The Slatest

What Was Going On When the Moderators Didn’t Know if Joe Biden Had Raised His Hand?

Pete Buttigieg, Joe Biden, and Bernie Sanders raise their hands during the debate.
Joe Biden confused the moderator by raising his hand late. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

About 30 minutes into the Democratic debate on Thursday night, moderator Savannah Guthrie switched up the question-and-answer format by asking the candidates to raise their hands if their “government [health care] plan would provide coverage for undocumented immigrants.”

Minutes later, Guthrie turned to Joe Biden. “I believe you said that your health care plan would not cover undocumented immigrants. Could you explain your position?”

Biden, with a bemused look, answered, “Sorry, I beg your pardon?”

After a bit more confused back-and-forth, it was finally established that Biden did actually raise his hand.

What exactly happened here? Was it just a simple misunderstanding, or was something a little more suspect going on?

Guthrie can be forgiven for missing Biden’s hand—he raised it later than the other candidates and was the first to lower it. It hung in the air for maybe two seconds. The moment is made weirder by Biden’s answers to the two other show-of-hands polling questions during the debate, when he also gestured oddly.

In this clip, which shows Lester Holt asking who would abolish private health insurance in favor of a government-run plan, you can clearly see Biden looking to his left and right before raising his index finger halfway in the air and quickly lowering it:

He does the same tremulous finger point when José Díaz-Balart asked whether the candidates think it should be a civil offense, rather than a crime, to cross the border without documentation:

It could just be that Biden prefers to simply extend his index finger rather than raise his hand outstretched (for efficiency or to conserve energy or what have you). Or perhaps he’s trying to get the moderator’s attention to offer a more nuanced answer to the question. A more cynical reading, though, is that he’s hedging his bets and trying to see how everyone else votes. Any way you slice it, it wasn’t Guthrie’s fault that she missed Biden’s hand.