Who won night 1 of the Democratic debate? Experts weigh in

Lower-polling candidates had their moments, though none outshone the top two
Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren during the Democratic presidential candidates debate in Detroit, July 30, 2019.
Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren during the Democratic presidential candidates debate in Detroit, July 30, 2019.

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Those hoping for an underdog candidate to run away with Tuesday night’s debate did not get their wish. The winners — at least in the initial assessment — were the night’s two front-runners, Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

Lower-polling candidates did have their moments, though none outshone the top two. Self-help author Marianne Williamson got applause, and a huge surge of attention online, for her comments on racism and reparations. Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, drew a forceful contrast with President Donald Trump. Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana, on the debate stage for the first time, made a case for himself as a voice of moderation.

Twitter is a bad gauge for public opinion, but a decent source for the assessments of professional observers, including some who know the stakes of debates best: veteran campaign strategists and consultants from both parties. Here is a sampling of their responses.

The front-runners looked the part

Sanders was a forceful presence throughout the night, especially on health care, one of his signature issues.

Early in the debate, he had a blunt, audience-pleasing response to former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland, who has said it would be “political suicide” to eliminate private insurance: “You’re wrong.” And later, rejecting Delaney’s characterizations of what “Medicare for All” would do, he bellowed: “I wrote the damn bill!”

“+1 for Bernie. ‘You’re wrong!’ Guaranteed to be in the video summary of this debate.” — Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics

“Bernie is utterly dominating the healthcare issue. John Delaney should admit defeat and wait for a new topic.” — Frank Luntz, Republican consultant and pollster

Warren also delivered one of the most memorable lines of the debate. After Delaney urged the party not to run on “impossible promises,” she responded, “I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for.”

“That might be the line of the night from @ewarren.” — Christina Reynolds, spokeswoman for Emily’s List

“‘We need to call out white supremacy for what it is, domestic terrorism.’ Elizabeth Warren is the most articulate on racial disparities than all of the other candidates combined (except maybe for Cory Booker) imho.” — Aisha Moodie-Mills, Democratic strategist

The debate also highlighted the stylistic differences between the two.

“Big difference in communication style: Sanders answers health care question by railing against the big health care companies. Warren answers by personalizing the issue, telling the story of a real person. The first is designed to rile people up. The second, to draw them in.” — Mo Elleithee, former spokesman for Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee

Buttigieg and Williamson broke through the noise

Several strategists called Buttigieg the runner-up.

“This debate has not been heavy on Trump contrast (totally fine) but when a candidate rises to the occasion and draws contrast with Trump like @PeteButtigieg just did on race, it’s effective and becomes a moment.” — Adrienne Elrod, former senior adviser to Clinton

“‘They’re going to call us socialists if we embrace a left agenda; they’re going to call us socialists if we embrace a conservative agenda, so we might as well stand for what we believe in.’ Truth by @PeteButtigieg.” — Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL

As for Williamson, for the amount of speaking time she had — the second-least of the 10 candidates onstage, beating only John Hickenlooper — she drew outsize attention. Her biggest moments came when she talked about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and when she described reparations as the payment of a debt to African Americans.

“@marwilliamson is having a strong night and I suspect her responses on issues of race, which were the strongest of all candidates, will likely resonate well with many.” — Shermichael Singleton, Republican political consultant

“Williamson is making some seriously salient points about Flint using the language of Gandalf.” — Seth Masket, political scientist at the University of Denver

Bullock got mixed reviews

The consensus among strategists seemed to be that Bullock accomplished his most important task: introducing himself effectively to voters. But he drew some criticism for his answer to a question about nuclear weapons and the punditry was split on how much his performance would help his presidential campaign.

“With a strong debate performance & an embrace of more moderate policies like building on the ACA rather than Medicare for all & NOT decriminalizing illegal border crossings, @GovernorBullock provides an alternative 2 Biden voters who saw his 1st debate as lackluster.” — Patti Solis Doyle, senior adviser to the 2008 Obama campaign

“Bullock needs to spend some time boning up on foreign policy. That was not great.” — Tommy Vietor, former Obama spokesman

“Bullock was very impressive tonight. Can’t wait to donate to his Senate campaign.” — Brian Fallon, former aide to Clinton

Delaney made more of an impression than Klobuchar

Delaney and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota got roughly the same amount of speaking time, but it felt as if Delaney got more — perhaps because he was given multiple opportunities to spar directly with Sanders and Warren.

“I will say Delaney has succeeded in becoming a player in this debate. Unlike Amy, at least so far …” — Mike Murphy, Republican strategist

When Klobuchar did speak, she got mixed reviews, drawing praise at some points but criticism when she began her answer to a question about racism by emphasizing that not all Trump voters were racist.

“Klobuchar just gave us the first “Economic Anxiety” answer on racism of the night. That’s not a compliment.” — Jason Johnson, political science professor at Morgan State University

“Hard to avoid the conclusion that Amy Klobuchar, though her shot at nomination appears small, would be an extremely strong opponent for Trump.” — John Harwood, CNBC reporter

The bottom line

“Warren and Mayor Pete won the night, w/ Bullock coming in a close second as the lead moderate voice; Bernie better than last debate; Tim Ryan had a solid intvw for labor sec; Beto failed to make the case; Delaney – given all the air time, didn’t rise to the occasion.” — Elrod

[email protected] and @BernieSanders come off as fighters who will fight for you. @GovernorBullock comes off as someone who will get things done for you. @PeteButtigieg, @amyklobuchar & @BetoORourke are just not interesting enough tonight.” — Solis Doyle

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