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Scorecard: Grading the debate performance of the Democratic candidates

Top moments from the Democratic debate
Ten candidates took the stage in Atlanta for the fifth Democratic debate hosted Wednesday by MSNBC and The Washington Post. (The Boston Globe)

Call it the Amy Klobuchar debate, after the Minnesota senator who broke through in a forum with no clear winner.

Call it the quartet debate, after Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former vice president Joe Biden, and Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, who polls have found bunched up at the top of the Democratic presidential race.

Call it the impeachment debate, a forum that came amid hours and hours of testimony from the House impeachment inquiry into President Trump, but the topic didn’t dominate the evening.

Whatever you call it, the two hour debate presented by MSNBC and the Washington Post in Atlanta on Wednesday night gave the 10 Democratic presidential candidates on the stage a chance to reset the campaign with less than three months before the first voting in Iowa and New Hampshire.


For the candidates, the stakes were high, though likely for different reasons for each. Yes, Buttigieg entered the debate knowing he would be tested like never before in these debates. Warren went in trying to reclaim the energy she had a month ago. Sanders wanted to show he is the only true progressive option. And Biden needed his first strong debate to back up his electability pitch.

While the top-tier engaged on one level, other candidates did their best just to be relevant enough to make the next debate.

The two candidates on the verge of not making the December debate are Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii and Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, who has yet to grab a single one of the four polls showing him with at least 4 percent necessary to make the cut.

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. For example, success for Warren was different than success for Booker.


Here’s the scorecard for Wednesday:

Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota

Grade: A-

This debate was too muddled to have an obvious winner, but if there was one candidate who had a better debate than the others, it was Klobuchar. She entered the debate with some momentum after a strong October debate performance and she will likely build her momentum after this debate.

She was funny, pointed, and injected herself in just the right way. Klobuchar is far from being the nominee, but she just separated herself from the lower tier.

Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts

Grade: B+

There seems to be a pattern in these debates: Warren gets a ton of airtime in the beginning and then gets lost toward the end. That said, Warren has to like her debate performance a lot. Many of her opponents telegraphed they would attack her, but no one landed a punch. Meanwhile, she was given lots of air time and largely delivered her stump speech bit by bit, making this debate into a drawn out television advertisement for Elizabeth Warren.

South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg

Grade: B+

This was supposed to be the debate where a surging Buttigieg could have been brought down a peg. Was he the clear winner like he was last month? No. Did anything happen that stopped his overall momentum? No.

In recent weeks, Buttigieg rose to be the frontrunner in Iowa and among the top-tier everywhere else, including New Hampshire. What did happen, however, is the question of his experience is now a front and center issue in the race. It was always there, but this debate heightened it.


Overall, he likely reaffirmed to a lot of his new supporters why they like him.

Senator Kamala Harris of California

Grade: B

Harris entered the debate with a lot of pressure to perform. She had to lay off a lot of staff and is now focusing her campaign just on Iowa, where the most recent Des Moines Register poll had her at just 3 percent support.

Harris clearly prepared for this debate. Some of her soundbites will probably get play on cable TV. It is just unclear how her performance will convince a voter backing a different candidate to now cast their ballot for her.

Businessman Tom Steyer of California

Grade: B-

Steyer has used his wealth to secure a spot on the debate stage (about $50 million and counting — in just the last three months!). So entering the debate, it was hard to say who a Steyer voter was. That changed Wednesday. Steyer very clearly staked himself as a single issue candidate: climate change.

Then again, Washington Governor Jay Inslee did that, too, and he dropped out of the race months ago.

New Jersey Senator Cory Booker

Grade: C

Booker knew he had a lot of pressure to perform and he tried to pick fights with Warren over the wealth tax (didn’t go so well) and then with Biden about legalizing marijuana in the second hour (it was Booker’s best moment.)


Overall, Booker had his best debate based on pure performance, but he needed to be truly unbelievable to overcome the hurdles to make it into the December debate. While he may make the donor threshold, it is hard to see how he will suddenly get four polls with at least four percent or more. If he doesn’t do that, his campaign could be over.

Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont

Grade: C

Sanders had a lot of pep in this debate, and even suggested a joke for Biden about North Korea. In the last two debates, Sanders has come across as someone who obviously belongs on the stage, but at the same time appears like yesterday’s news.

Sanders is not losing any supporters in these debates it is just unclear how he gains any voters either.

Entrepreneur Andrew Yang of New York

Grade: C-

Yang’s answers were strong. He was thoughtful, succinct, and had the occasional quip. Yet for the fifth straight debate, he had the least amount of time. This might not have been such a big deal for more well known candidate, but Yang isn’t known.

One can blame the moderators, but Yang wasn’t nearly aggressive enough at injecting himself into the debate

Based on that Yang gets a horrible grade. But in the context of his campaign, these poor debate performances haven’t impacted his race at all. He finished the third quarter with nearly as much cash on hand as Harris and Biden.


Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii

Grade: C-

Harris offered a brutal take-down of Gabbard, painting her as a disloyal member of the Democratic Party. But in an odd way, the moment may have actually help cement whatever small niche Gabbard has among more conservative-minded Democratic voters. When Gabbard launched a late minute attack on Buttigieg, he successfully punched back with easy lines about her relationship with Syrian leader Bashar al Assad, and the fact she met with Donald Trump to possibly discuss a cabinet position.

Some context: Gabbard’s best moment in the campaign was when Hillary Clinton launched an attack on her, suggesting that Russia was grooming her to be a third-party candidate. Gabbard responded forcefully against Clinton and as a result, she qualified for a spot on this stage. Looking into the poll numbers, she did best among conservative Democrats and men.

Gabbard is hoping to get two more polls with four percent support to secure a spot on the December debate stage. She now may be well on her way. That’s enough for C- instead of a D-.

Former vice president Joe Biden

Grade: D

Biden was the Admiral Stockdale of this debate: who is he and what is he doing here?

Who he is, of course, is the national Democratic frontrunner and the former vice president. But he ended up being a total non-factor and did nothing to stop the bleeding on his early state poll numbers or his campaign cash.

Biden constantly makes the argument he is the best Democrat to be on the debate stage with Donald Trump. However, he has yet to have a good debate, and in every debate he said something that was just weird, or he had a bad moment.

In Wednesday night’s debate, he was unsteady. He said he had the endorsement of the only African-American woman who was ever elected to the Senate. But there was a second African-American woman elected to the Senate — Kamala Harris — and she was standing on the stage with him.

Then there was his repeated use of the word “punching” when speaking about domestic violence.


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