Politics

It’s Finally Time for the High-Stakes Democratic Debate Everyone Has Been Waiting For

One surging ex-Republican, zero long-shot candidates, and no more time left on the clock.

Bloomberg, standing at a blue lectern, looks to his right against a black backdrop.
Michael Bloomberg in Nashville, Tennessee, on Feb. 12.
Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

There have been eight Democratic presidential primary debates since last June. They’ve mattered, in the aggregate. A very young small-city mayor used them to demonstrate that he has enough presence to be a viable presidential candidate, while a former senator and vice president did the opposite. Progressive-wing campaigns rose and fell under never-ending rounds of “But can you really pay for it?” questions. Marianne Williamson won hearts, minds, and spirit auras, if not votes or the confidence of public health officials.

But now, at Wednesday night’s debate in Las Vegas—and next Tuesday’s in Charleston, South Carolina—it’s really time for everyone to put their cards on the table, push their chips in, double down, pull the lever, roll the dice, spin the wheel, and do whatever it is that one does to play baccarat. Candidates like Andrew Yang and Tom Steyer who have no real chance of winning the presidency have dropped out or failed to qualify for the stage. Michael “The Surging Bloomberg Campaign (TM)” Bloomberg will be there. And four candidates are competing to be the non-Bernie, non-Bloomberg option who survives Super Tuesday—if indeed anyone will.

Here, ranked in order of who has the most to least to lose, are the participants in the Las Vegas debate.

1. Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg has bootstrapped his way to 20 percent in some national polls and achieved a co-front-runner position in several Super Tuesday states by spending 18 times as much on advertising as any other candidate besides Tom Steyer, a megablitz that has impressed voters who may know little else about him besides that he is a superrich guy who really dislikes Donald Trump. On the other hand, each day seems to produce a new revelation about Bloomberg having said something condescending and/or outright insulting at a conference for rich people, like Tuesday’s BuzzFeed News report that he summarized the transgender rights debate as being about whether “some guy wearing a dress” can enter a women’s locker room while speaking at “a forum hosted by the Bermuda Business Development Agency” (LOL). The ex-Republican ex–New York City mayor has likely spent $17 trillion on the world’s most advanced debate-prep virtual reality training program in anticipation of this moment, but handling criticism gracefully and being charismatic in general have not historically been among his strong suits, and one can picture national voters’ first instance of exposure to his record and personality going badly for him, leading to a sudden, 2004 Howard Dean–like fall from the top tier.

2. Joe Biden. The recent part of Uncle J’s line on this graph tracking Democratic primary polling looks like a triple-black-diamond backcountry cliff that Mountain Dew enthusiasts would ski down after dropping out of a helicopter in a commercial. Bloomberg has taken his place as the experienced, “safe” (white and male) candidate who exudes confidence and electability—and, as Biden probably should have done upon entering the campaign, has made a series of issue-specific proposals that put him squarely in the center of the modern Democratic policy debate without being as aggressive as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. There is still a case to be made that Biden would be a more trustworthy nominee, for Democratic voters, than Bloomberg—Biden supported the Democratic candidates for president in 2004 and 2008, for example—but, as they say in Scranton, possibly, youse better start making that case, Joe Biden, or pretty soon it’s going to be Yuengling Time.

3. Elizabeth Warren. Warren fans, in this writer’s experience, alternate between complaining that the media is dismissing her prematurely and complaining that she hasn’t done enough at debates to make the case for her superiority to Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg as a candidate. Well, the media will be watching the debate, and Warren is holding steadily enough in the third/fourth-place zone that she could conceivably jump back into relevance with a good performance. (She’s currently the top second-choice candidate among Dem voters, a Washington Post–ABC News poll found this week.) But as they say in Massachusetts, she better start parking her car (candidacy) in Harvard Yard (a debate performance sufficient to build into a Super Tuesday comeback story) or pretty soon it’s going to be Sam Adams Time.

4. Pete Buttigieg. The forgotten man at the moment, despite his strong New Hampshire performance, because Nevada and South Carolina’s Democratic-voter demographics do not play to his strengths as a young gentleman who is thought of very highly by college-educated older gentlemen and ladies of a white persuasion. In fact, none of the Super Tuesday states besides Maine shape up well for him either. The most likely outcome for Buttigieg right now is that he fades gradually over the course of the next month or so, drops out gracefully, and then founds a Center for Next Generation Public Innovationeering, which will be surreptitiously funded by major tech companies, while he figures out which state he needs to move to in order to actually get elected to office. That said, three of the candidates who are still in the race right now are insanely old at a time that health is starting to come up as a campaign issue, and two of them are women in a year when a lot of Democrats are afraid to nominate a woman. Buttigieg should and probably will point out this state of affairs, in his upbeat way, at the debate.

5. Amy Klobuchar. Finished unexpectedly well in New Hampshire! And then had to start doing things like asking a Democratic operative for “a list of black churches in South Carolina” because her previously small-time campaign hadn’t planned ahead for a national push. It wouldn’t be surprising, or devastating to her career, if she drops out soon. As with Buttigieg, though, Klobuchar has both a proven ability to win primary votes and something to offer that the current front-runners don’t—namely, a history of campaign victories in the crucial Midwest and a body that is less than 77 years old. Expect her to point this out, in her smiling-while-obviously-thinking-of-many-different-ways-to-kill-you way, at the debate.

6. Bernie Sanders. Sanders doesn’t have a lot to lose Wednesday, in the parlance of this preview, because his base of support is so committed, his poll numbers are so solid, and his bank accounts are so bulging with dollar bills that a forgettable performance would not be a disaster. Still, his performance will be under November-minded scrutiny: Can he start describing his policies in ways that might appeal to non-Democrats and moderates who aren’t necessarily convinced the American economy is rigged? How will he respond to the inevitable Bloomberg and/or moderator claims that a socialist can’t win a general election in the United States? Sanders’ calling card is that he’s been saying the same things about America for 40 years, including in the last eight debates, and we’re about to see whether he thinks that those tried-and-true points will keep working for him now that he is, improbably, closer than all but one other person in the country to actually running it.

Good luck to all the candidates! The rest of us and Marianne are excited to see how you do.