The Democratic primary debate in Charleston, South Carolina, should have been a do-or-die moment for many campaigns, but it is likely to be remembered mostly as a dud. It was a shambling mess: badly organized and confusing, with candidates often talking over each other or trying to navigate muddled questions.
Both CBS News and the Democratic National Committee deserve blame. The fact that the audience was playing favorites by booing and cheering added to the distraction. To top it all off, it wasn’t even a fairly representative audience. Tickets started at $1,750 and went up to $3,200.
This meant that the audience skewed rich. No wonder they booed when Elizabeth Warren attacked Michael Bloomberg.
The debate has been nearly universally panned. Jon Lovett of Crooked Media was moved to an all-caps lament: “THIS IS A TERRIBLE DEBATE.” James Fallows of The Atlantic agreed, writing that the “previous one was good and enlightening. This one is bad and murkifying.” Richard Kim of HuffPost (and formerly of The Nation) had a similar reaction, noting, “this debate was as bad as the last debate was good.” The novelist Mat Johnson thought “this is officially the worst debate I’ve ever seen.”
Yet the very badness of the debate might serve the interests of the two front-runners, Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden. As former Obama adviser David Axelrod argued, “Biden had a good night … he was energetic and strong and emphatic.” Axelrod also noted, “Sanders by and large handled the attacks pretty well.”
The advantage of a befuddling debate was that it muddled the attacks against Sanders that the other candidates were trying to make. As the front-runner, Sanders was a natural target, all the more because the moderate wing of the party doesn’t want him to become the Democratic nominee.
Various rivals went after Sanders. Pete Buttigieg was perhaps the most insistent, but, in light of his fading status, lacked the stature to attack the senator. Buttigieg came across as an annoying younger brother trying to get his older siblings to pay attention.
Michael Bloomberg and Amy Klobuchar also took potshots at Sanders, sometimes assisted by the moderators, who offered talking points. They warned of the dangers of the socialist label, upbraided Sanders for praising Cuba’s educational record, and in general tried to present him as a candidate with an electability problem.
But on the whole, these attacks weren’t very strong. Sanders fended them off well, and any negative effect got lost in the cross talk. For long stretches of the debate, Sanders wasn’t even audible, neither talked about nor talking.
Being allowed to fly under the radar like this might serve Sanders well. He had more to lose from a dramatic debate than anyone, so just holding steady is a win.
The same might be said for Joe Biden, who is still the front-runner for the South Carolina race, although Sanders is catching up. By the metrics of shoring up his base, Biden did well. He was forceful and on message. He won much applause for his promise to appoint an African American woman to the Supreme Court. He kept alluding to his record as Obama’s vice president and his experience on the world stage. Biden made the case for himself as a tough, experienced, and trustworthy leader.
Early in the debate, a moderator tried to address a question to Biden, but Buttigieg kept butting in. Biden finally got a word in edgewise by saying, “Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. I guess the only way you do this is jump in and speak twice as long as you should.”
On another occasion, Biden stopped halfway through a question and asked, “Why am I stopping? No one else stops.” A moderator responded, “You’re a gentleman.” Biden took the compliment and said, “Gentlemen don’t get very well treated up here.”
But, in fact, this very quality of not being preening peacocks might have benefited both Sanders and Biden. They both got across the message they needed to their core voters. The debate was a food fight more than a reasoned discourse. They survived it. They’re more likely than their rivals to do well in South Carolina and on Super Tuesday.