scorecardresearch Skip to main content
Ground Game | Analysis

Scorecard: Grading the debate performance of the Democratic candidates

Highlights from the final Democratic primary debate of 2019
Seven Democratic candidates participated in the smallest primary debate yet.

It was the debate that almost didn’t happen, the debate that almost didn’t have a single person of color on the stage, the debate that could have been overshadowed by the impeachment of the president of the United States just a day earlier.

But in the end, the debate did happen. Andrew Yang, the son of Taiwanese immigrants, made the stage with six others, and it was a lively, feisty 2 1/2-hour forum — perhaps the most consequential 2020 debate yet.

Sponsored by PBS and Politico in Los Angeles, it took place at a moment when the presidential race has never been so unsettled.


In the early states there is a new frontrunner, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Nationally, former vice president Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders regained their top spots from a slipping Senator Elizabeth Warren, who led everywhere in October.

Meanwhile, former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is polling fifth, wasn’t on the debate stage because he is self funding his campaign, so he didn’t meet donor thresholds set by the DNC for a spot on the stage. (As it turned out, he wouldn’t have met the polling standard either by last week’s deadline.)

And the debate took place as the Democratic-controlled House and Republican-controlled Senate are wrangling over when President Trump’s impeachment trial will take place — drama that could upend candidates’ schedules ahead of the Feb. 3 Iowa caucuses.

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 Sanders, who should have no problem qualifying for future debates and is in a strong position coming into the early contests, was different than success for Klobuchar, who has effectively bet her whole campaign on Iowa.


Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota

Grade: A

Klobuchar entered the debate in fifth place among those on the stage. There was no reason for anyone to attack her, but she had every reason to attack those above her. She did so effectively. Let’s go through the list: She deftly took on Biden, Sanders, and Buttigieg. She was given a lot of time in the beginning of the debate and she used it well to make her case. In the end, she did what she needed to do: give centrist Democrats a third option after Biden and Buttigieg. In doing so, she changed her campaign in a way no other candidate did.

Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts

Grade: B+

No one on the stage was more comfortable and tactically better at debating than Warren. With her poll numbers slipping, she needed a solid night. She had one. She needed not to be hurt or become irrelevant. She avoided both. Warren was masterful in hitting emotional lines on health care and the economy, and in setting the terms of debate with Buttigieg when she engaged him.

Did her boffo performance change the campaign? No. Did it stop some bleeding? Yes, it well could have.

Former vice president Joe Biden of Delaware

Grade: B

Let’s be fair: Stylistically this was probably Biden’s best debate this year. But the bar was oh-so-very low: He has made a gaffe that has gone viral in basically every debate. While Biden did no harm, he also didn’t really help himself either. He was basically a nonfactor. But in the context of his campaign, that is fine! He is once again on the top of national polls. Biden did not find himself on the defense nor did he attack — and he will probably go another month as the national frontrunner as a result.


Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont

Grade: B

Without a doubt, this was the best debate Sanders has had all year. He had more speaking time than any other candidate on the stage. He strongly articulated his positions on trade, the economy, and gave a thoughtful answer on Israel. It was a performance resonant with his upswing in poll numbers in early states and nationally. Overall, he was above the fray, but he co-opted every question and turned it around right to his talking points.

Given Warren’s strong debate performance, Sanders could have conceded ground in the progressive lane to Warren. But he didn’t.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind.

Grade: B-

Buttigieg is on the upswing. He is leading the polls in Iowa, he is second in New Hampshire, and his ceiling is unclear. In the debate Thursday night, he confirmed to his supporters why they are backing him, but he didn’t exactly grow his base. For the first part of the debate, Buttigieg was largely not involved. Later, his competitors engaged him in the biggest fights of the night. He went back and forth with Warren and Klobuchar took aim at him. In the end, he had good counter punches and didn’t cede ground. He has had some great debates this year; this was not among them.


Entrepreneur Andrew Yang of New York

Grade: C+

This should have been an amazing debate for Yang. He was the last of the seven candidates to qualify for the stage. With an extended debate, he could have had more national airtime than ever before. But in every single debate, he has had the least amount of time, including on Thursday. Did he crush every answer? Totally. But he wasn’t asked enough questions, and he didn’t inject himself in the debate either.

Businessman Tom Steyer of California

Grade: D

Like Yang, this could have been a big opportunity for Steyer, but — and it’s a big but — he failed to explain the point of his campaign. Yes, he’s long been leading the charge on impeachment. Yes, he has devoted tens of millions of dollars of his own money talking about climate change. Yes, he is a thoughtful person on issues that aren’t exactly in his wheelhouse. But why would someone who watched this debate now decide to vote for Steyer? They wouldn’t.

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