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Will The Fourth Debate Change The 2020 Race?

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): So for starters, what did you go into the fourth debate expecting? Same ol’ same ol’? (After all, the last debate didn’t shake up the race too much). My hunch was that much of the discussion would center around impeachment as that has been the news story of the last two weeks. And sure enough it was the first question of the night — but was it the question?

Arguably not, right? So, top level — what stood out to you the most in Tuesday night’s debate?

julia_azari (Julia Azari, political science professor at Marquette University and FiveThirtyEight contributor): For me the takeaways were that the gap between the top three and the rest of the field isn’t as big as you might expect, and also that it’s hard to have a serious contest about principles when most of the people on the stage share basic principles.

Questions on impeachment could have been used to symbolically differentiate candidates, but the questions weren’t very conducive to that.

sarahf: That’s such a good point, Julia. It just seems really hard for candidates to talk for three hours about issues where I think there’s a large level of agreement – like supporting an impeachment inquiry into President Trump or introducing stricter gun laws. And it just seems to fall flat to me. I’m not sure what folks watching at home really learn from these exchanges either.

geoffrey.skelley (Geoffrey Skelley, elections analyst): My main takeaway was that there were arguably more sharp exchanges in this debate. Biden-Warren, Buttigieg-O’Rourke, Warren-Klobuchar, Gabbard-Buttigieg. Sanders was sometimes with Warren during those back and forths, too, particularly on health care.

seth.masket (Seth Masket, political science professor at the University of Denver and FiveThirtyEight contributor): This definitely seemed both one of the most substantive debates and the one with the sharpest arguments and distinctions between the candidates, like Geoff said. We also saw something of a coherent ideological divide emerging, with Biden, Klobuchar, and Buttigieg playing the role of moderates needling the more progressive candidates about whether their policies were realistic and whether they’re hurting Democratic goals.

sarahf: I’d noticed that, too, Seth — it reminded me of John Delaney in the second debate when he and the other moderates teamed up on Warren and Sanders; except this time I thought the punches landed more effectively?

What did y’all think?

julia_azari: I did think the punches landed more effectively. Which goes to what I said in our pre-debate chat on Tuesday: Debates highlight the inevitable flaws of otherwise strong candidates. It really struck me that the more moderate cluster of candidates focused on implementation and feasibility, not on ideological defenses of moderate policy. There was some, of course. But this sort of anti-ideological pragmatic impulse kept surfacing.

geoffrey.skelley: Yeah, the health care segment was so interesting because it exposed some major differences, and instead of John Delaney attacking Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, it was Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar. And Joe Biden, too.

sarahf: I thought Sanders did particularly well on the health care debate and was definitely the most transparent about what his plan for Medicare for All would entail. He acknowledged that “taxes will go up” and argued that they’d go up most for the wealthy. But he didn’t shy away from the idea that they would go up for everyone, even if his argument is that it’s less than “what they were paying for premiums and out of pocket expenses.”

seth.masket: I’d agree with the moderate candidates being more effective, Sarah. Their critiques of the more progressive candidates were more substantive this time. Although I was surprised at Klobuchar’s and Buttigieg’s claim that we’re really, really close to an assault weapons ban if only O’Rourke doesn’t screw it up with his reckless talk. This didn’t strike me as a realistic description of the current political situation.

sarahf: So Julia, at the outset you’d mentioned the gap between the top three candidates and the rest of the field not seeming that large … tell us more about that?

julia_azari: OK, so in general the conventional wisdom since the last debate has been that the field is Warren, Biden, Sanders. That certainly seems to be true in the polls. But there are a lot of other candidates who keep showing up on the debate stage. And I’d argue someone like Amy Klobuchar finally had her breakthrough. The others — Booker, Harris, O’Rourke, etc. don’t seem to be going anywhere but they also don’t… seem to be going anywhere.

They’re all there in case a front-runner plummets. And the front-runners all seem to have enough liabilities that at this point that seems possible. For example, Warren still isn’t very strong with non-white voters. Biden has the accusations of inappropriate behavior, and he is off-putting to progressives. Sanders’s base has shrunk and he’s also had a serious health setback.

sarahf: It sounds as if Klobuchar was your stand out candidate, Julia. What about you, Seth and Geoffrey? Who do you think performed particularly well last night?

seth.masket: I agree with Julia’s assessment that there’s room for the lower-tier candidates to make gains if one of the front-runners stumbles, but I also didn’t see anything that would really change the lineup much. Warren took a lot of fire but handled it pretty well and actually got in some very strong moments. Biden stumbled at times, but no worse than in previous debates. And Sanders actually seemed better than he’s been in previous debates, which is no small feat given recent events. He was sharp on policy and even occasionally funny.

That said, Klobuchar also had an unusually good night. Probably the strongest case for moderation out there tonight (even if we’re not sure what that is).

geoffrey.skelley: You know, I also thought Klobuchar did well. There were some people in our live chat who seemed baffled at that — ahem, managing editor Micah Cohen! But I thought she made some strong critiques of the Sanders/Warren health care approach, and her response where she spoke about her grandfather and how a union protected him felt like a meaningful moment.

julia_azari: I am genuinely curious how Buttigieg’s performance will be received.

seth.masket: I’ve been wondering about that.

julia_azari: He was really forceful… and argumentative with the rest of the field, especially O’Rourke who frankly strikes me as a strange target.

geoffrey.skelley: I also thought Buttigieg was strong, but we’ve seen harm come to other candidates’ favorability numbers when they’ve gone on the attack. Is Buttigieg different?

julia_azari: I’m not sure if everyone caught that he is from the Industrial Midwest?

seth.masket: Buttigieg knows he can’t get anywhere without pulling some folks down, but going negative seems almost out of character for him at this point.

julia_azari: It was strange from the person who scolded people in the last debate about how this is why everyone hates Washington.

sarahf: Clare mentioned this on the live blog, but I do think Buttigieg going after someone like O’Rourke instead of Biden does make a difference, and while he was tough on Warren, I think he was definitely more respectful. I guess I just think of his debate performances so far, this one was definitely his strongest.

geoffrey.skelley: Well, if the question is respect, he may come off better than Biden, whose tête-à-tête with Warren was not great on that front.

julia_azari: If academic-women Twitter is any indication, peoplethey were not into that Biden-Warren moment in which he responded to her work with the CFPB by saying that he got her votes to pass it into law.

sarahf: Yeah … so that Biden-Warren moment. What do you make of their exchange? Is this something we’re going to see replayed and that could hurt, say, Biden’s favorability? It definitely came across as a paternalistic moment, but I wonder if it will actually impact those who already support Biden., because aAs Julia mentioned in our pre-debate chat on Tuesday, and Perry on the live blog, — part of what we’ve learned through these debates is where in the party these candidates fall, and what that means as the party sorts out stances on race and gender.

geoffrey.skelley: Biden naturally has claimed most of Obama’s accomplishments as his own. As the No. 2 in that administration, that’s a smart move for him! But Warren’s response when Biden tried to claim a role in the creation of the CFPB was… awkward. She specifically thanked Obama. And then Biden said, “You did a hell of a job in your job.”

julia_azari: The Biden response to Warren’s point buries the point she was trying to make, which is to respond to all the pragmatism and implementation critiques throughout the night. She was trying to argue “dream big, fight hard” — and make the case for how and why that works.

seth.masket: And as with the previous debates, Biden emerged as That Guy who doesn’t seem to realize that he’s saying offensive and hurtful things. But Warren had some strong and understated ripostes (as Geoffrey noted). I’m not sure how much this reputation has actually hurt his standing so far, but it’s making it harder for him to grow his support beyond what he already has.

sarahf: Which… considering this was the fourth primary debate, how does it fit in with the debates we’ve seen already? I know we chatted about how maybe debates don’t matter all that much for the horse-race on Tuesday, and how it’s more about understanding the direction the party is moving in — but do you think that was the case tonight? Or do you think we’ll see some horse race movement?

seth.masket: Twelve people seemed like too many, but CNN largely handled that by ignoring about a third of the stage most of the time.

Who’s holding the floor?

Number of words spoken by candidates participating in the fourth Democratic debate, as of 7:17 a.m. Wednesday

Candidate Words Spoken
Elizabeth Warren 3,695
Joe Biden 3,064
Beto O’Rourke 2,584
Amy Klobuchar 2,559
Cory Booker 2,267
Pete Buttigieg 2,266
Kamala Harris 2,256
Bernie Sanders 2,085
Andrew Yang 1,791
Julián Castro 1,666
Tulsi Gabbard 1,497
Tom Steyer 1,318

Source: Debate Transcript via ABC News

geoffrey.skelley: I think it’s possible there’ll be some movement in the polls. I can’t imagine there will be an earthquake or anything, but this debate felt more dynamic to me than the previous one-night debate, which of course saw little change in the polls afterward — except Warren’s continued rise.

julia_azari: I think it made differentiation a highly sought-after commodity, which also means that candidates were more negative, as we’ve mentioned.

geoffrey.skelley: Yes, and isn’t that the way that someone like Buttigieg or Warren stands out? I was tasked with watching Harris and Booker during the debate, and the problem for Booker especially was that he was so non-combative and didn’t spend any time seeking that differentiation. He’s a great orator, but I just don’t see anything he said actually moving the polls.

julia_azari: They all also tried to tell personal stories, but with 12 people that somehow comes off as really inauthentic. Everyone knows a person with a horrible illness and a struggling family and has a surprising friend!

seth.masket: The less popular candidates really didn’t offer much to suggest why they should be in the middle or top tier either. Gabbard still seems very out of step with the rest of the field (and the party, largely). Steyer criticized billionaires who buy access but sure sounded like a billionaire who had bought access.

Sadly, a lot of debates end with questions like, “Say something nice about someone you hate.” I don’t know what we learn from those.

geoffrey.skelley: Well, is this where I echo Maggie Koerth-Baker from the live blog and mention there wasn’t a single question about climate change? But a question about Ellen DeGeneres sitting next to George W. Bush at a football game? OK, well, that was dumb.

sarahf: Yeah, that does seem to be a recurring theme in these debates. At least one cringe-worthy question from the moderators that’s too kumbaya-ish.

geoffrey.skelley: Much 🙄

seth.masket: You didn’t like, “You’re feeble and old; tell us why you aren’t feeble and old”?

sarahf: But setting the last question of the evening aside, was there anything new that you learned or surprised you in this debate? Or was it more about different candidates surprising you?

geoffrey.skelley: The combative stance taken by Buttigieg was surprising in that it was a theme for him. He had just released an ad attacking Sanders and Warren by name over their Medicare for All plan, so it wasn’t a shock that he went after them, but then to sort of make that his story throughout the night was somewhat surprising.

Then again, maybe it made sense for him to do that. He might feel that his support is more concrete now than it was before, so why not take some shots?

sarahf: That’s kind of my thought in all this, Geoff. And as you found — Buttigieg has also been consistently performing well in Iowa and New Hampshire polls, so I think he treated tonight as a gambit.

seth.masket: Right before the debate, David Axelrod made the good point that the takeaway moments from debates tend to be planned out in advance — candidates just look for opportunities to deploy them. So it’s interesting to see the choices candidates made along those lines. I’m not sure why Harris used her big moment to complain about Trump’s use of Twitter, or why Biden thought minimizing Warren’s work on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) would be a good idea.

geoffrey.skelley: Harris’s attempt to attack Warren over the president’s Twitter account was my pick for weird moment of the night.

julia_azari: I agree with Geoff that Harris’s prosecutorial moment about Trump’s Twitter was weird, in that she not only mentioned it several times, but also asked Warren if she would pledge to ask Twitter to remove Trump from the platform.

sarahf: Let’s now cast forward to the next debate in November. Eight candidates have already qualified, but four candidates up there last night still haven’t — Gabbard, Castro, O’Rourke and Klobuchar. Do we think this debate helped these candidates get closer to qualifying for November?

It sounds as if we might think it may have helped Klobuchar the most? It’s also kind of crazy when you think about it — eight candidates have already qualified!!!

geoffrey.skelley: It’s interesting because the DNC barely raised the donor threshold — it was 130,000 for this debate, and now it’s 165,000 for the next one. But going from four qualifying polls of 2 percent to now four polls of 3 percent is actually a bit of a barrier. Most candidates have had an easier time with donors than polls.

There’s the early-state poll route, too, but no one’s strength is quite so disproportionately concentrated in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada or South Carolina that anyone’s getting two polls of 5 percent while not also getting four polls of 3 percent or more.

seth.masket: My impression is that Klobuchar would have the best shot of the ones Sarah mentioned. I think there’s interest in someone like her — just maybe a lot of potential donors and supporters who weren’t sure she’d have a shot at winning this thing. My impression was that she allayed some of those concerns tonight.

sarahf: So maybe that’s a good argument for Julia’s point about the gap between the top tier candidates and the lower tier candidates not being that large. I just feel like I’ve been burned by this line of thinking before — particularly after the last debate, where our poll with Ipsos (and others) found not much had changed other than Warren continued to rise in the polls.

seth.masket: FWIW, some of the early-state activists I’ve been interviewing have been donating to multiple candidates, largely to reward them (in small amounts) for stances they’ve taken or speeches they’ve made.

julia_azari: Yeah. I’m not blaming the DNC entirely for not having figured out how this would work. The rules around presidential nominations seem to be changing.

geoffrey.skelley: I am very skeptical that Gabbard or Castro will get many 3 percent polls — they’ve barely had any at 2 percent in the window for the next debate, and neither has any qualifying polls. Klobuchar and O’Rourke, on the other hand, have had a lot of 2 percent polls, so just a little increase in support could get them there. Each has one qualifying poll so far, so they need three more of at least 3 percent.

sarahf: So where do we think we go from here? Who were the debate’s winners and losers? We don’t really do much of that here at FiveThirtyEight, we let the polls have the final say, but were there any clear narratives you saw emerge tonight in terms of debate performance? And how will that impact things moving forward?

julia_azari: I think the winners were Klobuchar, Warren, and Ellen.

seth.masket: John McCain has won a surprising number of these debates so far.

julia_azari: Losers? No clear losers, but no needed breakout moments from Castro, Yang, O’Rourke either.

geoffrey.skelley: I’d put Castro, Steyer, Gabbard as potential losers. Castro and Steyer because they just didn’t have much time. And Gabbard because she said that she supports a third-term abortion ban — though with health exceptions for the mother — just isn’t good politics in a Democratic debate.

seth.masket: I think tonight was a big test for Warren, given her possible front-runner status, and she handled it well. So that’s a win. And yes, Klobuchar was given more time than usual and made the most of it.

geoffrey.skelley: I guess Harris might be a loser, too, in that I don’t see where she did much to break through again.

julia_azari: I agree with that.

geoffrey.skelley: And Booker — he isn’t breaking through either. Hell, almost all of them are actually losers. Hot take.

seth.masket: We’re getting to the point where treading water isn’t enough.

sarahf: Yeah, and given what we know about Harris and how some of her support has gone to Warren, where do we think support for some of these candidates we’re mentioning as winners, like Buttigieg, Klobuchar or Sanders — let’s not forget his late-night endorsement from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — comes from? Because based on what Seth just said I could see what happened in the third debate happen here, too — Warren continues to rise and no one else really sees anything happen.

geoffrey.skelley: Obviously, there was some strategic timing for the incoming endorsements from AOC for Sanders. The endorsement had to have been known for a bit and they were waiting for the right moment to reveal it. Those endorsements after a solid debate performance in the aftermath of a health scare might be a good way to shift the conversation in a positive direction for Sanders.

seth.masket: There are still a lot of uncommitted voters out there, and committed ones who say they could change their mind.

I’m wondering if AOC brings Sanders any support he didn’t already have, though.

geoffrey.skelley: Maybe the AOC endorsement helps Sanders some with more liberal voters? Warren has been crushing him there in recent polls from Quinnipiac. In Quinnipiac’s pre-debate poll, Warren got 50 percent among that group while Sanders only got 14 percent.

julia_azari: I’ll also be watching to see the dual dynamic of which faction (left and center-left) will win, and which person has demonstrated their ability to knock out the others for who can be the standard-bearer for their faction.

Another takeaway from the debate: it feels very late in the season for political junkies and professional bloggers, but for a lot of people it’s quite early still.

sarahf: Always true, Julia.

Sarah Frostenson is FiveThirtyEight’s former politics editor.

Geoffrey Skelley is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

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.”

Seth Masket is a professor of political science and director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver. He is the author of the book “Learning From Loss: The Democrats 2016-2020.”