Making their case in the last debate ahead of the first Southern primary and Super Tuesday, candidates for the Democratic nomination looked more ready for the Roman Colosseum than a debate on the issues. Hosted by the Congressional Black Caucus Institute, CBS News, and Twitter, the South Carolina Democratic Debate was a lot like trying to get a group of preschoolers to take turns and use their inside voices. The seven candidates who qualified to be on the national debate stage mostly took turns yelling over one another, and at times, even managed to touch on issues important to prospective voters.
South Carolina is often considered a bellwether for the Black vote, as Black voters in South Carolina account for approximately 60% of the Democratic voters in the state’s primary. According to a recent national poll from Lincoln Park Strategies and the Philadelphia-based Black-owned media outlet WURD, the top three issues identified by respondents were health care, jobs and the economy, and social issues. About 83% of those interviewed were registered to vote.
While traditionally, campaigns focus their attention and outreach on courting Black voters in the South Carolina primary, in Tuesday’s debate, many of the issues critical to Black voters got lost in the melee. Nevertheless, with varying degrees of success, all of the candidates seemed focused on both making the case to Black voters—which some characterized as pandering—and scoring points against one another ahead of the delegate-rich nominating contests to come.
Here are five key takeaways from Tuesday’s chaotic debate:
1. Debate moderation and crowd control are skills that not everyone has—including the actual moderators
Almost from the very start, moderators had little to no control over the stage and at times could not get a word in edgewise. It was clear each candidate had a strategy that was going to be executed and points they were determined to land no matter the rules or time limits. There were multiple instances of indiscernible cross-talk from the candidates, with moderators and even candidates themselves pleading with participants to just listen. Sen. Bernie Sanders almost lost his opportunity to respond to criticism about the cost of his Medicare for All plan when chief critic and self-appointed math buff for the night Mayor Pete Buttigieg continued to talk over the moderators. The cross-talk continued, even though CBS News anchor Norah O’Donnell stated Sanders could respond.
“Listen to the moderator, guys” a frustrated Sanders insisted. Former Vice President Joe Biden similarly had trouble getting in a word.
Moderators tried to cram multiple issues into a two-hour block, providing little opportunity for well-developed dialogue on pressing issues, while some topics such gun control, housing, and public education finally got more attention. While there was a range of questions that seemed to grapple with many of the pressing issues facing our communities, Tuesday’s debate was the best argument for letting the League of Women Voters or a similar collective of organizations take over presidential debate moderation. The League of Women Voters Education Fund (LWVEF) sponsored presidential debates from 1976 to 1984. Returning the debates to LWVEF or another independent collective, outside of the major parties’ control, is important both to keep candidates under control and to make sure important issues get the airtime they deserve.
2. Biden and Tom Steyer squared off on racial justice and private prisons
In a sharp exchange, the former vice president took aim at Tom Steyer on racial justice and private prisons. Biden called Steyer out for a 2004 investment in the nation’s largest private prison firm, Correction Corporation of America (CCA or CoreCivic). He further claimed that Steyer was proud of that investment. Steyer defended himself, saying he bought the stock “thinking they would do a better job.” He then tried to strike back with a reference to Biden authoring the now infamous 1994 Crime Bill, but fell flat. Sen. Klobuchar found herself in the middle of this shouting match, with both men reaching across the senator pointing and yelling as if she wasn’t there.
A fact check from the Sacramento Bee revealed that Steyer sold off the CCA stock in 2006, in part due to criticisms from Yale University students about “controversial investments.” Steyer has previously said he was “proud of the work we have done, and continue to do” regarding investments for universities, not for investing in the private prison industry as Biden alleged.
3. Bloomberg and his team seem to have learned about debate prep
Clearly, team Bloomberg spent some time preparing after last week’s disastrous debut. Still, it’s 2020, so I’m not sure how much voters are moved by his repeated, Giuliani-like invocation of 9/11. But the former mayor from New York got some applause from the audience when touting his record on education and increasing opportunity for all across his 12 years in office.
Bloomberg also took credit for the work of hardworking moms, claiming, “I have a 6 million-person organization around this country: Moms Demand Action and Everytown.” Taking the opportunity to clarify, Moms Demand Action founder Shannon Watts explained on Twitter that she was in fact the founder and that the organization was made possible by the work of thousands of volunteers. She also noted that every candidate on the stage had earned the Gun Sense distinction from the organization, which was started at Watts’ kitchen table in 2012 after the Sandy Hook massacre. She later tweeted, “There are so many organizations for which women do the unglamorous heavy lifting. And then the men own the strategy and take the spotlight. Not at @MomsDemand. The vast majority of the work, soup to nuts, is done by women.”
For all of Bloomberg’s prep work, he’s apparently yet to learn that donating money and even funding work does not give anyone the right to claim others’ labor as their own. It wasn’t the only time he overstated the importance of his money—in what seemed like a “freudian slip,” Bloomberg bragged about his $100 million investment in 2018 House races and pledged support from several new members of Congress. Bloomberg apparently began to say he “bought” their support, then quickly corrected himself.
After two debates, there still has been no question about his targeted surveillance and harassment of Muslim Americans. What is clear is that the moderators need to be better prepared to ask Bloomberg questions about his actual record. There have been concerns raised about his administration terrorizing citizens on the basis of race and religion, not to mention the steady drip of video clips that have been unveiled showing his positions on multiple issues beyond stop-and-frisk, including his description of Social Security as a Ponzi scheme.
In a surprising twist, Buttigieg pushed back on Bloomberg’s record on race and the need for humility. “I’m not here to score points. I come at this with a great deal of humility, because we have had a lot of issues, especially when it comes to racial justice and policing in my own community,” he said.
4. Sen. Elizabeth Warren tried to make her case by bringing receipts
Keeping some of that same energy from last week, Warren pushed through to make her points and bring receipts as needed. She tried to distinguish herself from Sanders, her progressive counterpart, while making the case for the broad appeal of the progressive agenda championed by both. Once again, she drew the sharpest contrast with Bloomberg, raising issues with his prior political donations in support of Republican candidates such as South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, who Warren defeated in 2012.
She further challenged Bloomberg’s notion that the Democratic nominee needs to win over moderate Republican voters in order to win, explaining that a progressive agenda is popular, contrary to media spin. She dug in on abolishing the filibuster, explaining that it essentially gives special interests veto power over “what needs to be done for the American people.”
And, once again, Warren pressed Bloomberg on the NDA issue, pushing back on claims that the issue boiled down to some innocuous jokes he made a long time ago. She insisted the former mayor “has not done enough to address accusations of sexist behavior,” including comments he allegedly made to a pregnant employee. While Bloomberg initially insisted he never made such a comment, he later said he apologized for whatever the employee may have thought she heard. The allegation was previously reported byThe Washington Post, which included an interview with another former employee who was witness to the conversation.
For some women, Warren’s persistence on this issue has been both refreshing and a reminder of how many still go out of their way to attack people who demand accountability from suspected harassers rather than of addressing the behavior of the men themselves.
5. Sanders had a good response to a question about the biggest misconception about him
At the end of the night, the candidates were asked a two-part final question: What is the biggest misconception about them, and what is their personal motto? Pivoting back to the discussion throughout the night, Sanders said the biggest misconception about him “is that the ideas I’m talking about are radical. They’re not. In one form or another, they exist in countries all over the world. Health care is a human right.” Earlier in the evening, Buttigieg tried to gain points by admonishing Sanders for his “nostalgia for the revolutionary politics of the 1960s.” Many viewers watching at home took to Twitter to express displeasure with the mayor’s seeming dismissal of many of the major social movements of the 1960s, especially those centered on racial justice, feminism, and LGBTQ+ equality, which were very much revolutionary politics at that time.
Sanders had a rough time at points in the debate at times, getting bogged down in attacks on his gun control positions, his voting record, as well as his recent comments about Cuba. In each instance, Sanders unsuccessfully tried to deflect and reframe the conversation. However, he leveraged the final question to his advantage and ended on a strong note including the quote attributed to Nelson Mandela, “Everything is impossible until it happens.”
As all eyes turn to the South Carolina primary, Black voters are making it clear that their voices and votes are not to be taken for granted. All candidates need to engage voters in honest arms-length engagement, be forthcoming in their word and deeds, and not simply look for quick fixes for deep, systemic issues.