fb-pixel Skip to main content

Here’s what made the Democratic debate in South Carolina seem so disorganized

Seven presidential hopefuls greeted one another on stage at the end of the Democratic presidential primary debate.Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

Seven Democratic presidential hopefuls took the stage Tuesday night in the final debate before Saturday’s South Carolina primary vote and Super Tuesday. The night was defined by shouting, verbal jabs, and crosstalk, and if you were exhausted by all the yelling, you’re not alone — even the New York Times called it “messy.”

Here’s what made things appear so chaotic.

Candidates were willing to break the rules

The combative tone was set early on, with each opponent talking loudly, out of turn, and over time. Front-runner Bernie Sanders took the brunt of his opponents’ attacks, resulting in several contentious moments where candidates were hard to understand.


When a moderator asked Sanders to do the math on how he would pay for his Medicare for All plan, Sanders responded, “How many hours do you have?”

Former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg interjected: “It doesn’t take two hours to do the math."

“Let’s talk about math,” Sanders said.

“Let’s talk about math, indeed,” Buttigieg replied, and the two continued to argue, despite moderators’ attempts to interject.

Highlights from the Democratic primary debate
The candidates took the Democratic debate stage on Tuesday in South Carolina.

Candidates were posed with another question about whether or not they would allow Chinese firms to build critical US infrastructure.

“I would not,” said former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, but he argued that China’s president is "someone you can negotiate with, and that’s what you have to do.”

Senator Elizabeth Warren challenged Bloomberg’s longtime business dealings with China, and pressed on his failure to release his tax returns, sparking another string of indistinguishable debate.

“We’re doing them as fast as we can,” Bloomberg said of his tax returns, noting that he released them every year during his 12 years as mayor.

At moments, it appeared moderators failed to moderate

Despite attempted “time” cues and pointed requests candidates wait their turns, CBS moderators struggled to keep control throughout Tuesday’s debate.


“One minute and 15 seconds is a really long time, and I ask that you all stick to that,” moderator Gayle King requested as she redirected a question to Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar.

“Mr. Vice President, we’re going to get to you today,” she continued.

“You keep promising, but you haven’t done it yet,” said former vice president Joe Biden, who later said, “Why am I stopping? No one else stops," and “I know how you cut me off all the time, but I’m not going to be quiet anymore, OK?”

At one point in the debate, over another shouting match, Sanders called for order: “You’re the moderator, guys."

There was also a moment toward the end of the debate when moderator Norah O’Donnell prematurely declared the evening over.

“That concludes our debate,” O’Donnell told viewers before stopping herself, when King jumped in: “No, no, we have time for one more break, Norah, one more break.”

Pointed insults and call-outs fueled the fire

Warren told a familiar story of losing a teaching job because she was pregnant, and concluded it by leveling a serious charge at Bloomberg.

“At least I didn’t have a boss who said to me, ‘kill it,’ the way Bloomberg is alleged to have said to one of his pregnant employees,” Warren said, referencing a past accusation from one of Bloomberg’s former workers.

Bloomberg immediately objected: “I never said that. Period. End of story.”


Later, Buttigieg painted a pointed scenario of a 2020 presidential ticket, taking aim at Sanders and President Trump.

“I’m not looking forward to a scenario where it comes down to Donald Trump with his nostalgia for the social order of the 1950s, and Bernie Sanders with nostalgia for the revolutionary politics of the 1960s,” the former mayor said. “This is about the future. We’re not going to succeed by reliving the Cold War ... We have to be smarter than this."

Brittany Bowker can be reached at brittany.bowker@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @brittbowker and on Instagram @brittbowker.