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The January Democratic Debate In 6 Charts

We’re less than three weeks away from the Iowa caucuses, and the Democrats held their first presidential debate of 2020 on Tuesday night in Iowa. Just six candidates took the stage this time, the smallest grouping yet.

Much of the debate centered on foreign policy, given President Trump’s recent decision to authorize a drone strike that killed Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani, which has escalated tension between the U.S. and Iran. Another topic of debate was Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s claim that Sen. Bernie Sanders told her in 2018 that a woman couldn’t win the presidential election, which led to an onstage disagreement between them. But Warren seems to have gotten the upper hand — she got the highest debate grade from viewers and she now has the highest net favorability rating, according to our poll with Ipsos, which used Ipsos’s KnowledgePanel to interview the same respondents before and after the debate.

Anyway, maybe you missed the January debate because you’re gearing up for the three debates in February (it’s a marathon, not a sprint), or maybe you just want more analysis of how this debate will affect the race. Either way, we’ve got you covered.

Warren got high marks

First up, who viewers thought had the best debate performance. To answer this, we compared candidates’ pre-debate favorability ratings1 to how well respondents who watched the debate thought the candidates performed. Candidates are graded on a four-point scale where higher numbers are better; comparing those grades to favorability ratings helps us adjust our expectations, since people may be inclined to view well-liked candidates in a positive light. Warren got the highest marks for her performance on Tuesday night, and they were strong enough to be impressive even after you account for her high favorability. That represents an improvement for her, after she fell slightly below expectations during the December debate. Sanders, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and former Vice President Biden didn’t do poorly per se, but because they were already well-liked, we expected a lot of voters to view their debate performance favorably.

Voters’ priorities affected candidates’ grades

Democratic voters really care about picking a nominee they think can beat Trump. Nearly two-thirds of likely Democratic primary voters in our poll with Ipsos said they prefer a candidate who they think can win the general election over a candidate who shares their stance on issues — and those numbers didn’t budge after the debate.

In December, voters who prioritized winning in November thought Biden had the best performance, but this time they thought Warren performed the best — perhaps a sign that her pitch for why a woman can win the presidency resonated with viewers. Sanders, meanwhile, did best with voters who preferred a candidate whose position on the issues was similar to their own, which is consistent what we found after the last three debates.

Voters who prioritize beating Trump thought Warren did best

How debate-watchers scored candidates’ performances (on a four-point scale where higher is better) in the January Democratic debate, by which type of candidate they prefer

voter Prefers a candidate who …
candidate shares stance on issues can beat trump
Warren 3.0 3.4
Biden 2.6 3.1
Buttigieg 2.7 3.1
Sanders 3.1 3.1
Klobuchar 2.6 3.0
Steyer 2.7 3.0

From a survey of 3,057 likely Democratic primary voters who were surveyed between Jan. 10 to Jan. 13. The same people were surveyed again from Jan. 14 to Jan. 15; 659 responded to the second wave and said they watched the debate. The average ratings are out of 4 points, where 4 is best and 1 is worst.

Source: Ipsos/FiveThirtyEight

Voters warmed to Klobuchar

Most of the candidates on the stage made good impressions with voters Tuesday night, according to changes in their net favorability ratings (favorable rating minus unfavorable rating). But perhaps unsurprisingly, the candidates who gained most were those who many voters didn’t already have an opinion on. For instance, around 40 percent of voters had neither a favorable nor an unfavorable view of Sen. Amy Klobuchar and billionaire activist Tom Steyer before the debate — easily the highest percentages of anyone on stage — and they also saw the biggest gains in net favorability, racking up 5 points or more on this measure. The other candidates saw more modest gains (Buttigieg and Warren) or lost some ground (Sanders and Biden).

In fact, thanks to Warren’s gains and leading candidates’ stumbles, Warren now has the highest net favorability rating overall.

Some voters soured on Sanders

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

Net favorability
candidate before debate after debate change
Klobuchar +12.3 +18.1 +5.8
Steyer +9.9 +14.9 +5.0
Buttigieg +26.5 +31.2 +4.7
Warren +43.3 +47.2 +3.9
Biden +45.3 +43.7 -1.6
Sanders +47.8 +44.3 -3.6

From a survey of 3,057 likely Democratic primary voters who were surveyed between Jan. 10 to Jan. 13. The same people were surveyed again from Jan. 14 to Jan. 15; 1,743 responded to the second wave.

Women grabbed the mic

In the last three Democratic debates, a female candidate has led the group in number of words spoken, and the same was true again Tuesday night. Warren topped the list by speaking 3,428 words in total, just 134 more than Klobuchar. On the other end of the spectrum, Steyer spoke the least with only 2,285 words, though that’s still more than he’s said in past debates. In contrast to the other candidates, however, when he was talking, Steyer was often agreeing with his opponents. Of the 11 times he was able to give a substantive response,2 he spent at least part of five of them agreeing with another candidate.

Who held the floor?

Number of words spoken by candidates in the January Democratic debate

Candidate Words Spoken
Elizabeth Warren 3,428
Amy Klobuchar 3,294
Joe Biden 3,178
Pete Buttigieg 3,088
Bernie Sanders 2,824
Tom Steyer 2,285

Transcript is preliminary and may contain errors that affect word count.

Source: Debate Transcript via ABC News

But Steyer speaking the least isn’t all that surprising given that lower-polling candidates tend to get less air time. However, both Klobuchar and Buttigieg managed to buck that trend, speaking just about as much as higher-polling candidates like Biden and Warren, which was similar to what we saw in the December debate. Overall, the relationship between a candidate’s polling average3 and the number of words he or she spoke was not as strong as in the early debates when the stage was much more crowded.4 That said, Sanders still spoke relatively little given where he is polling nationally.

Trump came up more often

Klobuchar mentioned Trump by name more often than other candidates in Tuesday’s debate, which was consistent with her strategy in the December debate, when she also mentioned him the most. But the president’s name also came up more often in general than it did last time — candidates mentioned him an average of about eight times each on Tuesday, compared with about six times each in December.

Who talked about Trump?

How often each candidate mentioned Trump’s name in the January Democratic debate

Candidate Trump Mentions
Amy Klobuchar 12
Bernie Sanders 10
Elizabeth Warren 8
Pete Buttigieg 7
Tom Steyer 7
Joe Biden 6

Transcript is preliminary and may contain errors that affect word count.

Source: Debate Transcript via ABC News

Warren, for instance, only mentioned Trump once in the December debate, but this time she called him out on eight occasions. Biden talked about Trump six times in both the January and December debates, but while that put him in third last time, he was the candidate to mention Trump the least this time around.

Do you want even more debate coverage?

Cool graphics from other sites:

  • The New York Times tracked how much time each candidate spent speaking about various issues, finding that Warren, Sanders and Klobuchar spent more time on health care than other topics. Biden, on the other hand, spent a lot of time talking about the military.
  • And despite the Warren-Sanders clash over whether a woman can be president, it was actually Klobuchar who attacked her opponents the most, according to NBC News’s attack tracker. Warren came in a close second.
  • Bloomberg News compared which issues dominated this debate with previous debates and found that health care, which has taken up less time in the last two debates, was revived on Tuesday night. Meanwhile, economic inequality and social issues took a backseat compared to past debates.

And here’s more great post-debate analysis:

Of course, we think our debate coverage is pretty good too:

Biden, Sanders neck and neck In Iowa


  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. We discounted instances in which he asked for a chance to respond or finished a sentence as a moderator was trying to cut him off.

  3. We are using FiveThirtyEight’s national polling averages.

  4. The correlation was 0.35 — similar to 0.3 last time.

  5. ABC News owns FiveThirtyEight.

Likhitha Butchireddygari was a politics intern at FiveThirtyEight.

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

Anna Wiederkehr is a senior visual journalist for FiveThirtyEight.