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Did the South Carolina Debate Change the Race for the Democrats?

Democratic presidential candidates (L-R) former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) participate in the Democratic presidential primary debate at the Charleston Gaillard Center on February 25, 2020 in Charleston, South Carolina. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Coming into the South Carolina debate, Steyer, Klobuchar, and Buttigieg were looking for ways to keep their candidacies alive, while Biden and Bloomberg were looking to avoid bad performances. Did any of them pull it off? I spoke with national political correspondent Gabriel Debenedetti, who offered his view from the debate venue at Charleston Gaillard Center in Charleston, South Carolina.

Ezekiel: Well, South Carolina’s debate was certainly raucous and passionate — did you feel like any candidate distinguished themselves, in a good way or even in a bad way?

Gabe: It’s hard to pick out any moment that really distinguished any one candidate, at least in a way that’ll change or alter the trajectory of the race, either here in South Carolina or on Super Tuesday. One of the results of the constant crosstalk and muddle was that everyone walks away just sorta feeling okay, I think, or at least no more or less okay than before. Though, that said, if anyone — Warren? Steyer? — was looking for a breakout moment, it didn’t happen, and that could end up mattering a lot for them.

Ezekiel: Maybe I’m either too cynical or too sensitive, but I felt like the constant interrupting and talking over each other did nothing but hurt everyone’s favorability ratings. Hard to imagine that any candidate’s supporters felt better coming out than going in. Except maybe Trump’s.

Gabe: I usually object to that argument because every single 2016 Republican debate was far worse than this one, and Trump won. But I see an argument that Biden’s team might feel a bit better, since they entered this race with a lead in South Carolina and didn’t do anything to obviously cede it to Sanders or Steyer. I mean, we’re all too cynical, but it’s exceedingly hard to blame us by now. Buttigieg, too, could make a case for feeling a bit better. He’s unlikely to compete too much in South Carolina, but it’s undoubtedly true that he’s distinguished himself as the candidate who most consistently attacks Sanders.

Ezekiel: Yeah, I just tend to think favorability is important for Dems this time around — unpopular candidates tend to depress turnout, and I think Trump would be fine with a low-turnout election? Did you think anyone landed any punches on Sanders? There were a couple of points where I thought he didn’t look especially good, but I’m not sure about how they’ll resonate with the electorate.

Gabe: Yes, and I was very surprised that the talk of his interest in a 2012 primary of President Obama was allowed to just fizzle after Biden brought it up early on. However, it’s telling that we constantly just see the same old knocks on Sanders. He knows how to answer the “you’re too far left, you’re unrealistic, your plans are too expensive” arguments by now, and this debate didn’t really give them all an opportunity to have out the newer (in some respects …) questions fully.

Ezekiel: Other than Buttigieg, it seems people are loathe to criticize him directly on his views — always about feasibility and electability. Who did you think this debate was most important for coming into the night? My feeling was that it was really all about Biden and Bloomberg. I thought Biden had a decent night. Bloomberg wasn’t great, but more fire trained on … well, on everyone else meant that he didn’t look as bad as he did in the last debate

Gabe: Sure. It was most important for Steyer and Klobuchar and Buttigieg, who are looking for ways to stay alive in the race, but I think you’re right about Biden and Bloomberg — they both stayed afloat, without becoming the big (negative) headline, which both needed to avoid.

Ezekiel: Yeah, I should say that I don’t think Steyer, Klobuchar, and Buttigieg could really do much on the debate stage to affect their standing in the race and probability of contesting the nomination. They certainly were the most desperate for a debate moment coming in, as you say.

Last thing: Were you surprised about the booing, and could you tell who the boo-ers were supporting?

Gabe: They seemed to have objections to both Warren and Sanders, but that didn’t surprise me a ton — this is still a fairly conservative state, and it’s one where Biden and Steyer are two of the top three candidates.  Bernie seemed to enjoy having them as a foil, once he figured out what was going on. But much like basically everything else that’s happened this debate season, it’s really hard to tell how that played at home.

Did the South Carolina Debate Change the Race?