated a debate, and I don’t imagine it’s an easy thing to do, but with fewer candidates on stage, maybe don’t interrupt them as much if a candidate has hit the time limit. Give them another moment or two, then try to enforce the rules.

Also, there was a question about how the impeachment trial might affect the ability of the three U.S. senators on stage to campaign in Iowa. Asking about impeachment makes sense, but asking about how it’s going to affect their ability to campaign accomplishes nothing — voters do not care about that. It tells us nothing except, well, they’re going to do their jobs.

danjhopkins: On the plus side, the moderators raised a range of substantive issues. But I think that politicians make lousy pundits, and don’t like questions about electability. I also wished that there were more questions about actually managing large organizations, as that’s a key thing that presidents, you know, do. Also, rather than asking the candidates to reiterate their health care talking points for the umpteenth time, try a new issue — the candidates’ child care policies was a welcome departure, for instance.

sarahf: Thanks, everyone! Get some sleep! And readers, please check back with us Wednesday afternoon for the update to our “Who Won The January Debate?” poll.

Make sure to check out FiveThirtyEight’s Democratic primary forecast in full; you can also see all the 2020 primary polls we’ve collected, including national polls, Iowa polls, New Hampshire polls, Nevada polls and South Carolina polls.

CORRECTION (Jan. 15, 2020, 10:53 a.m.): A previous version of this story mischaracterized Pete Buttigieg’s military service. He served in the Navy, not the Army.

Geoffrey Skelley is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Sarah Frostenson is FiveThirtyEight’s former politics editor.

Julia Azari is an associate professor of political science at Marquette University. Her research interests include the American presidency, political parties and political rhetoric. She is the author of “Delivering the People’s Message: The Changing Politics of the Presidential Mandate.”

Dan Hopkins is a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, and his research focuses on American elections and public opinion.