Did the Debate Matter?

I wondered this frequently as I suffered through the 130 minutes or so. For the last couple contests in 2019, I didn’t expect much. These contests can burn a viewer out, and I was fried. Your correspondent endured out of duty more than curiosity. Some time passed, I forgot how painful these can be. It’s getting near actual voting time. A slugfest was in the works.

During the day I looked forward to it. Even watched a little bit of the pregame show. Before it even began, I anticipated writing my recap, something completely skipped last time. And then it started. Within 5 minutes, it was clear this wasn’t going to be fun. And it didn’t get much better. No, Joe Biden wasn’t going to close strong. No, Bernie Sanders wasn’t sharp. He was on the wrong side of that narrow line he traverses between angry old man shouting at the wind and authentic, semi-loveable curmudgeon.

No, Amy Klobuchar couldn’t show why she’s electable, and instead resorted to telling us over and over. And over. And over again that nobody beats the Klob! Nobody! No, Pete Buttigieg wasn’t going to level up at just the right time to put himself over the top in Iowa and then New Hampshire. Instead, he would disappear for stretches. No, Tom Steyer was not going to give us a real reason why he needs to exist here. Or make me not regret Andrew Yang’s absence.

There was an exception.

Elizabeth Warren did what she needed to do. Prior to the debate, she’d stopped her skid. But she was running fourth place in Iowa, and that’s not going to do. She was facing spending most of the time between the debate and Caucus Night in the Capitol, fiddling away her hours waiting for Mitch McConnell to make the entire exercise a giant waste.

There aren’t *that* many Iowans who aren’t sure if they’re caucusing for Elizabeth or Bernie. Yes, they’re both on the extra progressive side. Sure, they scare some of the same people. Older progressives like Warren better. Younger progressives prefer Bernie. The more years you spent polishing your pHD, the more you like her. The less money you make, the more you like him. If you’re male, you lean Sanders. If you’re female, more likely to support Warren. Independents like Bernie better. Warren is stronger with registered Democrats.

While it’s true the nomination battle won’t wind up with a final two of Sanders and Warren, they’re in adjacent lanes, not the same one. And while Bernie’s supporters are the least likely to change their minds, and Warren needs to think at least as much about Buttigieg, there’s some overlap for sure. And when you’re trailing by four or five points, if you can steal two points from a that opponent, you’re basically tied. A point or two from Bernie, another one or two from Pete, weak turnout on a cold night for Biden, and voila! Elizabeth Warren isn’t just the Comeback Candidate, she’s an Iowa Winner.

One more thing. Barring some seismic change, Amy Klobuchar is going to fall well short of 15% in most, if not all, caucus precincts. When pollsters would ask where voters would go with only the top four choices, her votes spread like the wind, with Sanders being the one leader who doesn’t benefit much. By expressing and encouraging female solidarity with Klobuchar, Warren increased the odds of at least a few voters deciding they should move their support to the other female candidate.

We’re talking about half, maybe one point statewide worth of difference here. But any Warren win is a narrow one. Short of Biden or Sanders having a major health issue, or Buttigieg having an enormous gaffe, there aren’t a lot of paths to 30% for Warren. But there are plenty of ways she can get to 25-27%, and that’s very possibly enough.

Andrew Yang is embarking on a 17-day bus tour through Iowa, taking advantage of the missing senators. Part of me thinks he’s better served spending 17 days in New Hampshire, where he doesn’t need to worry about getting to 15% to keep his voters, but the Granite State is really, really, really small, and he’s not the late John McCain. Where this helps Warren is by blunting Sanders and Buttigieg a bit.

Yang’s favorable ratings have improved ridiculously. A final push will get him more supporters. It increases the odds of him reaching 15% in college precincts, which definitely hurts Sanders. Again, not by a ton, but a point here and a point there in this close a race is everything. If he can also grab some of the older Millennial/younger Gen X professionals who like Pete, this is good for Warren too. Even if Yang can’t keep them through the caucus evening, trying to get his supporters on the rebound is different than winning them for yourself as a first choice. A bit of extra unpredictability. Maybe the Warren person in the room is more persuasive and Pete misses out.

Anyway, the debate sucked. Warren was helped. By enough that she’s likely to make this interesting. Biden didn’t harm himself, but missed the chance to go in to the caucus as a clear favorite. Bernie (thanks to Warren) reminded some Democrats that he’s prickly and not the best team player. This won’t harm him with his base, but he needs more to win the caucus. Pete isn’t finished yet. Iowans like him, and nobody landed a blow against him in the debate. It didn’t help him at all with the national audience, but they’re waiting to see if he can win the first two states, so doesn’t matter. But if he wins, it’s going to be by a thread. He won’t see the 9 point polling lead he had in the November DMR/CNN/Selzer poll again.

Klobuchar knows she’s got a problem. On the CNN postgame show, she talked about there being several tickets out of Iowa. We’ll worry about Mr. Steyer when the campaign reaches Nevada, where he’s relevant enough to impact the outcome.

Until then, we have a merciful break from debates until February 7 in New Hampshire, by which time Iowa will have caucused and we’ll have concrete results. Between now and then, it’s back to picking apart poll results. I’ll see you soon with an update.

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