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5 Key Questions Raised by the Democrats’ Nevada Debate

Will what happened in Vegas stay in Vegas? Photo: Mark Ralston/AFP via Getty Images

The Democrats’ night of boxing and gambling in Las Vegas on Wednesday delivered clear answers to many questions that had been hanging over the 2020 race. For example, we learned that there are, in fact, some things money can’t buy (charisma, charm, or a good answer to the question, “Why are you paying women who accused your company of sexual harassment and gender discrimination not to talk about their allegations in public?”); that Elizabeth Warren still knows how to give a plutocrat a proper spanking; that the field’s center-left candidates care much more about keeping their own faint White House hopes alive than keeping blue America from “going red”; and that Amy Klobuchar may despise Pete Buttigieg more than Bernie Sanders despises the exploitation of the proletariat or the vile social construct known as “birthdays.”

But the evening’s fireworks also raised five as-yet-unanswered questions that will do much to decide whom the Democrats coronate in Milwaukee this summer:

1) What happens if Elizabeth Warren persists?

After the Massachusetts senator’s fourth-place finish in New Hampshire, most pundits (myself included) left her candidacy for dead. But if the press deserted Warren, her small-dollar donor army never did. And after her show-stopping, headline-grabbing performance in Las Vegas Wednesday night, Warren’s campaign enjoyed its most lucrative single-hour of fundraising yet. That influx of cash and positive earned media — combined with her campaign’s early investments in Super Tuesday states — just might propel Warren back into relevance, if not outright contention.

Since her fleeting moment as the race’s (arguable) front-runner last fall, Warren has bled support to Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg. But it was Amy Klobuchar’s sudden surge in New Hampshire that dropped Warren into “also ran” status. Becoming the second-most popular choice among ideologically committed progressives and “wine-track” liberals hurt the senator; but losing the title of “No.1 choice for voters who want a strong female standard-bearer” threatened to kill her candidacy. Fortunately for Warren, reports of “Klomentumnow appear greatly exaggerated. And events in Las Vegas strongly suggest that whatever happened with Amy in the Granite State will stay in the Granite State.

This said, unless some grave misfortune befalls Bernie Sanders, it is difficult to see how Warren gains enough ground by Super Tuesday — with both Democratic voters in general, and nonwhite ones in particular — to have a serious shot of taking a plurality of delegates into the convention this summer. What is plausible, however, is that Warren attracts enough disillusioned Bloomberg, Biden, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar voters — and/or, soft (and socialism-wary) Sanders supporters — to get above the 15 percent threshold for delegates in many of the states that vote on March 3.

Such a mini-Warren resurgence might hurt Sanders by loosening his grip on younger voters and progressives. But given the exceptional enthusiasm of the Vermont senator’s voting base — and his increasingly secure hold on front-runner status — it seems more likely that Warren’s hypothetical rise would mostly serve to further fragment the anti-Bernie coalition. If her gains manage to push Biden and Bloomberg below the threshold for delegates in states where they appear relatively weak, a Warren revival could also have the effect of significantly growing the progressive contingent of delegates at the Democratic convention. Which could matter if no candidate enters Milwaukee with a majority or significant plurality. On the second ballot, delegates will be free to vote their personal preference. One would imagine, all else equal, the Sanders campaign would prefer for more of those delegates to be Warrenites than Biden backers.

2) Will anti-Bernie Democrats realize that Joe Biden is still their best bet?

Even before Bloomberg revealed himself to be a clothes-less emperor on national television Wednesday night, Uncle Joe looked like the sturdiest vessel for Establishment Democrats to ride back to power. Yes, Biden is 77 going on 106. Yes, he now struggles to translate his mind’s motley morass of half-remembered talking points and free associations into orderly, intelligible English sentences. But he is also the only non-Bloomberg moderate with the name recognition and African-American support necessary to compete at the national level. And unlike Bloomberg, Biden hasn’t publicly bemoaned a “labor-electoral complex” that gives trade unions undue influence over the government; or suggested that most Americans lack the “gray matter” to make valuable contributions to the modern U.S. economy; or paid his female subordinates not to publicly discuss their allegations of sexual harassment and gender discrimination at his company. Not coincidentally, Joe Biden is quite popular among Democratic voters, while Mike Bloomberg is not: A recent YouGov poll found that, in a two-way primary race, Biden trails Sanders by a margin of four points, while Bloomberg loses by a whopping 15. This matters not only for the primary, but for the general election as well: Biden has roughly as much theoretical appeal to moderate suburbanites as Bloomberg does, but poses far less risk of demobilizing progressive activists and labor groups or growing the Green Party’s vote share.

But if the case for backing Biden over Bloomberg was strong 24 hours ago, it’s rock solid now. Next to the 78-year-old billionaire, Biden appeared to glimmer with charisma and youthful vitality. It’s now clear that Bloomberg’s sole advantage over his fellow non-socialist septuagenarian is money. And that’s one resource the Democratic donor class can provide, just as soon as it accepts that Uncle Joe is their only ride.

3) Is Michael Bloomberg rich enough to make reality irrelevant?

The Bloomberg campaign is, in most respects, a lamentable phenomenon. But one of its few virtues is that it is providing political scientists with a natural experiment for testing exactly how far a presidential candidate can go on the strength of money alone. It was already difficult to imagine a serious Democratic candidate with a more politically inconvenient record of policies, public statements, and associations than the former Republican mayor of New York. (Bloomberg was, until a couple months ago, one of America’s leading advocates for racially discriminatory policing, financial deregulation, and slashing Social Security and Medicaid benefits. The billionaire has an undisputed history of making sexist remarks to female subordinates and three active sexual harassment lawsuits pending against his company. He endorsed George W. Bush at the 2004 Republican National Convention; campaigned with Rudy Giuliani in 2009; and spent $11.7 million on helping an anti-abortion Republican senator narrowly defeat a female Democratic challenger in Pennsylvania just four years ago.)

And yet, Bloomberg’s half-a-billion dollars have proven sufficient to secure him second place in national polls — and the lead in many surveys of Super Tuesday states — despite his heavy baggage and belated entrance into the race. It’s possible then that the mogul can bury last night’s fiasco beneath a barrage of paid messaging, if he’s willing to dig deep enough into his $60 billion fortune.

If so, the utter debasement of our democracy may, ironically, redound to the benefit for the race’s democratic socialist. Even in Bloomberg’s best-case scenario, it seems unlikely that he’ll be able to retain his pre-debate standing among the high-information, highly-engaged Democrats who watch debates and read newspapers. His best hope is to fortify his grip on low-engagement voters who know him from his commercials. In which case, Bloomberg’s resilience would serve primarily to block Biden’s narrow path to pulling ahead of Sanders.

4) Will blue America be persuaded by a red scare?

Thanks to Bloomberg’s debut — and his moderate rivals’ internecine war of survival — Bernie Sanders got off relatively easy at his first debate since becoming the 2020 primary’s undisputed front-runner. But the moderators and moderates did collectively assemble a multi-count indictment of Sanders’s self-professed electability — one that Bloomberg and anti-Sanders super PACs are sure to widely broadcast in the weeks and months ahead.

Their case is simple: A recent Gallup poll found that 53 percent of Americans say they will not vote for a socialist, and Bernie Sanders is the only candidate who describes himself as a socialist. More than 70 percent of Americans say their private health insurance is good or excellent; Sanders’s health-care plan would eliminate private health insurance. And some trade union leaders in western Pennsylvania say their members won’t vote for a Democrat who supports a fracking ban; and Bernie Sanders supports a fracking ban.

The Vermont senator still holds his own in polls against Trump. And the case for his electability is as plausible (in my view) as the one against it. But if anything can overcome Sanders’s present momentum, it will be an exorbitantly well-funded ad-campaign disseminating the indictment his adversaries mounted last night. Sanders is not actually a divisive figure among his adopted party’s voters. Rank-and-file Democrats like him at least as much as they like any other 2020 candidate. But they also care more about beating Donald Trump than they do about making political revolution. To win the nomination, Sanders will need to ensure that his growing support base doesn’t get spooked by the impending red scare.

5) How many delegates does Bernie Sanders need to win by to avert a contested convention?

This one’s straightforward. At last night’s debate, every candidate not named Bernie Sanders refused to endorse the principle that whoever wins the most delegates before the Democratic convention should automatically be the Democratic nominee, even if that person has not won a majority of all delegates. Given that Sanders is, at present, heavily favored to win a plurality of delegates, this was not very surprising.

No candidate’s position on this question of procedural justice is rooted in disinterested principle. In May 2016, Sanders’s campaign publicly implored superdelegates to consider backing the Vermont senator at the convention — even if Hillary Clinton had a large lead in both pledged delegates and the popular vote — on the grounds that general election polling indicated Sanders was more electable (and, implicitly, that beating Donald Trump was more important than honoring the will of Democratic voters).

In practice, if Sanders enters the convention with 40-plus percent of pledged delegates, it seems unlikely that his opponents would want to — let alone, be able to — convince a majority of delegates to deny Bernie the nomination. If, on the other hand, Sanders enters with 27 percent, while Bloomberg and Biden arrive with 25 percent each, things could get more contentious.

But the precise threshold Sanders will need to clear to make his Democratic skeptics more afraid of fracturing the party than nominating a socialist is unknown. And where that line lies may very well be the decisive question of the primary: As of this writing, FiveThirtyEight’s forecast gives Sanders a 35 percent chance of winning a majority of pledged delegates, but 54 percent one of winning a plurality.

5 Key Questions Raised by the Democrats’ Nevada Debate