Friday, February 28, 2020

BTRTN South Carolina Preview: Can a Funny Thing Happen on the Way to Bernie’s Coronation?

Tom previews the South Carolina primary, including our BTRTN prediction – and then looks ahead to Super Tuesday and beyond. 

The Democratic campaign is over, right?  Bernie Sanders is the nominee. He basically won the first three contests.  After essentially tying with Pete Buttigieg in lily-white Iowa, winning New Hampshire and utterly clobbering the field in Nevada, showing strength in every demographic in that highly diverse state, what more does Bernie have to prove?  Nate Silver has run the numbers, Bernie is going to come out of Super Tuesday with an insurmountable 300+ delegate lead and, as the Boss would say, man, that was all she wrote.  Now it’s time for the Bernie youth brigade to figure out where the ballot boxes are in November and actually show up to vote, and for the rest of us to grit our teeth and unify behind Sanders, like it or not. 
Wait, what? 

There is something called the “South Carolina Primary.”  Have we forgotten?  Joe Biden’s firewall?  Hello, anybody home? 

Wake up, folks, because Joe Biden is going to win South Carolina.  He’s actually going to win big.  And by Saturday night, Nate will start re-spinning his numbers faster than I can say “2016.” 

Let’s go back to right after New Hampshire.  Biden has high-tailed it out of there fast, not sticking around for the results.  He knew the following:  he came in fourth in Iowa, fiffh in New Hampshire, and Sanders is polling way better than anybody in Nevada, has a great field organization and plenty of money.  

He arrives in South Carolina, takes a long walk on a beach there, and, lo and behold, stumbles across not one but a four-pack of genie bottles!  Twelve wishes! 

What does Biden ask for?  

1.      That Mike Bloomberg, coming up the entrance ramp and zooming directly into the centrist lane of the race, my centrist lane, qualifies for the Nevada debate
2.      And then Bloomberg does very, very poorly in that debate
3.      That Pete and Amy attack one another in that debate, and both look very bad in doing so
4.      That Elizabeth Warren has a great debate to keep her in the race to keep Bernie’s total vote down
5.      That I, Joe Biden, do well enough in that debate myself
6.      That I then come in second in Nevada (the genie told me it was out of bounds to wish for first)
7.      And I win the African-American vote there (the genie was OK with this)
8.      That Tom Steyer does poorly there, so he is less likely to siphon off my African-American vote in South Carolina
9.      That Amy does poorly enough in Nevada to start the drumbeat that she should exit the race after South Carolina
10.   That I then do well in the South Carolina debate
11.   While everyone else gangs up on Bernie
12.   But that no one else does particularly well enough to get momentum for South Carolina

The genie did indeed grant every wish, and look where Joe sits.  He is the frontrunner in South Carolina, Bernie got bruised, Warren got a bit of a lifeline, the Bloomberg is off the rose (quoting my brother here), Pete and Amy are fading, having won little support from people of color in Nevada, and Steyer did not get the bump he hoped for in Nevada to set him up for South Carolina.   Check, check, check, check, check, check.

Biden was smart enough not to ask the genie for James Clyburn’s endorsement.  The House’s number three, revered in South Carolina, was expected to step up to that, and his eventual announcement made for a nice pre-primary headline.  

The South Carolina polls, and there have been eight of them since Nevada, are clear.  For South Carolinians, it’s almost as if Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada never happened.  There have been eight polls since Nevada, and all show Biden ahead, on average by +13 percentage points.  In fact, these polls are not materially different from the January polls that preceded the first three contests.  Biden is almost doubling Sanders, with Tom Steyer, making his own last stand, well behind in third.  Pete Buttigieg is in fourth,  Elizabeth Warren next in single digits, and Amy Klobuchar is back to keeping company with Tulsi Gabbard.  

Perhaps it is worth noting that over the past year, there have been 36 polls in South Carolina and Biden has led in every one of them (inclusive of a tie with Sanders in mid-February, but he has led in the 12 polls since then). 

Average of South Carolina Polls
Jan (3)
Feb Pre-Nev (6)
Feb Post-Nev (8)

Our BTRTN prediction is that Joe Biden will win the South Carolina primary by double digits, with Bernie Sanders well ahead of Tom Steyer and Pete Buttigieg for second. 

South Carolina
Actual %

What would this outcome mean?  Can Bernie really be de-railed? 

It would be extremely difficult.  The delegate math is unforgiving.  Based on recent Super Tuesday polling, Sanders would score roughly 550 delegates on Super Tuesday, 200 to 250 delegates more than the second place finisher.  And that kind of lead is extremely difficult to overcome because of two factors:  1) the proportional, not winner-take-all, allocation of delegates in Democratic primaries, and 2) a splintered field among the centrists, which divides the vote, of course, giving Sanders a better chance to win each primary. 

And who is most likely, based on today’s polling, to come in second on Super Tuesday?  Yes, Joe Biden.  Despite the terrible finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, the walloping in Nevada, the tepid fundraising and ground game, the inconsistent debate performances, Biden still stands to pick up somewhere north of 300 delegates.  He is in strong contention to win the next three biggest Super Tuesday states after California:  Texas, North Carolina and Virginia.  And he is well ahead of Bloomberg, who polling indicates will land in the 200+ range. 

And all that polling, of course, precedes the South Carolina results.  A three-day spate of “Joe is Back” headlines will be worth a heckuva lot more than the ad buys Bloomberg will make. 

All this makes Biden the only real alternative to Sanders at this point, the one best-positioned to de-rail the frontrunner. 

How does Biden get into realistic contention by next Wednesday morning?  He needs another genie bottle or three, to wish for the following: 

1.      To win South Carolina by 15+ percentage points
2.      That Klobuchar exit after SC (unlikely, since she’ll want to win in home state Minnesota on Super Tuesday, picking up 30 delegates or so that may be great leverage for her down the road)
3.      That Steyer does poorly
4.      That Buttigieg does poorly
5.      That he (Biden) gets a +5-point bounce in each Super Tuesday race, which would give him wins in Texas, North Carolina and Virginia, and cut the delegate gap with Sanders from say, 200+ to 100+
6.      That after Super Tuesday, Buttigieg, Steyer and Klobuchar (if she hasn’t already) drop out (Bloomberg, too, but I don’t think the genie will go that far)
7.      But Warren stays in

If all of these wishes came true, we’d be left with Biden and Bloomberg in the center lane and Sanders and Warren on the left.  And from there, presumably at some point Bloomberg and Warren drop out, but they’ve each amassed a material number of delegates. 

We thus get to the convention in a two person game, Bernie likely ahead but Biden within bargaining range.  Biden, of course, will have the 700 superdelegates in his pocket.  And thus he could pull it off on the second ballot.

Far-fetched?  I would give it about a 30% shot – just about what Trump faced on Election Day 2016.

The first piece to drop is a big win in South Carolina.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

BTRTN: Four Theories of the Presidential Race: Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue

Tom steps back to look at various competing theories on who the Democrats should nominate and how they will fare in November as a consequence.

As Democrats ponder the potential candidacy of Bernie Sanders in November, feeling either euphoria or despair (depending on your “lane”), it may be an opportune time to review various “theories of the race.”  No matter where you stand within the Democratic Party, you should be able to find comfort in at least one of these theories, if you buy it.

By the time the Democratic convention in July is over, Democrats will be wedded to the candidate of our collective choice.  In the matrimonial spirit, I thus offer you four distinct theories -- something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue.


The traditional way of viewing a presidential election is that it is a “race for the middle.”  In this construct, candidates win their party’s nomination by appealing to primary voters and caucus attendees, so these tend to be the more passionate members of the party, the more liberal and conservative members.  But the trick, in this traditional scenario, is to avoid committing themselves to specific, more “extreme” policy positions that might be a turn-off to those “swing voters” who must be wooed and won to win the general election.
This view certainly seems to have the weight of presidential election history on its side.  John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are all pragmatic “centrists” at heart, but each had their own appeal that enabled them to walk the line between the party faithful and those fickle swing voters.  JFK, Clinton and Obama were all gifted, inspirational figures, while Carter, in the post-Watergate trauma, wore his religion as a badge of honor to capture the moral high ground over Gerald Ford, who committed the unpardonable sin of pardoning the evil Richard Nixon.  The more extreme nominees, George McGovern and Walter Mondale, were crushed.  

The GOP has its own version of this theory, with George H.W. Bush a true moderate, while Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush both wrapped their conservative personas in a warm, appealing glow, be it through Reagan’s sunny optimism (“Morning in America”) in the wake of Carter’s “malaise” (as the media dubbed it, not him) or Bush 43’s “compassionate conservatism.”  While viewed as “conservatives” in their time, they clearly pitched their general election messaging well beyond the base.

This seems to be the construct that is most concerning to moderate Democrats today.  Bernie Sanders is the epitome of extremism in the Democratic Party, the self-proclaimed “Democratic socialist” who would raise taxes and spend trillions on his “revolution.”  Sanders’ policies, the theory goes, cannot possible win the middle and thus the Dems are doomed – especially since the group that backs him the most fervently, the youth vote, are notoriously indifferent to actually voting. 

Thus, goes the thinking, if Bernie is Plan A according to the primary and caucus results to date, the party better evolve to “Plan B” -- any of Biden, Bloomberg or Buttigieg – in a hurry for the best chance of winning the middle and beating Trump.

But the next theory believes this is all a bunch of dated hogwash in these polarized times.  Let’s call it “Something New.”


The brand new theory here is perhaps most associated with political scientist Rachel Bitecofer, who is gaining visibility for her complete rejection of the old model.  Her research indicates that there are no swing voters.  And furthermore, it doesn’t really matter who the candidates are either.

What matters are the structural/contextual conditions that determine whether Republicans or Democrats are more likely to show up at the polls in greater numbers.  There is no real “switching” going on, indeed no actual “swing voters.”  And the candidates themselves are irrelevant; the key is that in some years more Democrats go to the polls, and other years more Republicans.  It does not matter who is running, it matters who is voting.  And Bitecofer’s view is that the Democrats’ turnout is likely to exceed that of the GOP in 2020.

The contextual condition at play here, according to Bitecofer, is the near complete polarization of our electorate.  We are more defined now by who we oppose rather than who we support.  And Democrats oppose Donald J. Trump far more than they admire any particular Democratic candidate.

When Trump was elected, the Democrats went crazy.  Indivisible (and other) groups were formed, and many outraged Dems became engaged in the staples of campaign volunteerism, canvassing, phone banking and the like, for the first time.  They viewed every subsequent election as a referendum on Trump.

And look at the track record: the Dems flipped 41 House seats from red to blue in 2018, and flipped deep red Alabama in the Senate as well.  In almost every special election in the House since 2016, they reduced the GOP margin of victory in deep red districts by roughly 20 points on average versus 2016.  This pattern has been repeated in local elections, such as the flipping of Virginia’s state legislature, New York’s state senate, and the famed Delaware County Council in Pennsylvania, which had been in GOP hands since the Civil War.  There was not just a “blue wave” in 2018 – there has been blue wave after blue wave after blue wave since 2016.

Past is prologue.  Democrats still hate Trump with a passion. Trump continues to feed the Dems’ rage machine daily, with the purge of “dis-loyalists,” the pardoning of famous white collar criminals, the interference in the Stone and Flynn cases, just to name a few actions.  The Democratic volunteers that fueled the midterm success have not been sated nor has Trump outrage waned.  They want to take him down, more than ever:  “it’s up to us.”  Trump’s base is rabid too, but their man is in power, so they are more content, and content people (in Bitcofer’s view) will not come out quite the same way as outraged people.

So in this view, Dems, don’t despair about Bernie.  It doesn’t matter.  The Dems will win regardless of who they nominate because they are the more motivated party, motivated by their desire to defeat Trump, no matter who is at the top of the ticket.

So turnout is the key.  That is also true of the next theory, but for a different reason.


This next theory is essentially the Sanders worldview.  And, oddly, the Bernie Bros have borrowed this theory largely from Donald J. Trump.

Trump, they argue, never “tacked to the middle” in 2016; he flipped the traditional theory completely on its head.  He completely doubled down on the base in the general election, ignoring the middle entirely, and pulled off the win.  Trump fired up Americans who felt neglected by Democratic elites, and they came out for him.  They were so taken with Trump that they held their noses and looked past at his many sins, including even the "Access Hollywood" video, the near-epitome of a disqualifying event for old school pols.

Bernie, is, essentially, the Trump of the Left.  His message that “the system is rigged” by billionaires, requiring a “revolution,” has captivated his followers, including many young people who have typically not engaged in the political process and don’t go to the polls.  The theory argues that the Dems need an inspiring candidate to get that vote out.  Like Trump, Sanders speaks in an angry tone, draws large crowds, and has a massive army of volunteers.  Like Trump, Sanders is a party outsider – in fact, he goes one step further: while Trump has been a back-and-forth member of the GOP, Sanders is not even a member of the Democratic Party.  And like Trump’s red-hatted followers, Sanders’ army can be nasty -- especially to the supporters of other Democrats.

So while this theory is also turnout-based, it is utterly candidate dependent.  In this view, Bernie will prevail.  He will never tack to the middle in the general election, he will maintain the ideological purity of his message, he will be himself – and he will inspire the massive turnout needed to win in November.  Indeed, in this theory, Bernie must be the nominee for the Dems to win.

But there is a fourth, quite traditional view – and this one is in Trump’s favor.  And it will make the Democrats sing the blues.


This theory is really the amalgamation of conventional wisdom around a common theme.    

·        “The incumbent wins.”  Well, that is true.  Since FDR, only two incumbents have failed to win a second term:  Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush.  They were both done in by a sagging U.S.  economy.  The economy now may not be a world-beater (at 2% GDP growth), but with a 3.6% unemployment rate, it is not going to derail Trump. 

·        “Peace and prosperity.”  This is a corollary to the first point, since it covers the economy, but adds on the alliterative companion of peace.  Trump has nearly triggered several major conflagrations (notably with North Korea and Iraq) and has certainly exacerbated tensions in the tinder box of the Middle East, but thus far he has yet to stumble into war.

·         “It’s the economy, stupid.”  Ah, James Carville's wise dictum, another bit of wisdom at play here.

Put them all together – variations on a theme – and this theory augurs well for Trump.  As the incumbent with a good economic story and no major war underway, he will be tough to beat.


So where does this review leave us?  Each theory has some holes, of course.  The traditional theory does a poor job of explaining Trump’s expectations-defying win in 2016.  The new theory seems to imply Jeb Bush could have won for the GOP in 2016, but it's hard to imagine Jeb motivating the same turnout as Trump – turnout cannot possibly be completely independent of the candidate, can it?  The third theory, in which Bernie is the new Trump, is betting that a rampant youth vote will overcome not only “losing the middle” but also Sanders potentially turning off moderate Democrats who might not work at all for him, and just might even stay home.  And the fourth theory, that it’s all about peace and prosperity, ignores Trump’s current low job approval rating, a function of his divisive style, lack of ethics, lack of ability and threat to our democracy.

But each of these theories has at least a modicum of merit along with the holes.  Which is the best?  I go for “all of the above.”  I cannot comfortably hang my hat on any one of them. 

The 2016 election did indeed throw much conventional wisdom out the window.  I doubt that Trump can be simply dismissed as an election aberration, born of 39,000 misguided voters, but nor do I conclude we are in a new paradigm. And we are not going to know the answer in time for November.

I do believe the Democrats would be better off with a less extreme candidate than Sanders, and probably Warren as well, although she is just a bit more pragmatic than Bernie.

But it is absurd to say Bernie cannot win.  Of course he can win.  Trump won, and Bernie has little to no personal baggage.  Swing state polls have him beating Trump by the same margin as Biden or Bloomberg. 

The most important point?  Democrats, please stop the handwringing.  The enemy is us – letting our despair get in the way of the job that must be done.  Whatever theory strikes a chord with you is irrelevant.  Under any theory, voting, and getting out the vote is essential.  Democrats have to back the party candidate, regardless of who it is, and work hard to get them elected.  That is the one thing we can control in this race: our own personal behavior.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

BTRTN South Carolina Debate Analysis: Bloomberg's Back, Biden Battles, But Bernie Beats the Bashing

Last night in South Carolina, Michael Bloomberg righted his listing ship, Joe Biden made what might be his last stand, and Bernie Sanders handled his turn in the bullseye well. This may have been the night that race took on its final shape.

More than a whiff of panic was in the air last night in South Carolina.

Since the last debate – just this past Thursday night -- the entire calculus of the Democratic nomination was wrenched upside down and inside out by Bernie Sanders’ unearthly annihilation of his competitors in the Nevada caucuses. Sanders absolutely crushed every one of his competitors, and did so by virtue of dazzling support among Latino and African-American voters, sending a badly wounded Vice President off to fight desperately to preserve his South Carolina firewall in a potential end-game of Biden go seek.

Wrap your head around this: Bernie Sanders won twice as many delegates in Nevada as all of the other candidates combined Suddenly Super-Bernie was able to pass by the entire centrist lane as easily as flashing his turn signal.

In the span of a few short days, the narrative of the race shifted completely from Bloomberg the Conqueror to Bernie the Unstoppable. Suddenly, in wine caves from Sand Hill all the way to Sagaponack, it dawned on the Democratic Establishment that the Centrist Lane may not hold.

That very aromatic whiff of panic was evident in an often out-of-control shouting match in which the loudest voice and most determined shouter prevailed over insufficiently assertive CBS moderators. The first 45 minutes were particularly savage, and the candidates, perhaps exhausted by the bloodletting, then settled in to a classic Democratic wonk fest, tackling important but occasionally tedious topics that left little room for the type of inspirational oratory that changes minds.

And the whiff of panic was clear in the fact that by next Tuesday – just one week away – every candidate other that Sanders and mega-billionaire Bloomberg – may find it hard to justify continuing their campaigns, particularly as the party centrists feel an urgent need to pick one horse as the only possible way to stave off a Sanders nomination.

It was this context that shaped the script for the South Carolina debate, the last debate before Super Tuesday next week.  

Bernie Sanders settled into his role as the front runner, and therefore spent the night absorbing incoming from all sides. Sanders held up well, taking it and dishing it out, never knocked off his game. He  gave no reason for anyone who supports him to turn away. When you are the front-runner and you suffer no major calamities or significant wounds, that’s what’s called a win. 

Michael Bloomberg improved dramatically over his disastrous debate in Nevada, performing well enough that he may well have regained the confidence of those who had been eager to crown him as the centrist savior. This was absolutely essential to restoring the full power of his ad budget, which means that he is once again poised to claim leadership in the centrist lane by the time polls close on Super Tuesday. 

It is worth noting that both Sanders and Bloomberg have the serenity of men whose candidacies did not face an existential threat on this debate stage. One – Sanders – has already claimed victory in two caucuses and a primary, and the other has billions more to spend than his competitors, and can carry on his race as long as he wishes. The same serenity did not exist for any other candidate. 

Joe Biden may have flashed just enough alpha to halt the erosion of support that threatens his lead in South Carolina. Biden knows that if he is beaten in South Carolina, his candidacy – and his career in elective politics – is effectively over. He fought hard enough to keep the people who are leaning his way in South Carolina – give him an “A” for effort -- but there was little in his debate performance that would reverse the long, steady decline in his popularity. 

Perhaps the two candidates who were in the toughest position last night were Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar. Both have made enormous progress against great odds, but each had bet their campaigns on the idea that strong showings in Iowa and New Hampshire would be slingshots that propelled huge surges in nationwide name recognition and support in time for Nevada, South Carolina, and Super Tuesday. Some would say that Klobuchar’s 4% showing in Nevada was an engraved invitation for a graceful exit. Buttigieg has more evidence for the slingshot theory than Klobuchar, but the particular Goliath Mayor Pete is facing on Super Tuesday has billions of dollars to spend. Pete had to have an overwhelming win in the debate to offset that kind of impact.  

Tom Steyer is an appealing guy – a billionaire whose heart is in the right place – but it is time for him to get out of the way.

The evening began with fireworks.

Michael Bloomberg lobbed the first incendiary device with an all-too-predictable borderline cheap shot, noting that U.S. Intelligence services had reported that Russia was attempting to interfere with the Democratic nomination process in order to help Bernie Sanders win. This, Bloomberg noted, was clearly because the Russians wanted the Democrats to nominate the candidate that they felt certain Trump could beat. 

O'DONNELL: Mayor Bloomberg, I'll let you respond to that. Do you think Senator Sanders' economy would be better for America than President Trump's?
BLOOMBERG: I think that Donald Trump thinks it would be better if he's president. I do not think so.Vladimir Putin thinks that Donald Trump should be president of the United States. And that's why Russia is helping you get elected, so you will lose to him.

A low groan cascaded across the arena as the crowd realized that it was in for an evening of low blows. 

Last week in Nevada, Elizabeth Warren nearly destroyed Michael Bloomberg. Last night in South Carolina, she attempted to reprise her role, doubling down on a brutal assault on Bloomberg. But in her seeming obsession to take down Bloomberg, she may have gone too far. The single most riveting moment in the entire contentious evening was when Warren accused Bloomberg of demanding that a female employee have an abortion. 

WARREN: ... and (Bloomberg) referred to what I talk about as a "sideshow." You know, this is personal for me. When I was 21 years old, I got my first job as a special education teacher. I loved that job. And by the end of the first year, I was visibly pregnant. The principal wished me luck and gave my job to someone else. Pregnancy discrimination, you bet. But I was 21 years old. I didn't have a union to protect me. And I didn't have any federal law on my side. So I packed up my stuff, and I went home. At least I didn't have a boss who said to me, "Kill it," the way that Mayor Bloomberg is alleged to have said...
BLOOMBERG: I never said that. Oh, come on.
WARREN: ... to one of his pregnant employees. People want a chance to hear...

It is worth mentioning that the actual CBS transcript of the evening then notes “AUDIENCE BOOS.”

CBS moderator Nora O’Donnell asked Warren for the proof of her stunning allegation, and Warren shot back that she was merely quoting an accuser in “her own words.” The former New York City Mayor vehemently denied ever had made such a comment. 

Suddenly  the audience was confronted with a real time “he said, she said,” echoing almost precisely Warren’s allegation that Bernie Sanders had told her that a woman could not win the Presidential election in 2020.

Somehow, in the cascade of boos that descending onto the stage, it seemed that the audience was uncomfortable that Warren was making such a sensationalist accusation in the face of Bloomberg’s emphatic denial. But the net effect was clear: once Bloomberg navigated this new wave of attacks from Warren, he was more confident on the stage, and proceeded to have a very solid debate performance.
Warren would actually continue her attacks on Bloomberg throughout the debate on the topics of red-lining and releasing his taxes, but after a point, it began to look petty and puzzling. Why is Elizabeth Warren spending all of her time ripping into Bloomberg instead of talking about her own plans? Perhaps she felt that she had to have another strong night of attack to replicate her Nevada fundraising triumph, but that she would alienate progressives if she went after Bernie. There was little evidence that her Nevada debate performance actually helped her win votes. Indeed, Kamala Harris proved that extreme attacks on front runners can backfire badly. But here is the ironic result: Warren’s withering attacks on Bloomberg may have helped him steady his debate performance, and given his campaign new life.

Last night, Bloomberg’s performance was much more in line with what one was expecting from a highly seasoned politician and business leader. He was knowledgeable on a broad range of topics, notably about the success of educational policy in New York City under his leadership:

“…When I came into office, zero New York City schools were in the top 25 of the state. When I left, 23 out of 25 were from New York City. We've cut the gap between the rich and the poor. We've made an enormous difference in all of the options that parents have.
I raised teacher salaries by 43 percent. I put an extra $5 billion into our school system. I value education. It is the only way to solve the poverty problem is to get people a good education. And rather than just talk about it in New York, we actually did it…”

Bloomberg also offered the definitive “centrist” rationale for his candidacy:

BLOOMBERG: Let's just go on the record. They talk about 40 Democrats; 21 of those were people that I spent $100 million to help elect. All of the new Democrats that came in and put Nancy Pelosi in charge and gave the Congress the ability to control this president...
BLOOMBERG: ... I -- I got them. Number two, when you talk about money, let's put this in perspective. The federal budget is $4.5 trillion a year. We get $3.5 trillion in revenue. We lose $1 trillion a year.
That's why the federal budget -- deficit is -- right now, the debt is $20 trillion, going up to 21. We just cannot afford some of this stuff people talk about. But if you...Let me finish... If you keep on going, we will elect Bernie. Bernie will lose to Donald Trump. And Donald Trump and the House and the Senate and some of the statehouses will all go red. And then, between gerrymandering and appointing judges, for the next 20 or 30 years, we're going to live with this catastrophe.”

Bloomberg offered strong opinions on foreign policy and middle east politics in particular. He was poised and calm throughout, and the only real criticism was that his attempts to offer comic relief fell with repeated dull thuds. All in all, he had a very solid night. 

Once Bloomberg had successfully navigated the onslaught from Elizabeth Warren, the energy in the debate returned to the core issue of toppling Bernie Sanders. 

Candidates took turns attempting to rattle him, damage him, and trip him up, but Bernie Sanders has been in more Presidential debates than anyone on the stage. They tried clobbering for embracing “socialism,” clobbering him for the uncertainty surrounding the true cost of his “Medicare for all,” and clobbering him for votes early in his career that favored the gun industry. Bernie was clobbered by Biden for threatening to “primary” Barack Obama in 2012, and clobbered for his recent comments that appeared to evidence sympathy for Fidel Castro. Pete tried to paste him for “nostalgia” for the 1960s, which led to a protracted, red-faced, “who can talk louder?” confrontation between Sanders and Buttigieg. 

But the physics of a debate are unyielding: a tie goes to the leader. And in just about every one of this topics, Bernie fought his accuser to a draw at minimum.

For all the clobbering, Bernie Sanders is far too canny a debater to ever let anyone shake his confidence or get in his head. Bernie gave no quarter. He took the heat and gave it back. For all of the attacks, it felt like no punch really landed, no one did any real damage. If anything, the evening taken in full reinforced his standing as the front-runner. 

Bernie’s only questionable moment was when he was on the defensive about his voting history on guns. His initial reply was to try to dodge and the issue (“well, you know, Joe has voted for terrible trade agreements… Joe voted for the Iraq war…”). It was booed lustily by the crowd. Chastened, Bernie returned to his trademark unabashed candor: “I have cast thousands of votes, including bad votes. That was a bad vote.” Once again, Bernie proved that the admission of an error is a better debate strategy than obfuscation and quibbling.

Joe Biden is uncomfortable to watch in the debate format. He has become a one-note Johnny, insisting on fielding every single question – be it about guns, housing, or the Ebola virus -- by saying words to the effect of, “Here’s the deal! I’m the only one on this stage who has actually done (fill in topic here)! I wrote the bill! Barack Obama put me in charge of (fill in new topic here), I’m the only one on this stage who met with (fill in name of world leader here) and I got it done!” Biden rarely seems to offer a new idea, cast a vision for the future, or speak about how he would approach a new challenge. He simply shouts that he has (1) already done whatever he was asked about, and that (2) he was the only one on the stage who has ever done it. 

At one point, Biden pulled out his “I wrote the bill!” smack in the middle of a debate response by Amy Klobuchar, causing her to laugh out loud in his face and challenge him:

KLOBUCHAR: But the way we do it -- the way we do it is having someone leading the ticket from a part of the country that we actually needs the votes. So I have long supported the assault weapon ban. I am the author of the bill to close the boyfriend loophole that says that domestic abusers can't go out and get an AK-47.
BIDEN: I wrote that law.
KLOBUCHAR: That bill, along with -- you didn't write that bill. I wrote that bill.

At least Biden spoke with intensity and gusto last night, so he at least did not compound his predictability and formulaic content with his occasional milquetoast demeanor. He may have held on just enough to get the “W” he needs so desperately in South Carolina. But something tells me that Super Tuesday is not going to be very super in the Biden household, and he may take his cue to exit, enabling Bloomberg to truly consolidate the centrist lane. 

We continue to admire the intellectual depth and relentlessly upbeat manner of Pete Buttigieg, but a tantrum-filled screaming middle-school food-fight is not the ideal venue for a cerebral orator and complex thinker. Pete was good last night when given his fair time, but it appeared that he was outshouted, interrupted, and forced to abridge his carefully conceived answers in order to complete the thought before the vultures pounced. Pete has never had a bad debate, and last night was no exception. But he really needed to smack this one out of the park in order to make a definitive statement for Super Tuesday, and this food-fight was simply not the venue that lent itself to his game.

Amy Klobuchar, too, was very strong, and thankfully in this debate she did not allow herself to become distracted with immature, silly, and pointless spats with Pete Buttigieg. Klobuchar is richly informed on the issues and exudes a nerdy yet endearing authenticity. But she is not making enough headway with voters. Indeed, what I truly do not understand is how she can continue to make her record of winning elections the centerpiece of the argument for her nomination. Every single debate, she says that she has never been beaten in an election. But please, Amy, help me understand! By what technicality are you skipping over the fact that you have actually lost the last three elections you have been in? (Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada). I admire Amy’s “grit” (that’s another one of her words, not mine), and we will miss her in the race going forward. 

Poor Tom Steyer. He has got to be slapping his forehead in exasperation: “Geez,” he must be thinking, “I’m a billionaire, too!! Why didn’t I just skip these four goddam primaries and just drop a half-bill on Super Tuesday!” It’s gotta be a raw feeling to spend hundreds of millions and find out that it was all a case of too little, too early.

If, indeed, Super Tuesday turns this race into a two-person competition between Bloomberg and Sanders, last night was the night that put that race into motion.

Here is how we call it:



Probably Did Just Enough to Halt Further Erosion in South Carolina, but Nothing More:


Did Well, But Given the Circumstances, Had to Do More:


Executed the Wrong Strategy, and Lost Ground:


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