If you didn’t watch last night’s Democratic presidential candidate debate from Des Moines and just checked into your favorite media outlets this morning to see what happened, you might have seen two distinctive takes that might as well have described two different events. One (offered by such veteran observers as Vox’s Matt Yglesias, TNR’s Walter Shapiro, and Politico’s Ryan Lizza) tended to treat the debate as unremarkable, with the candidates performing at various levels but not really generating any big moments, in part out of fear of offending Iowans’ famous sensitivity to negative politics. The other (including one I posted last night) focused heavily on the unsettling confrontations of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders after CNN moderator Abby Phillip, citing CNN reporting, injected an alleged statement by Sanders to Warren that a woman cannot beat Trump, into an otherwise mild-mannered debate. The dispute culminated in Warren refusing to shake Sanders’s hand after the event and Sanders seeming to storm away in frustration after a brief exchange of words.
The more comprehensive takes from Yglesias, Shapiro, and Lizza mentioned this incident, of course, but found it less than game-changing. You’d have to guess they were written before the post-debate confrontation between Warren and Sanders (they had unhappy-looking words and then Warren seems to have refused to shake Bernie’s proffered hand) that seemed to place an exclamation point on the whole evening. An example of how that moment changed things for many observers was evident at FiveThirtyEight, whose liveblog of the debate concluded with the same sort of not-much-to-see-here observations others were making. Their podcast, recorded a bit later in the wee hours, began with participants describing the debate with terms like “anti-climatic,” “snoozeville” and “nothingburger.” But midway through the recording, they became aware of the post-debate incident, and the conversation pivoted hard in the direction of the dispute and what its fallout would be. As he watched the video for the first time, Nate Silver mused that it “might affect how this thing is covered by the press.” Clare Malone wondered, “Does this entire incident look good for either the Warren or Sanders campaign?”
Some media outlets offered competing takes — one of a debate defined by comity, another of one defined by a moment of drama. The Des Moines Register, a debate co-sponsor, had one that focused on the Warren-Sanders dynamics and another that didn’t at all. Another co-sponsor, CNN, whose reporting and debate moderation caused the entire brouhaha, didn’t focus on it that much initially, either. And at Politico, conventional, broad-scope takes from Lizza and from John Harris (who called the debate “painfully dull”) competed with Tim Alberta’s report from a Des Moines bar frequented by young progressives, who were agonizing over the Warren-Sanders “feud.”
Determining which of these two very different versions of last night prevails in the public imagination will depend, of course, on how the situation plays out in the days ahead. FiveThirtyEight’s pre- and post-debate surveys with Ipsos showed Warren gaining the most in net favorability, and Sanders losing a bit, but it’s not clear why. And at this point, national perceptions of the debate may matter a lot less than those in Iowa, where viewership of this local event was probably very high.
The big risk for Sanders and Warren is that their confrontation, if it ends up dominating how Iowans think of the debate, will run afoul of Iowa Nice sensibilities and hurt both of them. But if the campaigns find a way to de-escalate, and the furor subsides, then the blander interpretations of the debate could turn out to be true after all. At best, though, it’s quite a distraction for the two progressive favorites at a moment when the Iowa race looks to be a close four-way tangle among Sanders, Warren, Joe Biden, and Pete Buttigieg, with Amy Klobuchar desperately trying to join them, and all the attention should be on making a positive case for spending several hours on a cold winter evening caucusing for Bernie or Liz.