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The Fifth Democratic Debate In 6 Charts

As impeachment hearings continued in Washington, D.C., 10 candidates gathered in Atlanta, on Wednesday night for the fifth(!!) Democratic debate. Maybe you missed it, or maybe you weren’t quite sure what to make of it or its effect on the 2020 Democratic primary. Either way, we’ve got you covered. Here’s (almost) everything you need to know — mostly in charts.

Based on the FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll, which used Ipsos’s KnowledgePanel to conduct surveys before and after the debate with the same respondents, Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg had his best debate night yet. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Sen. Cory Booker, Sen. Kamala Harris and tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang also have some reasons to be happy. Sen. Bernie Sanders doesn’t have anything to be too worried about. And former Vice President Joe Biden and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard might have cause for concern, again.

We will be watching the polls over the next couple weeks to see if Buttigieg’s performance is rewarded — or if Wednesday night’s debate has any other effects on the race. For now, though, here’s what we know.

Which candidates performed best?

Which candidates did debate-watchers think performed well? To answer this, we compared each candidate’s pre-debate favorability1 to viewers’ rating of his or her performance to see if well-liked candidates received low marks or if less-liked candidates impressed viewers. By this metric, Buttigieg, Booker, Klobuchar, Yang and Harris most exceeded expectations. Unlike the other three, Booker and Harris underperformed their favorables in October’s debate, suggesting that they both had a better night on Wednesday.

Respondents thought Gabbard and Biden underperformed (again). Gabbard, in particular, got poor marks; she had relatively poor favorability ratings entering Wednesday night, and yet still managed to underperform those numbers — perhaps a sign that her criticisms of the Democratic Party, and back-and-forths with Buttigieg and Harris, did not do her any favors with Democratic voters.

Did voters’ priorities color their debate scores?

According to the Ipsos survey, about two-thirds of Democratic voters prioritize a nominee who has a good chance of beating President Trump over someone who shares similar stances on the issues. But did these two groups of voters evaluate debate performances differently? Though the differences are small, it appears that the answer is yes.

Voters who prioritize beating Trump liked most candidates’ performances more

How well debate-watchers thought candidates performed in the fifth Democratic debate, by which type of candidate they prefer

Type of candidate preferred
candidate Similar issue positions Able to beat trump
Buttigieg 2.9 3.3
Warren 3.0 3.3
Sanders 3.1 3.2
Harris 2.6 3.1
Booker 2.7 3.1
Biden 2.7 3.0
Klobuchar 2.6 2.9
Yang 2.9 2.9
Steyer 2.5 2.6
Gabbard 2.3 2.0

From a survey of 3,786 likely Democratic primary voters who were surveyed between Nov. 14 and Nov. 18. The same people were surveyed again from Nov. 20 to Nov. 21; 757 responded to the second wave and said they watched the debate. Candidate ratings are out of 4 possible points.

Source: Ipsos/FiveThirtyEight

Voters who prioritize beating Trump rated almost all the candidates higher than those who prefer a candidate they agree with, suggesting that the former group is either happier with the field or happier with what the field talked about on Wednesday night. Buttigieg, Warren, Harris, Booker, Biden and Klobuchar all received higher performance ratings, on average, from voters who care more about defeating Trump. There were some exceptions: Sanders and Yang did about equally well among both types of voters, while Gabbard did poorly among both but better among those prioritizing issues. And despite some polls indicating that Democratic voters think an older, white, male candidate will have an easier time against Trump, Buttigieg and Warren got higher ratings from voters who prioritize winning than both Sanders and Biden.

Who left a good impression?

There were also some shifts in voters’ baseline feelings about each candidate — captured by net favorability (favorable rating minus unfavorable rating) before and after the debate. Yang and Klobuchar walked away with the largest gains, but they also had a lot of room to improve — even with these increases, their net favorability ratings are still some of the lowest among all the candidates. Most of the other candidates — notably Buttigieg, Booker and Warren — saw small increases in their net favorability.

Yang and Klobuchar increase in net favorability

Change in net favorability for candidates in a FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll taken before and after the fifth Democratic primary debate

Net favorability
candidate before debate after debate change
Yang +12.4 +17.0 +4.6
Klobuchar +10.3 +14.3 +4.0
Buttigieg +34.4 +37.3 +2.9
Warren +46.3 +48.6 +2.4
Booker +24.6 +26.4 +1.8
Sanders +42.7 +43.9 +1.3
Harris +24.7 +25.9 +1.1
Steyer +1.2 +2.1 +0.8
Biden +47.8 +44.5 -3.3
Gabbard -12.5 -17.0 -4.5

From a survey of 3,786 likely Democratic primary voters who were surveyed between Nov. 14 and Nov. 18. The same people were surveyed again from Nov. 20 to Nov. 21; 2,077 responded to the second wave.

Gabbard’s favorability, however, dipped further into the negative numbers, compounding her drop from the last debate. Biden also saw a dip in his scores, and this, coupled with Warren’s gain, means that Warren has now overtaken Biden as the most-favored candidate after the debate.

Who spoke the most?

Just like in the October debate, Warren and Biden spoke the most. But compared to last time, they spoke a more equal amount of words. Warren spoke nearly 200 more words than Biden on Wednesday night, compared to more than 600 more last month. Buttigieg — who entered the debate on a polling upswing in Iowa and with ample media attention — played a much more central role in this debate than in October’s. He trailed Biden for second place by just 11 words on Wednesday, while he was only in the middle of the pack in the last debate.

Who held the floor?

Number of words candidates spoke in the fifth Democratic debate

Candidate Words Spoken
Elizabeth Warren 2,456
Joe Biden 2,273
Pete Buttigieg 2,262
Cory Booker 2,184
Amy Klobuchar 1,999
Kamala Harris 1,941
Bernie Sanders 1,836
Tulsi Gabbard 1,472
Tom Steyer 1,457
Andrew Yang 1,301

Source: Debate Transcript via ABC News

Buttigieg’s increased presence in the debate isn’t a coincidence — he had clear polling momentum heading into Wednesday’s debate, and typically candidates who poll better speak more. That was true last night, as well: There was a positive correlation2 between the number of words candidates spoke and their polling average going into the debate.3

There are some notable outliers, however. Booker, Klobuchar and Harris all spoke more than their polling averages would suggest, and Sanders underperformed his third-place polling average, speaking more than only three other candidates. Buttigieg, who drew several attacks onstage, actually spoke more than you would expect, even based on his improved polling — trailing Warren by under 200 words despite still lagging behind the front-runners in national polls.

Who name-dropped the president?

What did the candidates do with all those words? We looked at how many times the debaters mentioned Trump by name. Of course, this doesn’t cover every Trump reference, since some — such as Harris’s opening line about “a criminal living in the White House” — didn’t directly invoke him.

Who talked about Trump?

How often Trump’s name was mentioned by candidates in the fifth Democratic debate

Candidate Trump Mentions
Pete Buttigieg 9
Kamala Harris 8
Bernie Sanders 7
Joe Biden 4
Tom Steyer 4
Tulsi Gabbard 3
Amy Klobuchar 3
Cory Booker 2
Elizabeth Warren 2
Andrew Yang 1

Source: Debate Transcript via ABC News

Buttigieg and Harris once again led the pack in mentioning the president by name. Yang, who had the second-highest number of Trump mentions in the last debate (nine), dropped down to just one mention on Wednesday night. This could be due in part to Yang’s overall struggle to hold the floor, or the fact that he referred to the president in other ways, like when he joked that his first words to Russian President Vladimir Putin would be “I’m sorry I beat your guy.” Sanders finished with the third-most mentions, ending the night with almost twice as many mentions of Trump as he did in the previous debate.

Do you want even more debate coverage?

Cool graphics from other sites:

  • The New York Times has a nice table showing how long each candidate spent on different issues. Warren spent more time on economic inequality than anything else — very on brand. Also on brand: Buttigieg and Biden talked more about electability than any policy area.
  • NBC News tracked how many times each candidate attacked other candidates. Klobuchar and Buttigieg did the most attacking, while Biden was attacked the most.
  • Bloomberg (the news outlet, not the 2020 candidate) compared the policies discussed in Wednesday night’s debate to every previous debate this cycle. Health care was talked about much less; foreign policy and social issues were discussed much more.

And here’s more great post-debate analysis:

But really, all you need is … our debate coverage:


  1. Pre-debate favorability was calculated by assigning a 0 to 100 score to each respondent’s answer to the favorability question, where “very favorable” is equal to 100, “somewhat favorable” is equal to 75, “heard of, no opinion” is equal to 50, “somewhat unfavorable” is equal to 25 and “very unfavorable” is equal to zero. Scores were then averaged to create an overall favorability index for each candidate. Respondents who hadn’t heard of the candidate were not included.

  2. R = 0.62.

  3. The polling average is based on 15 debate-qualifying polls released since the fourth debate on Oct. 15.

Maddie Sach was a politics intern at FiveThirtyEight.

Laura Bronner is a senior applied scientist at ETH Zürich and FiveThirtyEight’s former quantitative editor.

Ryan Best was a visual journalist for FiveThirtyEight.