Wednesday night’s debate live from the Las Vegas Strip was set up to have some razzle-dazzle. And it did not disappoint.
It was the most intense opening 10 minutes of a presidential debate since the first 2016 Republican debate when Donald Trump mixed it up with then-Fox News host Megyn Kelly.
There was high drama — attacks on first-time presidential debater Michael Bloomberg, national polling front-runner Bernie Sanders, and just about everyone else — and high stakes. It could have been the last chance for Elizabeth Warren or Pete Buttigieg to make a move toward winning Nevada and the nomination. It was a key test for Joe Biden, whose campaign may be realizing that there won’t be a South Carolina firewall if he doesn’t do well in Nevada.
One weird thing about this NBC/MSNBC/Nevada Independent debate was it took place after four days of early voting had already ended, which meant that an estimated 70,000 people had already participated in the state’s Democratic caucuses. For context, in 2016, when there was no early voting, an estimated 84,000 people caucused, so a candidate doing well or flopping won’t impact a huge chunk of voters.
A second weird thing about this debate: Bloomberg isn’t even on a ballot for another two weeks.
The grades below are based on how each candidate did, including the substance and resonance of their responses, as well as whether they accomplished what they needed in the context of their campaigns. Warren, for example, had, hands down, the best performance of the debate. But in the context of the campaign, Sanders found a way to coast, and now is in a prime position to win the Nevada Caucuses and do well on Super Tuesday.
Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts
Warren dominated this debate. Her performance was a master class. She needed to come in and fight like she had nothing to lose, because, let’s be honest, she didn’t. She entered this debate sort of lost in the race: there, but not really there.
She leaves the stage the talk of Vegas. It is hard to know exactly what this performance means for her and whether she takes full advantage. Her campaign claims it raised more money in the first hour of the debate than in any other hour of her more than year-long presidential bid.
Will a voter leave another candidate and vote for Warren after this performance? Maybe. But at least we are now asking that question.
Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont
Warren had a better debate on performance, but in the context of the campaign, there is no question this debate really worked for Sanders. Sanders was consistent in delivering his lines and avoiding heat, even as his rivals came at the front-runner. He looks likely to win the Nevada Caucuses and do very well on Super Tuesday.
Former mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind.
Buttigieg kept himself in the game and kept on the offense, even if an odd number of his attacks were aimed at Klobuchar, rather than Sanders or Bloomberg.
It is unclear if Buttigieg gained a single vote, but he probably didn’t lose any either. If he wants to play in a significant way on Super Tuesday in less than two weeks, he will either need to have a surprisingly good finish in Nevada or crush the next debate. But he lives another day.
Former vice president Joe Biden
The former vice president of the United States was a ghost in this debate. He really wanted this to be a two-person debate between him and Sanders, but couldn’t make that happen. This was simply the most exciting debate all year and he wasn’t in the game.
Biden has to seriously consider where his campaign goes from here. He will not win Nevada. He may not win South Carolina. There is only one more moment that could save him: next week’s debate. Given his history of debating this cycle, it doesn’t look good for Biden.
Former mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City
The first thing that aides will tell Bloomberg, if they want to be both honest and lead with good news, is that more people in Super Tuesday states likely saw or heard Bloomberg ads during those two hours than watched the debate.
But if voters in these states did watch the debate, it was hard to not to cringe. A debate performance like that against Trump would likely be a losing one.
Remember, the fact that Bloomberg is out of step with the Democratic base isn’t the issue. It is not about stop-and-frisk or releasing people from non-disclosure agreements or his past support of George W. Bush.
It’s about him being able to beat Donald Trump. That performance cast doubt that he could, that he can.
He has the money. But Wednesday evening undercut his key message. One caveat: this is the first time he has ever appeared in a major debate and he could get better.
Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota
Well it’s over for Klobuchar. The end. Props to her for getting this far.
She basically put all of her chips on Iowa, and it didn’t work out there. But because the results never came in, she was gifted a lifeline to continue. She took advantage of that lifeline and had a superior debate performance in New Hampshire and she became the “it” candidate, helping her score a surprising third-place finish.
Since then, she has been trying to raise money, hire staff, and generally catch up to other candidates who have had national campaigns for months. For her to continue, she would have had to have an amazing performance. She didn’t. In fact, she was on the defensive all night.
Entering the debate, she wasn’t anywhere close to doing well in South Carolina. She is even further away now.