Election 2020 Politics

7 questions that may get answered in the debate

In this special pre-debate edition: What the Democrats could fight about onstage, what the Democrats offstage are up to, and why a liberal TV host’s run for Congress has led to the ugliest primary of 2020 (so far).

I knew I’d get to Tyler Perry Studios some day, and this is The Trailer.

ATLANTA — The month between the last Democratic debate and tomorrow’s brought something new to the party’s crowded primary: momentum.

Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar piled on Elizabeth Warren over how she’d pay for Medicare-for-all, and both began moving up in Iowa. Warren took their criticism seriously and rolled out both a payment plan and a transition plan that answered skeptics; for the first time, she declined slightly in the polls.

The result has been a shift in the contest for Iowa. Joe Biden entered the third debate leading in that state’s polls. Warren entered the fourth debate having edged ahead of Biden. Buttigieg has now moved ahead, marginally, in a state that can elevate long-shot candidates. And some of the candidates onstage risk being cut out entirely from future debates, despite everything they’ve built so far. There are more desperate candidates than we’ve seen so far in these debates, and more candidates with something big to prove.

We don’t know what direction moderators will take in this debate. We do know what to look for.

What does Buttigieg do under pressure? Buttigieg is in the position that Warren held for months: a top contender for the nomination who has taken few hits onstage. The hits he did take came from candidates in decline (former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke, who accused Buttigieg of lacking courage) or candidates disliked by most Democratic voters (Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who tried to steer Buttigieg into a fight about military intervention in Syria). Buttigieg came out ahead every time and did what was impossible for weaker candidates: He went after Warren and improved his own favorable rating, framing his argument around her own reluctance to give a cost estimate for Medicare-for-all. (When she revealed one, he stopped attacking.)

Buttigieg’s rivals can’t let that happen again, but it’s hard to define who those rivals are. Every other campaign has some level of contempt for the South Bend, Ind., mayor. Some have expressed it subtly, like Warren decrying “consultant-driven” campaigns; some have been more direct, like former HUD secretary Julián Castro warning that Buttigieg can’t excite nonwhite voters.

Castro, of course, won’t be onstage, but Sen. Kamala D. Harris of California will, and she’s hinted at her own problems with Buttigieg. In Las Vegas, at a Monday forum on racial justice that Buttigieg did not attend, Harris noted that she did not “just acquire the language to talk about” race. Afterward, she piled on Buttigieg for releasing a “Douglass plan” for black America that touted support from activists who had not actually endorsed it and was published alongside a stock photo of a mother and child in Kenya. 

“I don’t have words to describe that,” Harris said.

In the past, Buttigieg has gotten around tough questions with the help of rival candidates who didn’t want to attack him. At the first debate, in June, he responded to a question about racial tensions and a disproportionately white police force in South Bend by admitting that he hadn’t fixed the problem. Blink-and-you-missed-him candidate Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) pounced, but no one else did. 

Can Elizabeth Warren fight from a corner? The Massachusetts senator’s slip in the polls could benefit her in one small way: It’s put more pressure on Buttigieg. Candidates have only so much time to tangle, and in debates so far, Warren has not been attacked on several story lines that Democrats see as vulnerabilities: her corporate legal advice, her late-in-life membership with the party, her past claims of Native American ancestry. 

Nothing is preventing her rivals from going after those things, and Biden spent the better part of two weeks attacking Warren for an “elitist attitude” after she accused his campaign of issuing “Republican talking points” on Medicare-for-all. That fight was notable, because it was the first that Warren seemed to start: Exasperated by the accusations of fuzzy math, she said Democrats who attacked universal Medicare were running in the “wrong primary.” Warren never used that language again and instead spent weeks sketching out a comprehensive transition plan for single-payer health care.

The old question for Warren — how would she pay for Medicare-for-all? — is no longer operative. It has been replaced by potential questions about whether her math holds up, whether she can be trusted to stick to a position and whether, Pete Buttigieg’s campaign has suggested, her plan simply mirrors his. There are substantial differences in the plans, and not much of an appetite for another hour of Medicare-for-all infighting, especially when Biden is ready to dismiss all of it as a needless, radical rejection of President Barack Obama’s legacy. Warren’s campaign has readied itself for attacks on her past and has been occasionally surprised when they haven’t come.

Does Sanders still treat Warren like a partner? The two senators representing the party’s left wing have played supportive roles in most of their time onstage. There was just one exception, in last month’s debate, when moderators asked Sanders whether Medicare-for-all would raise middle-class taxes. “I do think it is appropriate to acknowledge that taxes will go up,” Sanders said, putting more pressure on Warren. (“At least that’s a straightforward answer,” Buttigieg snarked.)

Since then, Sanders has gotten many more chances to criticize Warren and taken just a few, avoiding the harsh tone of some of his supporters. After she introduced her plan to pay for Medicare-for-all, Sanders said that simply raising progressive income taxes was a better way of funding universal health care; Warren’s employer tax, he said, could cost jobs. On the day she introduced her transition plan, Sanders was accepting the support of the pro-single-payer National Nurses United: He said that unlike Warren, he would introduce his Medicare-for-all legislation on the first day of his presidency and fight for the entire package to be passed, “not put it off for several years.”

For the first time, Sanders and Warren do have slightly different plans: Warren would use her first budget to begin enrolling people in an expanded version of Medicare but not end duplicative private insurance until three years later. The question is whether Sanders, who is generally viewed by voters as more trustworthy than Warren, explores that question or defends the overall goal of his legislation, shared by Warren, against all comers.

If he decides that he can benefit if Warren gets tangled up onstage, it would represent the first major break between them. He has far more to argue about with Biden and Buttigieg, starting with Biden’s 180-degree flip on super PACs and continuing with Buttigieg’s adoption of the “Medicare-for-all” brand into “Medicare-for-all who want it.” At the same time, his campaign sees an advantage in Buttigieg’s rise, as it cuts off white Democrats with college degrees from Warren.

Does Joe Biden (finally) assuage some doubts? There’s a way this debate goes well for Biden; if it does, that would be a first. The impression that Biden is slowing down, and less ready to tackle President Trump than Democrats might have wanted, has grown with each debate night. Neither he nor Warren benefited from the Medicare-for-all fight, and he got past a round about Hunter Biden’s work largely because the other candidates decided not to keep it going. Paradoxically, though Biden still leads in national and later-state polling, his rivals do not treat him like a threat.

That leaves a lot up to moderators. Biden could be asked about the policies where he breaks with Democratic voters, like marijuana legalization; he could be asked to pick up the argument with Warren, something he’s not always done with gusto. He has, so far, declined to attack Warren on her short history with the Democratic Party, even though his campaign has gone there. Under pressure, Biden has often gotten defensive about his record, and none of those incidents (such as turning to Warren and near-shouting that he got her the votes for the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau) has gone well for him. Biden has no ideological problem with the party’s voters; he has a style and presentation problem, which a good debate could fix.

Is Gabbard still running against Hillary Clinton? Believe it or not, Gabbard’s argument with Hillary Clinton, the highest-profile moment of her campaign, happened in the five short weeks between the last debate and this one. The Hawaii congresswoman is still talking about Clinton claiming that Republicans were “grooming” her for a third-party spoiler run and still framing her candidacy as a challenge to the “Trump-Clinton doctrine.” She has studiously refused to attack Biden, who shares Clinton’s foreign policy record, and has looked for chances to probe whether Warren or Buttigieg would endorse American military adventurism.

Gabbard entered the fourth debate with high expectations, some set by her campaign. She didn’t deliver, as an attempt to challenge Warren’s “commander in chief” credentials was cut short and as Warren seemed to surprise her by agreeing that America should reduce its presence in the Middle East. Gabbard is also in the same position as Harris and Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey on Medicare-for-all: She has co-sponsored the bill but doesn’t promise to implement it in full. Since the Clinton spat, Gabbard’s poll numbers with Democrats have fallen as her numbers with independents and Republicans have spiked, so her ability to get on the next debate stage wouldn’t be hurt if she went negative.

What do the on-the-bubble candidates try? Three of the candidates onstage tomorrow have not yet qualified for December’s debate: Gabbard, Booker and Andrew Yang. (Tom Steyer qualified this week on the strength of his numbers in a new South Carolina poll.) Only one of those candidates, Booker, has yet to hit December’s qualifying number in a single poll. And he has given every indication that he’ll stay positive, while possibly contrasting himself with candidates who get accused of shifting to win votes.

“I’m not focus-grouping and poll-testing who I am,” Booker said this weekend in Las Vegas. “The person you’ve been seeing on those debate stages is the person I am.” 

Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota has qualified for December’s debate on the strength of strong Iowa polling, but she’s got a different problem: Her growth in Iowa has run up against the enthusiasm for Buttigieg. Klobuchar, even more than most Democrats, resents how Buttigieg has positioned himself as a pragmatist after flirting with the party’s left. 

What curveballs come from the moderators? Seriously, all that time debating Medicare-for-all has shrunk the opportunities to ask candidates about the rest of their agenda, or the world they’d confront as president. This could be an opportunity to ask about the Trump administration dropping America’s opposition to Israel’s settlements, about the political crisis in Bolivia, about how Warren and Sanders would ban fracking without abandoning the goal of energy independence, about whether mostly-white states should hold the first two contests.

Yes, The Washington Post is co-sponsoring the debate, but the moderators aren’t saying a word of it to reporters. We’ll just have to watch. (Which you can do at washingtonpost.com starting at 8 p.m. Eastern time; the debate starts at 9 p.m.)


“In Georgia, Democrats find turning the state blue is easier to predict than pull off,” by Jenna Johnson

Stacey Abrams’s party has become competitive here, but that’s not the same as winning.

“The left smells a rat in Bloomberg, Patrick bids,” by Holly Otterbein and David Siders

Do more “centrist lane” candidates help or hurt the left-wing candidates?

“Courts force North Carolina Republicans to map out a new political future,” by Paul Kane

The end of a political map that made North Carolina a safe space for conservative members of Congress.

“ ‘No discipline. No plan. No strategy.’: Kamala D. Harris campaign in meltdown,” by Christopher Cadelago

The continuing decline of a “top-tier candidate.”

“Will Democrats face a third-party problem — again?” by Michael Scherer

Jesse Ventura! Justin Amash! Howie … Hawkins?

“Deval Patrick and Biden want to gobble up Beto’s warriors,” by Daniel Newhauser

The courting of the most optimistic 2020 campaigners.

“Democrats, anxious over Trump’s money advantage, launch swing-state spending efforts,” by Michelle Ye Hee Lee

Inside an ambitious plan to build up grass-roots organizing power until there’s a Democratic nominee who can take advantage of it.

“Why hasn’t Cory Booker’s campaign caught fire?” by Edward-Isaac Dovere

The campaign that is doing everything right, except winning.


Seventeen Democrats are actively seeking the party’s presidential nomination. There will be only 10 on the Tyler Perry Studios stage. The field of seven left-out candidates includes the one who has been running the longest (John Delaney, 844 days) and the one who has been running for less than a week (Deval Patrick, five days).

None of these Democrats are on track to make December’s debate. Instead, they’re learning the art of dismissiveness. Patrick told reporters in New Hampshire that the tone of the debates made him happier about being left out, a sentiment he repeated a couple of days later in Las Vegas.

“I’m not sure it’s something you want to aspire to, because the format is just really, really hard as a means to communicate with the public,” Patrick said.

The former Massachusetts governor would keep campaigning as the debate went forward, as would Colorado Sen. Michael F. Bennet, who had even criticized the DNCs polls and donors debate thresholds at the party’s summer meeting in San Francisco.

“I think the debates have been very unhelpful to the party and unhelpful the country,” Bennet said in an interview. “I recognize that this should be part of the process, but I don’t think they should be given that kind of weight that they’ve been given. And I believe that the DNC made huge mistakes in the way they set it up.”

Of all the Democrats left out of the debate, only one, Julián Castro, made the trip to Atlanta, where he’ll sit for a Tuesday night interview with Angela Rye. Delaney will be back in Iowa this week for a town hall, as will Marianne Williamson; Montana Gov. Steve Bullock is in New York, then his home state, making himself available to media. Joe Sestak, who has continued to get speaking slots at party events, has no public plans.


The latest on the impeachment inquiry: 


American Action Network, “Clear.” The star of a new seven-figure campaign against impeachment is Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, and it’s because of something she didn’t really say. In a CNN interview last week, Ocasio-Cortez largely stuck to the party’s preferred messaging: that an impeachment inquiry was necessary because the president seemed ready to pressure more foreign governments to intervene in American elections. “We’re talking about the potential compromise of the 2020 elections,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “This is not just about something that has occurred; this is about preventing a potentially disastrous outcome from occurring next year.”

Republicans pretended that the “disastrous outcome” was a Trump reelection, and this ad picks up the baton, starting Ocasio-Cortez’s quote near the end to blast Democrats for a “partisan impeachment.” From there, it accuses swing-district Democrats of not letting “the voters decide” elections or of working on anything but impeachment.

Jewish Democratic Council of America, “Trump is the Biggest Threat to Jewish Voters.” This spot is ramping up the JDCA’s 2020 effort, with a goal of 14 swing-state campaigns. The initial message is the kitchen sink, starting with the 2017 white-nationalist march on Charlottesville, cutting to Trump’s “very fine people on both sides” remark (ripped out of context, but not much better in context). Jewish voters are already opposed to Trump, but the ad brackets any positive messages they might hear on Israel with the president’s more damaging quotes.

Elizabeth Warren, “Social Security.” The last of the high-polling Democrats to go on the air in Iowa, Warren is getting started with an advertisement for one of her oldest plans: Social Security benefits expansion. It’s been a liberal goal for years, endorsed by Warren before the end of her first year in the Senate, and it fits the Warren mold: Explaining it takes very little time and flashes dollar amounts on-screen. Sanders, the other competitor for left-wing voters in Iowa, has lagged with voters over 65; Warren is aiming right for them, though Sanders also supports this policy.

Steve Bullock, “Justice.” The Montana governor introduced himself in Iowa by highlighting his electoral wins — three in a Trump-won state, if anyone hadn’t heard. The new ad promises something else: a Bullock Department of Justice that would continue to prosecute Trump officials after the president’s term ends. “After I beat Trump, I’ll empower prosecutors to follow the evidence all the way to the top,” Bullock says into the camera.


South Carolina primary (University of North Florida, 436 likely voters)

Joe Biden: 36%
Elizabeth Warren: 10%
Bernie Sanders: 10%
Tom Steyer: 8%
Kamala D. Harris: 4%
Pete Buttigieg 3%
Cory Booker: 2%
Mike Bloomberg: 1%
Tulsi Gabbard: 1%
Amy Klobachar: 1%
Marianne Williamson: 1%
Andrew Yang: 1%

The first Southern primary, and every other Southern primary that gets polled, finds the same basic story: a solid lead for Biden based on a lopsided advantage with black voters. UNF’s first look at the race differs from other recent polls in how it finds Biden narrowly ahead with white voters, with whom he’s been relatively weak, in the South and elsewhere. Steyer’s strength, which has appeared in other polls of early states with less competition by other candidates, demonstrates just how much he has bought with an ad campaign: To date he has spent around $8.5 million on TV, radio and digital ads targeting South Carolina. That’s bigger than the overall ad budget for his competitors.

South Carolina black voters who “haven’t heard enough” about candidate (Quinnipiac, 768 likely voters)

Joe Biden: 11%
Bernie Sanders: 12%
Elizabeth Warren: 37%
Kamala D. Harris: 42%
Cory Booker: 45%
Tom Steyer: 47%
Pete Buttigieg: 60%
Amy Klobuchar: 67%
Mike Bloomberg: 68%
Andrew Yang: 72%
Tulsi Gabbard: 77%
Deval Patrick: 80%

Biden’s rivals have tended to blow off his South Carolina poll numbers by imagining a day when black voters take them more seriously. As the year has rolled on, that’s become a little harder to do; every image of a Buttigieg or Warren rally that’s more white than black seems to disprove the point. But this poll, which finds another Biden lead overall, does suggest that South Carolina’s black voters are less aware of their alternatives than, say, the average voter in Iowa. While 83 percent of South Carolina whites have heard enough about Warren to form an opinion, just 61 percent of black voters say the same. Two in three white voters have formed an opinion of Buttigieg; just one in three black voters have.

Would you be enthusiastic about voting for each of this kind of candidate? (NPR/PBS, 453 Democratic voters)

A woman: 83%
A gay man or lesbian: 69%
Someone under 40: 62%
A white man: 53%
A socialist: 37%
A business executive: 34%
Someone over 70: 31%

The reasons many Democratic voters are cool on Biden and ready to roll the dice on Buttigieg are laid out here. In 2008 and 2016, Democrats picked history-making nominees, and they liked it. The thought of elevating an elderly candidate or a white man is much less exciting to them; the thought of a businessman who could run from outside the system doesn’t click at all.


Colorado. Andrew Romanoff, who has emerged as the most serious challenger to John Hickenlooper in the Democrats’ U.S. Senate primary, won the support of the Sunrise Movement this week, a climate action group. Whoever wins the party’s nomination will challenge Sen. Cory Gardner, widely viewed as the most vulnerable Republican member of the Senate.

“Electing Romanoff to the Senate would be game-changing in fighting the climate crisis,” said Varshini Prakash, Sunrise’s co-founder and executive director, in a statement. “Hickenlooper and Gardner are both in cahoots with the billionaires who got us into this mess.”

Hickenlooper’s problems with climate voters are many; for Sunrise, the final blow was his refusal to sign a popular pledge rejecting support from the fossil fuel industry. “We can’t frack our way out of this crisis,” Romanoff said, “or allow Big Oil to bankroll Congress and block reform.”

Delaware. Jessica Scarane announced a primary challenge to Sen. Chris Coons, who won a special election in a 2010 upset and easily held his seat in the Republican wave of 2014. In a talk with the Intercept, she said she’d focus on Coons’s vote to confirm Trump’s second HHS secretary, Alex Azar, and a head-turning Coons speech from earlier this year where he worried that the Senate’s diversity hurt its ability to come together. “It definitely makes people stop and think and really question why he would believe that,” Scarane said.


Donald Trump. He abandoned plans to ban many flavored varieties of vapes, backing down from a surprise announcement after a coalition of conservatives — and even his campaign manager — warned that going ahead could cost him votes.

Elizabeth Warren. She unveiled a plan to “fight back against white-nationalist violence,” which includes more funding for investigative work as well as moves to decouple law enforcement and immigration enforcement — an end, for example, to the “secure communities” program.

Bernie Sanders. He announced his 4 millionth individual donation on the cusp of the debate, hitting a mark it took several more months to reach during his 2016 campaign.

Cory Booker. He published a New York Times op-ed warning against “dogmatic” opposition to charter schools, an issue that has hurt his campaign, as teachers unions have generally shown more interest in Warren and Sanders.

Mike Bloomberg. The not-yet-official candidate won the endorsement of Columbia, S.C., Mayor Steve Benjamin, a sought-after Democratic surrogate in the state. “He’s got what it takes and he’s got the resources to take it to Trump,” Benjamin told the AP’s Meg Kinnard.

Deval Patrick. He told reporters in Las Vegas that he was not “going to ignore Alabama and Arkansas,” where he failed to file in time to make the ballot. “We will have organizations and a presence on the ground to the extent we can.”

Lincoln Chafee. He visited the Libertarian Party’s convention in Florida, becoming a member of the party, in what could be a move toward seeking its 2020 presidential nomination.

Kamala D. Harris. She previewed a possible argument against her opponents in an interview with Power 106 FM in Los Angeles, arguing that she’d led on criminal justice reform when other Democrats were timid. “Where were these people, and I’m talking about the people on the debate stage, back in the early 2000s?” she asked. “I was doing the work.”

Joe Biden. He notched another congressional endorsement, from Rep. Kurt Schrader of Oregon, a leader of the moderate Blue Dog Democrats. “I know that Joe can win in tough districts all across this country, giving Democrats a lift up and down the ballot,” Schrader said. “And once in office, Joe is the one candidate who has what it takes to work with the other side to get real things done.”


Katie Hill had been a Democratic star, a co-president of her freshman class, whose nine-point win in California’s 25th Congressional District told the story her party believed about its suburban future. Her shock resignation did not rattle Democrats too badly; Christy Smith, a new member of California’s state Assembly, jumped into the race, and no other credible candidate emerged to challenge her.

That changed last week, when Cenk Uygur, the brash host of the Young Turks news network, told viewers that he would run for Hill’s open seat. Uygur, who quickly raised more than $300,000, described a race that would prove his brand of left-wing politics could play everywhere — in the Bronx, in flyover country, in the suburbs. (Smith had raised $100,000 in her first 24 hours as a candidate.)

“We’re going to end this fiction that purple districts love corporate donors,” Uygur said in an interview. “You can go with the Republicans, who are going to do tax cuts for the rich. Everybody knows that. You can go for a standard establishment politician, who is going to do as the party dictates. Or you can go with me.”

Uygur, who had co-founded Justice Democrats after the 2016 election, played a role in some of 2018’s upsets, such as the victory of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She defeated the fourth-ranking Democrat in House leadership, but Uygur’s task looked even harder. He did not live in the district and was urging its voters to replace Katie Hill with a tough-talking man. Hill herself had quickly endorsed Smith.

“We flipped the district forever,” Hill said at this past weekend’s Democratic convention in Long Beach, Calif. “We are going to make sure it stays with a woman.”

Since entering the race, Uygur, who has made it his mission to replace “corporate” Democrats, has been under steady attack from Democratic clubs that had been lining up behind Smith. The strategy is simple: Define Uygur, for the voters who don’t know him, as a sexist loudmouth with no business running for Congress.

The opposition research is brief, focused on tweets and video clips from Uygur’s career. Democrats for Israel went after him for a clip where he said that religious fundamentalists “teach their kids things that are loony tunes.” Stonewall Young Democrats attacked a 2010 clip in which Uygur joked about whether it was possible for men to be sexually harassed.

“Uygur’s comments reflect more of Donald Trump’s hate speech than anything else,” Stonewall Young Democrats wrote. “Uygur’s despicable remarks have no place in our discourse.”

These weren’t groups with big clout in the district, but the Simi Valley and Los Angeles Democrats quickly joined in, condemning Uygur over those quotes and sharing a 2017 article about Justice Democrats cutting ties with its co-founder over sexist blog posts he’d written more than a decade earlier.

Uygur’s response, so far, has been contrition about the blog posts — “I’ll never get tired of apologizing for that” — and outrage at the coordinated attacks.

“This is classic oppo research,” he said. “The reason they want to do that is that they don’t want to talk about the issues. When I talk about bribery, I become public enemy number one. My opponent doesn’t want Medicare-for-all, she doesn’t want a Green New Deal, and she doesn’t want to talk about lobbyist money. I call those bribes.”

One of the attacks on Uygur has echoed the Democrats’ presidential primary, as Smith-supporting clubs have highlighted her opponent’s criticism of Barack Obama. As co-host of TYT’s flagship show, Uygur repeatedly went after the 44th president as too timid to deliver on the left’s priorities.

“Yes, I have criticized Barack Obama from the left many times,” Uygur said. “I am not embarrassed about it. I’d do it again. Let’s note the irony that the two lines of attack from oppo is that I’m too conservative and I’m too progressive. Fine. If they think me pushing Obama to do single-payer was too progressive, guilty as charged.”

Smith, who has not engaged with every Uygur accusation, is politically closer to Hill than to Justice Democrats. Hill did not endorse the Green New Deal resolution, though she did endorse Medicare-for-all legislation. In a statement, Smith said that Uygur had already talked himself out of the race.

“None of my opponent’s racist, misogynistic, homophobic, and downright offensive statements are in keeping with the values of our community,” Smith said. “I’m not sure how to rank what is most damning of his commentary, but the most disqualifying to me was the night of the Saugus High School shooting when he boasted about his fundraising totals while I was with grieving families and students. He is not fit to serve anywhere, least of all a district where he doesn’t even live.”


… one day until the fifth Democratic debate
… 30 days until the sixth Democratic debate
… 76 days until the Iowa caucuses
… 84 days until the New Hampshire primary

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