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Scorecard: Grading the debate performance of the Democratic candidates

The candidates took the debate stage Tuesday. Robyn Beck / AFP

Never before in this cycle has a debate featured such intensity. Never before have candidates been given so much time to speak. Never before have the stakes been this high.

The debate began with the race undefined, four hopefuls effectively tied for the lead. It finished with even more uncertainty. If Iowa Democrats were hoping to answer who would make the best president or who could best beat Trump, they were probably left flummoxed on both questions.

Tuesday’s debate was the last, most high profile event before the Iowa Democratic caucuses on Feb. 3, an opportunity for a nationally televised closing argument before voters have their say. And even if the candidate’s pitch didn’t land — and none did in a huge way — it was still better than being one of the six who didn’t make the stage.


Highlights from the Democratic primary debate
Tuesday’s debate was the last, most high profile event before the Iowa Democratic caucuses on Feb. 3.

The two-plus hour debate was sponsored by CNN and the Des Moines Register and held at Drake University in Iowa, where President Trump will hold a rally in just two weeks. In between these two events, there is expected to be a little thing called an impeachment trial for a sitting president in the US Senate, which could turn political attention back to Washington.

RELATED: Don’t miss the Globe’s coverage and analysis of the Democratic primaries

These grades 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. Amy Klobuchar, for example, needed a breakout performance to compete with the top-tier in Iowa, but frontrunners Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders needed to do no harm.

Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts

Grade: A

Warren, a standout high school debate champion, gets the highest grade. But it would be a stretch to call her the winner. She performed well at every moment. She was flawless. She leaned in on gender, knowing that 57 percent of Iowa Democratic caucus-goers are women. She spoke competently about foreign policy. She directly addressed her biggest problem: the worry among Democratic voters that she cannot get elected. She also delivered her best moment of any debate all year: her answer on whether Sanders told her that a woman couldn’t beat Trump.


Yet when Iowans caucus in three weeks, her boffo performance Tuesday probably didn’t win her too many die-hard supporters. But the caucuses have a twist. At each of the nearly 1,700 caucus locations, a candidate has to receive 15 percent support to be considered viable. People caucusing for a candidate who doesn’t make the cut-off will have to choose another candidate to support.

For Iowans looking for a person to back in the second round, some who saw Tuesday’s debate will now surely choose Warren.

Sanders, Warren address gender and the election
Elizabeth Warren turns feud with Bernie Sanders into debate argument for a woman president.

Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont

Grade: A-

First the context of the debate: Sanders knew he was walking into a trap. There would obviously be a moment where he would have to explain that he wasn’t dismissive of women in leadership roles. That is because Warren accused him of saying in a private meeting with her that a woman couldn’t beat Trump. In the 2020 Democratic Party, there was no margin for error in his answer. It could have been a very bad moment, but in the end, few viewers will even recall what he said. It was a non-moment.


Now the context of the campaign: non-moments are good moments for Sanders. He is on a roll lately. He didn’t hit this debate out of the park, but he did not need to. Since this is the last debate before voters have a say, he can now just turn it over to his well-organized team.

Former vice president Joe Biden

Grade: B

Let’s just say it off the top: has Biden “won” any of these debates? No. Does he remain the national front-runner anyway? Yes. The latest Real Clear Politics average found that Biden leads in Iowa, New Hampshire, and nationally. If he is going to be the nominee, it won’t be because of how he did in this debate.

Biden wants to make Sanders a foil. Give Biden credit for taking every opportunity to do so in this debate. It wasn’t a knock-out performance. He was just sort of present. And for the former vice president, that was enough. This decent grade is all about the fact Biden did no harm and remains very much in the mix.

Former mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind.

Grade: B

If the 2020 campaign is really about creating digital, viral moments, then Buttigieg, as the kids say, created content. He didn’t have a memorable exchange with another candidate, but he had a few moments he can capture and put on social media that may help him. Among his strongest answer of the last year was in response to the opening questions about foreign policy. He both connected it to his story of serving in the military, but also talked about the need to address future threats instead of old ones.


Did Iowa caucus voters watch this debate and decide Buttigieg was the obvious next president? Probably not. But Buttigieg will be able to package his performance and keep trying to convince them for 19 more days in a way that other candidates may not be able to.

Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota

Grade: C-

Structurally, this was set up to be a great debate for Klobuchar. Recent polls showed she had a little something going on and she was approaching the top four. Because of that, she might have guessed that she would be given some extra time from the moderators — time she could have used that time to speak to Iowans directly, while Warren and Biden battled Sanders.

In the last debate, Klobuchar was the clear winner. But in this pivotal debate, she became an also-ran, and the answer to a future trivia question: Who else ran in 2020?

When the impeachment trial begins next week, Klobuchar will be hurt more badly than anyone else on the stage. She will have to be in Washington and she doesn’t have the campaign money to blanket the airwaves. To win the Iowa caucuses, she needed a big night. She didn’t have one.

Businessman Tom Steyer

Grade: D

Steyer’s debate performance reminds me of the line about elite schools that have grade inflation: to succeed is just to get in the school. Steyer, amazingly, got in this debate at the last minute as a result of running a lot of ads in Nevada and South Carolina, where the candidates (including Steyer) are spending less time. That allowed him to meet the polling criteria for entry. The fact that Steyer was on the stage while six other candidates weren’t was, in a way, a win.


But this isn’t some early debate and this scorecard doesn’t believe in grade inflation.

Sorry, not sorry.

If Steyer is really hoping to be the nominee, his debate performance was lacking. Instead of standing out, he spent a lot of time agreeing with points other candidates made. He allowed himself to get ignored because he didn’t even try to mix it up. He had the chance to try to make his point. The problem is that he simply didn’t have a point in this debate. The clock is ticking and he let it run out.

James Pindell can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell or subscribe to his Ground Game newsletter on politics: