For most of Friday night’s New Hampshire debate, the candidates who needed a chunk taken out of Pete Buttigieg—pretty much all of the rest except for Bernie Sanders, who wouldn’t mind having the former South Bend mayor endure as his chief moderate foil—couldn’t get the job done.
Amy Klobuchar, bless her, tried valiantly early in the debate, fighting back against Buttigieg’s Washington-outsider message with an impassioned defense of practical policymaking experience that concluded with, “We have a newcomer in the White House and look where it got us.” The moment could have escalated into a pile-on, but Sanders followed up on Klobuchar’s assault with a reiteration of his vision for health care.
Buttigieg, for most of the debate, seemed comfortable dancing around the shots taken at him by pivoting to constructions of aspirational buzzwords. The provisional Iowa caucus winner was able to avoid the fate of an ascendant Marco Rubio on this same stage, at the same venue four years earlier, when Chris Christie effectively ended the Florida senator’s shot at the Republican presidential nomination.
There was one moment, though, that seemed to flummox the ex-mayor. ABC moderator Linsey Davis pressed Buttigieg about his record when he was in charge of South Bend, during which time the disparity in marijuana possession arrests between black and white people there increased. Buttigieg tried to gently dodge the question by moving to his broader thoughts about drug policy and criminal justice reform.
“I want to go back to the original question, though,” Davis followed up. “I want you to explain the increase in black arrests in South Bend, under your leadership, for marijuana possession.”
“And again, the overall rate was lower—“ Buttigieg began.
“No, there was an increase,” Davis pressed. “The year before you were in office, it was lower. Once you became in office, in 2012, that number went up. In 2018, the last year we have records for, that number was still up.”
Buttigieg explained his strategy as mayor, saying it was connected to gang violence. Davis then asked Elizabeth Warren whether Buttigieg’s answer was substantial enough.
“No,” Warren said, to loud applause from the audience.
Buttigieg is rising in New Hampshire on the strength of his Iowa performance, nearly catching the primary’s front-runner, Bernie Sanders, in post-Iowa polling. But as long as he remains mired in the low single digits—or zero—among black voters, his streak will end as the race moves to South Carolina and Super Tuesday. The central question of the early states, now, is whether a hobbled Joe Biden can maintain his strength among the older black voters currently lifting him in the South Carolina polls, and, if he can’t, which candidate or candidates will be the beneficiaries. The stage on Friday night was as much a South Carolina debate as it was a New Hampshire debate. When you look at it like that, Joe Biden’s disproportionate speaking time relative to his fourth-place finish in Iowa and his fourth-place polling in New Hampshire, makes a little more sense.
No one was particularly subtle about making their pitch for the Palmetto State. When Biden during the debate said that he had more support among the South Carolina Legislative Black Caucus than any other candidate, Sanders took issue, counting his number of supporters in that caucus. The reason Biden was walking down that path in the first place, though, was because Tom Steyer had called on Biden to denounce a controversial comment by a prominent Biden surrogate, the publicity loving former South Carolina Democratic Party chairman Dick Harpootlian.
The tartan-tied billionaire Steyer, of all candidates, has had the most success so far in cutting into Biden’s lead among black voters in South Carolina, catapulting him to second overall in recent polling of the state. With Biden beginning to crater in support in early contests, Steyer was the most aggressive in his play for what’s left in Biden’s base, and he used every opportunity in the debate to draw it back toward race. He repeatedly emphasized the need to pick a candidate who could build a coalition of white, black, Latino, and AAPI voters and said he would establish a “commission on race” when he became president. He said he was the only candidate who supported reparations.
Warren, beyond taking the well-set-up slap of Buttigieg earlier in the debate, fused the discussion with race with her “plans” mantra.
“Year after year after year, election after election after election, Democrats go to people in the black community and say, ‘Boy, we really care about these issues. Racism is terrible, we all want to do something,’ ” she said. “And then somehow, the problem just seems to keep getting worse. Well, I think it’s time we have real concrete plans that are going to make a difference in people’s lives.” Warren was among the five candidates this week to begin airing ads in Nevada and South Carolina featuring Barack Obama.
Biden, as usual, repeatedly referenced his dear friend and former boss during the debate. His most memorable line of the night, though, was his first.
“It’s a long race,” Biden said. “I took a hit in Iowa, and I’ll probably take one here. Bernie won by 20 points last time. Usually it’s the neighboring senators that do well.”
By predicting his own loss four days ahead of the primary, Biden was trying to soften the blow enough to mitigate any further harm the loss does to his national standing. The other candidates, meanwhile, are hoping that another heavy loss in New Hampshire finally will break Biden’s grip over South Carolina and beyond. The polls say the rough finish of candidates in New Hampshire will look a lot like it did in Iowa. Friday’s debate was more about laying the groundwork for what comes next.
Support our 2020 coverage
Slate is covering the election issues that matter to you. Support our work with a Slate Plus membership. You’ll also get a suite of great benefits.Join Slate Plus