Democrats charge ahead after Charleston debate

Warren draws contrast with Sanders, but was it too late?

The Democratic presidential candidates debate at the Charleston Gaillard Center on Tuesday in Charleston, S.C. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
The Democratic presidential candidates debate at the Charleston Gaillard Center on Tuesday in Charleston, S.C. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Posted February 25, 2020 at 11:10pm

With South Carolina and Super Tuesday looming, and the potential of a second term for President Donald Trump staring the party in the face, seven Democratic candidates didn’t miss an opportunity to attack each other during the debate in Charleston, South Carolina, on Tuesday night. But will any of it matter?

Two Bloombergs. Once again, former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg exercised his financial advantage. During the first two breaks of the CBS debate, the Bloomberg campaign aired television ads in the expensive Los Angeles media market, portraying a very different Bloomberg than the one being attacked onstage. It’s a reminder that millions more voters are seeing Bloomberg’s ads around the country than watching the debates, which is likely more important to his support in the race.

Too much? This was the 10th official Democratic presidential debate. It felt like the 20th. The 2016 GOP presidential primary is a good, recent example of how primaries don’t necessarily impede general election victory. But it can’t be beneficial for the Democratic Party to have its candidates constantly fighting with each other in public.

Too little? After months of reluctance, Sen. Elizabeth Warren went a little further in her criticism of Sen. Bernie Sanders than she did during the Las Vegas debate, saying they share progressive goals but she’s better at delivering because she has plans with details. But it’s far from clear whether she can regain lost ground, and we can only wonder how the race would have turned out if she had been more explicit in contrasting herself with her Vermont colleague months earlier.

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Too late? Voters are already voting. Even if a candidate had a breakout moment or a catastrophic collapse, thousands of votes have already been cast. Voters in California (a Super Tuesday state) have been voting since just after Iowa.

Too cute. Bloomberg appeared to come better prepared for this debate. His answer concerning women who didn’t like his jokes was a little better than the Las Vegas disaster. But it was also clear Bloomberg came armed with a joke about his last debate performance, and he delivered it in spectacularly terrible fashion. Finally, blaming his late entry into the race for not having his tax returns ready is lame. The timing was his choice. It’s like saying, ‘I didn’t turn in my homework on time because I started my homework late.’

To come. Bloomberg’s greatest impact might be off the debate stage. According to media reports, the former mayor is preparing a substantial ad buy attacking Sanders. Depending on the size and subject matter, that has the potential to hurt the senator in the primary, general election or both. It could also rally Sanders’ voters and come with a backlash against Bloomberg.

Too pessimistic. Sanders’ answer to one of the first questions on the economy is a microcosm of the Democrats’ challenge this fall, if the current conditions prevail. The senator talked about how the economy was only working for billionaires and the top 1 percent of income earners. Yet 62 percent of Americans said the economy was excellent or good, according to a January Gallup survey, and 59 percent said the economy was getting better. Democrats have to be careful about looking out of touch on the economy when making distinctions with the president’s policies when 63 percent of Americans agreed with Trump’s handling of the economy, according to another Gallup survey from January.

Too sure. I’m starting to get déjà vu all over again, in the words of Yankees great Yogi Berra. Conventional wisdom is already solidifying that Sanders will win the nomination and be an unmitigated disaster for Democrats up and down the ballot. Both of those things could happen, but I think the 2016 presidential results are reason enough to be open-minded about the race, eight months before Election Day. While we watch the Democratic food fight, we shouldn’t forget that at least 36 percent of voters said they’d vote against Trump, regardless of whom Democrats nominate for president, according to Gallup. (In comparison 39 percent said they’d vote for Trump regardless of whom Democrats nominate.) We shouldn’t underestimate the president’s ability to unify and mobilize the Democratic Party.

Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst with CQ Roll Call.