Des Moines Debate DePreview

Here we are, less than three weeks from the Iowa caucuses, about to watch the last debate before Democrats actually vote. With only six candidates on the debate stage, it’s getting real.

Some candidates have thrown everything but the kitchen sink at each other, but “last debates” are a great time to break out the sink, too. Since tonight’s debate is in Des Moines, Iowa, it’s an ideal opportunity for candidates to start making the final case for themselves and against others. If you skipped every debate so far, you might want to break that streak tonight. (Of course, airing on CNN at an obscenely late 9:00 PM, you could be forgiven for just reading about it later. Let me know if you’d like me to recommend a website.)

What should we look for from those six candidates? Allow me. Here is each candidate’s situation and, consequently, what their debate strategy should and/or will be. They are ordered in reverse order of national polling average.

Tom Steyer
Situation: Way back in Iowa and New Hampshire (at 2 and 3 percent, respectively, and in eighth place in both), he received some welcome news out of Nevada and South Carolina late last week. Fox News polls found Steyer surges into third place in Nevada (with 12 points), and second place in South Carolina (with 15!). But can his numbers hold up there after disappointing Iowa and New Hampshire finishes, especially considering leading candidates will pick up delegates and momentum? I doubt it. I suppose Biden faces a similar situation, but his Nevada, South Carolina, and national polling is so much stronger that I don’t think it’s a proper comparison. Steyer is, at best, a rich poor man’s Joe Biden.

Debate approach: I don’t know what he can do to salvage something in Iowa or New Hampshire. I think too much of the party is resentful of him making this debate while a hardworking, been-at-this-all-year candidate like Yang looks from the sidelines and Castro, Harris, and now Booker are out of the race entirely. We’ve now lost all minority candidates and this billionaire white guy is just buying his way onto the stage. His Nevada and South Carolina polling do force me to take him more seriously (I’ve moved his odds from 40/1 to 25/1), but overall I don’t see the party going for him. Besides, if he wins the nomination, we’re going to see like ten billionaires compete for the presidency this decade, officially inaugurating our dystopia. No one wants that.

Anyway, his approach should be some kind of overt pandering to either Iowa or New Hampshire. I don’t see him being competitive in the third or fourth state if he can’t have a top five finish in the first or second.

Amy Klobuchar
Situation: Her momentum never graduated into a full blown surge. Though she’s moved into a clear fifth in Iowa and New Hampshire with about 7% and 5% support, respectively, that’s not good enough. Her six percent in Friday’s Des Moines Register poll was, frankly, devastating. It was rumored she was quickly rising there, but Selzer & Co. dispelled that theory. Perhaps if voting were pushed back another month she’d have enough time to climb into the top tier, but with voting just 20 days away, it’s hard to see how she has enough time to get into the Iowa top three, particularly with the four-way tie up there. Even if one of the top candidates crumble, voters have several other top options to turn to before Klobuchar.

What caught up to Yang has finally caught up to her — slow and steady sounds nice, but there’s only so much track. She’s basically now counting on a rare, Santorumesque uber-surge.

Debate approach: In addition to her usual “Iowa Iowa Midwest Soybeans Midwest Iowa Experience Tariffs Minnesota Electability #WinBig Midwest Iowa” approach, I think I’d advise her to make some headlines by going after Steyer, probably over his lack of experience combined with buying his spot in the debates. Compliment Yang and Booker a lot to bring their followers into her movement. Once they’re unviable on caucus night, they’ll have to look to join onto another group, and supporters of the three candidates could join up under the banner of the strongest. At the very least, being aggressive toward the interloper will attract attention, and she’s at the desperate phase of the campaign.

That’s unlikely, though. We’ll instead see another Buttigieg showdown, a sensible plan since his voters are most like hers and he’s in her way of a top-three finish. Speaking of Mayor Pete…

Pete Buttigieg
Situation: Non-Buttigieg supports are so obsessed with hating and/or resenting him that I think they lose sight of the most impressive campaign of this presidential cycle. Just a South Bend Mayor who started this campaign with practically no staff, he’s now essentially tied atop Iowa and New Hampshire polls with the three biggest active names in the Democratic Party. Leave your loyalty aside… how is that not the most impressive political feat of this primary?

Debate approach: He still has his problems with African American voters, and everything he’s tried hasn’t solved that problem. All that’s left to do is win Iowa and New Hampshire and see if that’s what it takes to win over more national voters. That likely means surviving assaults from Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren tonight. He’ll need to be on his best counter-punching game. I don’t think he gets too aggressive with anyone until they come after him; then we’ll see that impressive officer/musician/polyglot/Rhodes Scholar brain go to work.

One reason I don’t think he goes after Klobuchar first is because of the extra layer of intrigue that a caucus brings. If she’s seen as unviable after the first round of voting (that is, if she’s under 15% in precincts, which looks likely), her voters will need to pick someone new. In that way, since no one else is above three points, she’s the most valuable nonviable candidate of the evening; with whom her supporters realign might end up being the most important factor of the evening. Biden and Buttigieg make the most sense for her pragmatic, center-left voters — indeed, they are my two preferred candidates of this field, much like Kasich, Christie, and Huntsman were my preferred candidates of the last two Republican fields — but if Buttigieg ticks off her supporters, he won’t benefit from her unviability on caucus night. Klobuchar voters then likely become Biden voters, burying the Buttigieg campaign in his quest for the moderate lane.

Elizabeth Warren
Situation: She’s not exactly going full Tom Petty on us, but it hasn’t been pretty lately. Once on top of Iowa, New Hampshire, and national polls, PPFA all but ended her presidential aspirations with one post, after which she’s been in a steady decline. Polling averages now have her in fourth place in Iowa and third in New Hampshire. (The Selzer Iowa poll was welcome news to a flagging campaign, however. It slotted her second behind Sanders, though just one point clear of Buttigieg and two points clear of Biden, both well within the margin of error.) Nationally, she’s third place but drifting. If Buttigieg and Sanders beat her in Iowa and New Hampshire, her campaign is over.

Debate approach: That last line suggests she should again quarrel with Mayor Pete in this debate, but I’m not so sure. It didn’t really work last time, as evidenced by her polling.

For months, I’ve been wondering when Sanders would finally go after Warren to unite the New Hampshire voters (and the Left in general) in order to compete with Biden. (To be clear, I still wonder if tonight’s finally the night. There are rumblings. Rumblings! And Warren just leaked that Sanders once confided in her that a woman cannot beat Donald Trump. Now that the story is out there, she wants to “move on.” Positively Clintonesque.) However, for the first time really, I’m now thinking it’d more benefit Warren than Sanders if they get into a brawl. Sanders has been totally unchallenged by other candidates ever since the desperate moderates like Bullock, Delaney, and Bennet have fallen from the debate stage. His rise to first in Iowa and New Hampshire and second nationally has been unencumbered.

This debate seems to be Warren’s last chance to win back the progressives that abandoned her for Sanders late in 2019 as the two exchanged places as Biden’s most potent challenger. Specifically, she could make an electability case centered around her left-leaning capitalism and his democratic-socialism. “I’m the progressive who can actually unite the party and win a general election. He’s the Leftist who will alienate Democratic moderates and get destroyed by Republicans in general election ads.” I happen to think Sanders is the stronger general election candidate of the two, but Warren could make a compelling case otherwise.

Bernie Sanders
Situation: The man of the hour, he’s ascendant in Iowa, New Hampshire, and nationally. He’s currently my pick to win Iowa, which means he’s the pick to win New Hampshire, where’s he’s already leading. Candidates who win the first two states have always won the nomination — though I think Sanders would become the first exception to that rule when the party and most voters freak out and line up behind Anyone But Bernie by Super Tuesday.

More dramatically, he likely has to respond to Warren’s version of events — that he said a woman can’t beat Trump. I expect he’ll deny it. Then it’s a matter of who we believe, and I have to think Sanders wins the honesty contest over someone I once compared to Hillary Clinton, particularly with Pocahontas percolating in the backs of our heads.

Debate approach: He sings the same tune at every debate, a little ditty called “Millionaires and Billionaires Ruining your Health Cares.” And, like any song you hear enough, it’s kinda catchy. But songs can also get overplayed; hear one enough times and you rush to change the station.

Can Bernie Sanders cut a new album? One that makes moderates more receptive to him and finally makes him a realistic option for the large swaths of the party that haven’t shown interest in his greatest hits? I doubt it. At 78 years old, it’s hard to learn new lyrics. But I don’t see how he wins the nomination without broadening his coalition.

Joe Biden
Situation: Still the least unlikely nominee of the party, he just needs one more not-awful debate like the last one. The December debate affirmed his spot atop the national polls and helped him crawl back into the Iowa and New Hampshire discussion, where he noticeably trailed the co-leaders before. With another good debate, he’s probably locked into a top-three Iowa result, which is a great result after his expectations were effectively lowered there. And if he wins Iowa (reasonable considering the four-way tie), he’s all but a lock to be the nominee.

Of course, that means he has a target on his back tonight — or at least he should. Whether the field goes after him remains to be seen. Sanders is ready to unleash hell on Biden’s Iraq War vote, but if it’s only the Vermont gadfly stinging him, it won’t really matter. Biden’s response needs to be good enough that it wards off follow-ups from the field at large, which surely sees his collapse as necessary for any of them to have a chance. The only way he loses this nomination is if he flubs badly.

Debate approach: Don’t eff up.

Enjoy the debate! I’ll try to have a review up for you by Quick Hit Friday. No promises. I have a real job, you know.


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