The top six contenders for the Democratic nomination gathered Wednesday night for (what feels like) the 7,000th primary debate of the 2020 cycle. But the latest episode of the politics-themed reality show that we’ve all come to know and dread was markedly livelier than its predecessors. And it isn’t hard to see why. Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, and Joe Biden all came to Las Vegas desperate to improve their campaigns’ flagging fortunes with a big gamble or two. Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, is dispositionally incapable of allowing his newfound front-runner status to soften the edges of pugilistic populism. And Michael Bloomberg couldn’t help but bring out his co-partisans’ inner Robespierres.
So, who won the rumble in Nevada? Here’s a definitive ranking of the candidates’ nights from best to worst (as measured by the subjective impressions of an exceptionally unrepresentative white man in New York City):
1) Elizabeth Warren
The Massachusetts senator’s campaign is probably beyond saving. Warren entered Wednesday night’s debate polling in fourth place nationally, some 15.5 points behind the front-running Bernie Sanders. Current surveys suggest she is poised to win no more than a negligible number of delegates in the Nevada caucuses, none in South Carolina, and, per FiveThirtyEight’s model, just 8 percent of 1,357 pledged delegates up for grab on Super Tuesday.
But if there was anything Warren could do to revive her candidacy in Nevada on Wednesday night, she did it many times over. In recent weeks, the senator has tried to smooth out the rougher edges of her populist persona, in a bid to cast herself as the “unity” candidate (and/or to mitigate any potential gendered double-standard the electorate might apply toward female candidates who code as aggressive). But pugnacity is just another word for nothing left to lose. And with her campaign on the ropes, Warren reprised the role that had made her name: merciless inquisitor of the superrich and powerful.
Within minutes of the debate’s opening, Warren stopped the show, threw the nearest billionaire up against a wall, frisked him — and revealed that beneath the would-be emperor’s gilded façade lay little more than an empty suit.
But while Warren saved her brass knuckles for Bloomberg, no candidate on the stage escaped her punches. Somewhere between New Hampshire and Nevada, the “unity candidate” metamorphosed into a roast master. At multiple points in the debate, Warren went from one side of the stage to the other, hitting each of her rivals with a personalized zinger.
It’s entirely possible that, in the cruel universe we occupy, Warren’s magisterial performance will hurt her candidacy more than it helps. There is a reason, after all, that she’s kept her guns holstered these many months. Firing away at other Democrats — before an audience of primary voters who generally like each and every one of their party’s candidates (with the possible exception of the former Republican mayor) — is a risky strategy.
But if this is how it ends, at least Warren went out doing what she does best — making plutocrats sweat.
2) Bernie Sanders
The Vermont senator turned in a “yeah, good, okay” caliber showing. He’s had more dominant performances. And, for perhaps the first time this cycle, he was only the second-best billionaire-basher on the debate stage. But when you’re up by eight runs, a walk’s almost as good as a home run. Sanders took his usual ration of hits. His rivals slapped his wrists, yet again, for being too forthright in his ideological self-description, and not forthright enough in the details of his health-care plan. But he was spared the beatdown that traditionally awaits new (or at least, newly undisputed) front-runners as a matter of course: With the arguable exception of Pete Buttigieg (and/or the ineffectual exception of Michael Bloomberg), no one made taking down the man who presently leads the field by double-digits their top priority.
Meanwhile, more than 70,000 Nevadans already cast their votes through early caucusing by the time Wednesday’s debate began. Four years ago, total turnout for the caucuses was 83,000. Given that polls suggest Sanders entered the debate with a massive lead in the Silver State, it’s quite possible that Bernie would still be on track to win Saturday’s nomination contest had he suffered a heart attack onstage Wednesday night while confessing his admiration for Stalin’s policies in Ukraine. As is, he’s all but certain to win Nevada, and enter Super Tuesday with a head of steam (and a much weaker billionaire opponent than his campaign was likely planning for).
3) Joe Biden
Biden still looks and sounds too old for this game. He still has some trouble keeping his sentences within the bounds of English grammar and linear thought. But he had a bit less trouble with those things in Nevada — and, standing near Bloomberg, appeared downright spry by comparison. Uncle Joe emerged from Iowa and New Hampshire battered and bruised. But he remains anti-Sanders Democrats’ best hope. No other center-left candidate has shown any ability to consolidate the support of older black voters, and it’s hard to see how any of them can get to a plurality of delegates without doing so. If Biden can win South Carolina — and convince left-skeptical Democrats that Bloomberg isn’t a serious option — he just might have a path to a narrow plurality of delegates. He is closer to getting on that path now than he was a few hours ago.
4) Pete Buttigieg
The former mayor of South Bend needed an exceptional performance to overcome his resiliently low national name recognition and support among black voters. He didn’t come up with one. Buttigieg’s attempt to cast himself as the sensible center point between democratic socialism and oligarchic capitalism makes sense on paper. But his delivery of that argument felt underrehearsed. He once again proved himself uniquely capable of inspiring Amy Klobuchar’s rage. But he didn’t prove much else.
5) Amy Klobuchar
The Minnesota senator’s levels of support among nonwhite voters make Pete Buttigieg look like Barack Obama. One recent poll has her at zero percent with African-American Democrats nationally; another has her at one percent among black, Hispanic, and Asian voters combined. Nothing that happened Wednesday night could plausibly change that enough to make her into a serious contender.
6) Michael Bloomberg
It must have taken the billionaire mere minutes to realize he had made a costly mistake. Bloomberg’s primary strategy — avoid all engagement with (small-d) democratic processes and hide your liabilities behind half-a-billion dollars in television ads — had been working like gangbusters. Without participating in a single nomination contest or debate, the former mayor had purchased himself second place in national polls, and a lead in several Super Tuesday states.
But something inside the mogul — either his ego, or some sense of civic propriety — prevented him from forgoing the DNC’s invitation to compete in an arena where great wealth offers no significant advantage. His overexposure was almost instantaneous. Bloomberg was surrounded by men and women who’d spent nearly two years ingratiating themselves to Democratic audiences with fine-tuned talking points. By contrast, the mega-billionaire has spent much of the past decade moving in circles where he could say things like, “I can teach anyone to be a farmer,” and be greeted by nodding heads. His utter dearth of affect, charisma, and eloquence would have been damaging enough by themselves. But Bloomberg didn’t just have the poorest rhetorical tools of any candidate on the stage; he also had the most daunting oratorical task. There is probably no good way to explain why you will not release the women who’ve accused your company of sexual harassment from their nondisclosure agreements. But this is surely among the worst:
Bloomberg’s best hope is that our politics are too dysfunctional for any of this to matter. His commercials will be viewed far more widely than tonight’s debate. So, perhaps another $1 billion worth of ads will count for more than his total lack of political skill. The billionaire can still win, but only if democracy loses.