The overall winner of the debate last night was Harris. Her exhilarating takedown of Biden on the issue of bussing put the former VP on the defense, and he never seemed to recover. Buttigieg and Gillibrand also did well, while Yang faded into the background. Sanders was classic Sanders and was the subject of sustained attacks from all directions. There were surprisingly few attempts by candidates to speak Spanish this time, but also many more flareups. Moderators struggled to keep control of the debate many times, and that contributed to a much more intense feeling overall than the previous night.
Bernie Sanders performed his usual routine, railing against the 1% and speaking forcefully about worker’s rights. But while in the past his energy has been transformative, last night it seemed unhinged. He was light on details and heavy on populist slogans. He did have a few moments worthy of note. The crowd murmured when he suggested term limits for Supreme Court judges. He also won applause for strongly asserting that he would rescind everything Trump has done on immigration on day one. But his age was highlighted by his positioning next to Biden and Harris. He looked like the latest Democratic has been.
Joe Biden performed less well than many people expected he would. On the whole, Biden relied heavily on his resume as Obama’s VP, but several times his points were overshadowed by his inability to enunciate and pronounce the words he was saying. He seemed to slur his words and at one point, he couldn’t hear what the moderators were saying to him. These moments contributed to the perception that his age will be a problem for him for the rest of the campaign. It did not help that Kamala Harris crushed him with a withering rebuke of his former stance on bussing as a part of desegregating schools. A point in his favor, Biden was one of the only candidates to follow the rules of the debate and would often stop mid-sentence when his time was up, a strategy that won him sympathy after it became clear that the other candidates had no qualms about completely ignoring the moderators' pleas to respect the time allotments. On many issues, he appeared to have few substantive ideas and it would not be surprising if he loses a few points in the polls over the coming days.
Harris was the clear winner of the debate, generally speaking. Not only did she have the most power and control on stage, but she came across as a sharp realist with a piercing glare and a strong heart. Her greatest moment came when she attacked Biden on his former position regarding bussing in desegregated neighborhoods. Biden used to support bussing as a state level issue and was against it being federally mandated. Harris framed his position as being against bussing and then laid into him with the line, and this is a paraphrase, “I was one of the girls on those busses that you were against.” The crowd went bananas, and she clearly won the exchange. Overall, Harris had a spectacular night.
Hickenlooper had an unremarkable night. Though he had ample time to introduce himself and play up his resume as Colorado’s Governor, he somehow failed to distinguish himself from the other candidates. Perhaps part of the problem is that he was sharing the stage with another Colorado politician, Michael Bennet. But the more likely problem for Hickenlooper was that he was not able land any blows against other candidates or inform the audience about who he was. He had a few good moments chiding Bernie about being a Socialist, but otherwise, he was little more than space filler on stage.
Gillibrand had a very good evening and performed very strongly. She interjected frequently, which came off as annoying to the mods and could have played against her. But her charisma and passion certainly made an impression. She didn’t highlight her close ties to Hillary Clinton, perhaps calculating that doing so would be a bad move. She successfully highlighted her feminist credentials and tireless work for women’s rights and social justice. Whether she connected with middle American voters is unclear, but as a smart, articulate fighter, she seemed very willing and ready to go after Trump directly.
Bennet did surprisingly well. He gave forceful appeals to integrity and mentioned his own health struggles during the healthcare section of the debate, revealing that prostate cancer prevented him from joining the debate until fairly late. But he was not able to distinguish himself from his Colorado colleague on the stage, Hickenlooper, and together with Swalwell, the three men seemed to cancel each other out. Bennet did well, but not enough to boost his name recognition, and he will be fighting a hard battle after tonight as a result.
Buttigieg had a breakout performance tonight. He was calm, composed, and articulate. He sounded reasonable and like a straight shooter and he was the only candidate to say anything in Spanish. He was also the only veteran on stage who could offer nuanced perspectives about gun rights. Swalwell did attack him for his handling of a recent police shooting in South Bend, where Buttigieg is mayor, saying Buttigieg should have fired the police chief. Buttigieg played this off and convincingly drove home the point that he is following the law, and that his heart goes out to the victims. Overall, he did well and could see a nice bump in the polls.
Yang had a surprisingly weak performance given the excitement around his campaign. He seemed uncomfortable and unsure of his words at times, while other times he spoke too quickly and rushed through prepared remarks. Yang was too laid back to engage much in the interjections and banter that characterized the evening, and so, he eventually faded away into the background. He did have one notable moment when he said that the “Russians are laughing their asses off” about meddling in our elections. The profanity caused murmuring in the crowd. When he mentioned the freedom dividend toward the end of the night, the mods ignored it, and there was not time to go deeper, so the idea sounded strange. He seemed generally out of place, and he didn’t achieve his goal of boosting his name recognition enough to be a major player.
Swalwell came across like a guy who just discovered dad jokes. He talked a lot about being a dad and he was full of catchy alliterative phrases. His main problem was that he didn’t have the charisma to surmount the similarities he has with Bennet and Hickenlooper. Sure, he got a few chuckles for his witty phrases, and he did have a few good interruptions. He effectively criticized Biden with a story from when Swalwell was a young man and Biden allegedly told him it was time for Biden’s generation to pass the torch. That forced Biden to respond, “I’m still holding on to that torch,” and he repeated that phrase often throughout the evening. He also had a good jab at Buttigieg, telling him that he should have fired his police chief. But for all of these wins, Swalwell failed to rise above the fray and distinguish himself enough to memorable.
Williamson was the crazy aunt everyone expected her to be. Her long rants were at times passionate and folksy, but other times she seemed to be speaking for no clear reason. Her frequent interruptions won her air time but annoyed the moderators. Also, her lack of resume meant that no one really knew why she was there, and she didn’t offer any clarifications. At one point she referenced a story about JFK going to the moon that went nowhere, and another time she said the first thing she would do as president was call the Prime Minister of New Zealand without explaining clearly why that would be her top priority. It was a bizarre performance from a strange candidate.