3 Takeaways From The December Democratic Presidential Debate

Buttigieg under fire, Biden skates by and watch out for Klobuchar.

South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s time in a wine cave in Napa Valley went a lot better than his time on the debate stage in Los Angeles.

The two most memorable exchanges in Thursday’s Democratic presidential debate involved harsh attacks on Buttigieg from two female senators. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) attacked him for his frequent fundraising with wealthy voters, including at a posh wine cave earlier this week, while Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) attacked his lack of traditional presidential-level experience and his lack of success running statewide in Indiana. 

The attacks reflect Buttigieg’s status as one of the front-runners in Iowa, the first state to weigh in on the race and one that is crucial to Klobuchar’s chances of winning the nomination and important to Warren’s standing. But it also might signal the end of the Buttigieg boomlet that has defined the race in recent weeks, providing Democrats of nearly every stripe with a reason to vote against him.

Warren’s attack ― “The mayor just recently had a fundraiser that was held in a wine cave, full of crystals, and served $900-a-bottle wine. Think about who comes to that,” she said ― put Buttigieg on defense. He first noted his personal net worth was lower than the other candidates on stage, then argued that it would be inappropriate to turn away the support of the wealthy in a “purity test.” Warren did not totally nail the attack. Neither she nor Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who echoed her criticisms soon after, managed to directly link Buttigieg’s high-dollar fundraising approach to his policies. 

However, the attack paired well with Warren’s increased focus on corruption throughout the rest of the debate. Buttigieg’s rise has come, to a certain extent, at the expense of Warren. She may have succeeded in limiting any further defections, but her performance seemed unlikely to completely turn her campaign around. 

Not long after, Klobuchar may have dealt more serious damage. Voters are already skeptical about Buttigieg’s ability to defeat Trump ― a Quinnipiac University poll last week found Buttigieg was the only one of the four leading candidates whom a plurality of voters believed would lose to Trump.

That means Klobuchar’s attacks ― questioning Buttigieg’s experience and his ability to win a large-scale election ― are going to remind voters about what they already don’t like about Buttigieg.  

“We should have someone heading up this ticket that has actually won and been able to show they can gather the support that you talk about: moderate Republicans and independents as well as a fired-up Democratic base, and not just done it once,” Klobuchar said, referencing her own record of winning by big margins in Democratic-leaning but swingy Minnesota. “I have done it three times.”

Buttigieg’s response, in which he equated winning the mayoralty in South Bend ― a college town that Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton overwhelmingly won in 2016 ― to winning in “Mike Pence’s Indiana,” was frankly laughable. It also gave Klobuchar a chance to note one of the few blemishes on Buttigieg’s resume: His 25-percentage-point loss when running for state treasurer in 2010. 

A lack of recent early state polling has made it difficult to tell exactly how strong Buttigieg remains in Iowa and New Hampshire, though his numbers have flattened out in national polling in recent weeks.

Biden Wins, By Default 

South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, left, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former Vice President Joe Biden at the sixth 2020
South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, left, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former Vice President Joe Biden at the sixth 2020 Democratic presidential debate at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles on Thursday.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, who remains in contention in both Iowa and New Hampshire, has a healthy lead in national polling and has seen the candidate his campaign fears the most ― Warren ― hobbled in recent weeks, is currently the front-runner for the nomination.

Nothing that happened on Thursday will change that, and that makes it a win for Biden.

Biden, who also cleared the admittedly low bar of making it through a 2½-hour debate without making a verbal slip-up or committing a gaffe, did have some strong moments, especially on foreign policy. But he doesn’t actually need to have strong moments to win. He just needs to hope none of the other candidates has a game-changer.

Sanders, who also turned in a strong performance, remains the only candidate with a real interest in criticizing Biden, but Biden’s strategy of ignoring the attacks ― on Thursday, Sanders criticized his vote for the Iraq War and noted his high number of donations from billionaires ― has prevented them from becoming major media narratives.

(Biden got a bonus after the debate, when former Trump White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders mocked his childhood stutter on Twitter. Though Sanders later apologized, it’s the type of criticism that will make even supporters of other candidates sympathize with the former Delaware senator.)

Klobuchar Could Seize The Narrative

Sen. Amy Klobuchar criticizes Pete Buttigieg's experience at the Los Angeles debate Thursday.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar criticizes Pete Buttigieg's experience at the Los Angeles debate Thursday.

If ― and this remains a big if ― Buttigeg’s boomlet ended on Thursday, who is set to pick up the narrative baton? Likely Klobuchar.

Klobuchar has been steadily creeping up, if not quite breaking out, in polls of Iowa for months now. Thursday’s debate gave her chances to make her electability argument and to borrow many of Buttigieg’s critiques of Warren and Sanders without confronting the progressive duo as directly.  

And the media, which has gone through periods of intense focus on both Warren and Buttigieg, is now likely looking for a new candidate to focus on. Lucky for them, Klobuchar starts a 27-county bus tour of Iowa on Friday afternoon.