The seventh Democratic debate on Tuesday marked the final debate before the Iowa caucus takes place and the race officially gets underway. It was befitting of the night that the debate was held in Iowa, which was no doubt a deliberate choice on the part of the DNC. Among the storylines which soaked up the most media attention in the leadup to the debate was a report that at a 2018 meeting between Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, Sanders told her he thought a woman could not win the presidency in the United States. After Sanders publicly denied the report, it set the stage for a contentious argument on debate night over what really happened at the meeting. Moreover, questions abounded over whether this story was deliberately leaked by the Warren campaign in the leadup to Iowa for political gain — as the meeting had taken place at least a year and a half prior to the debate — and whether one of the two was playing fast and loose with the facts. Overall though, it was a fairly uneventful debate with no clear winners of the night.

Bernie Sanders — B+

Sanders came into the night with controversy hanging over his head, which the media did little to assuage. He made a public statement labelling the accusation that he told Warren a woman could not win “ludicrous” and denying that he made such a statement. When asked about it again on the debate stage, he denied it once again, pointing viewers towards YouTube videos of him decades prior saying that he did in fact think a woman could win the presidency, as well as his push to draft Warren to run in 2016 as evidence that he would not make such a statement. The framing the moderators chose to take by asking Sanders his side of the story, and then turning to Warren and asking her directly  how she felt when Sanders did say this to her, drew incredulous laughter from the audience as well as Sanders himself. It seemed to ignore the fact that there was a disagreement over what was said, with little evidence except for their own word in favor of both Warren and Sanders. After Sanders and Warren seemed to lay that controversy to rest — at least for the remainder of the debate — Sanders did well in articulating a vision for America and inspiring confidence in his ability to help build the movement necessary to accomplish those goals. It was a decent night for Sanders, who has seen a favorable run of polls as of late, both nationally and in the early voting states. It is difficult to predict how this Warren-Sanders controversy will play out for both of them; although there are some reports suggesting that both camps want to leave this disagreement in the past, there may be supporters — particularly online — of both camps willing to dwell on it far longer than either candidate would.

Elizabeth Warren — B+

 Warren came into the night on somewhat of a slide, both in polls and in nomination betting markets, with Bloomberg creeping up on her odds of winning in the latter. She had a good night as well, albeit troubled with the same controversy that was looming over Sanders. When the moderator asked about how she felt when Sanders told her a woman could not win, she turned her answer into a rallying cry to support women candidates because they can and have won races nationwide. She was also quick to point out that the two women on stage, she and Klobuchar, have never lost an election, whereas the men have lost 10 between them. The other noticeable theme of her debate performance was bringing many disparate issues back to the problem of corruption and how she will attack corruption head-on. It certainly seems like winning framing, but does call into question the all-important confounding variable of how trustworthy the messenger of “Washington is corrupt” is. For example, Buttigieg seems to be employing a similar tactic, with the added appeal of bringing new blood into Washington, but which of the two will be more successful in delivering that message in a believable way remains an open question.

Joe Biden — B+

Former Vice President Biden had a solid debate performance. If trust — both personally in the candidate and in who is best suited to beat Trump — is the crux of this campaign, it seems like Biden is, at this point, the most unshakably solid candidate on those benchmarks. Sanders has attempted to distinguish himself repeatedly on the Iraq War vote to no avail. This may eventually oblige Sanders to push a bit harder on the main differences between them, although he has proven hesitant to push his opponents too hard, as he was against Hillary Clinton in 2016. Despite Sanders’ attempts, the crowd and voters at home seem to have a certain level of trust and belief in Biden on issues of foreign policy, perhaps lauding or at least acknowledging Biden’s experience and merely “being there” for a long time as instilling a certain level of confidence. Overall, Biden performed decently and saw no incoming attacks fired his way, which was interesting given he still appears to lead in the polls, at least nationally. Perhaps it is a matter of candidates wanting a state win under their belt before going on the attack, or simply risk-aversion among all the candidates at being the first to go full throttle on the attack, which is how some characterized Kamala Harris’ first debate performance, which eventually only led to an early campaign exit. It may be the case that in a climate where Democrats simply want to defeat Trump and will view any attacks from fellow Democrats as mud-slinging which should not be tolerated, nobody wants to break the unspoken truce.

Amy Klobuchar — B

Senator Klobuchar had a good night as well, but suffered insofar as I thought she was mostly overshadowed by some of the other controversy going on. She has seen a marked improvement in her debate performances since the early stages of the campaign, so it is no surprise to see her among the last six remaining on the stage — or five if you call into question some of the antics and sheer ad-buy bombardment used by Steyer to get on stage. Klobuchar had strong rhetoric with good points sprinkled throughout the night. There was one awkward moment where she forgot the name of a female politician who she wanted to invoke, which became fodder for late night comedy shows such as The Daily Show and Colbert. Ultimately, the question for her campaign might be (i) whether much of this late push for votes in Iowa comes too little too late, and (ii) whether there is even a specific lane or niche that she can carve out in a field this crowded. 

Pete Buttigieg — B-

Former Mayor Buttigieg has undeniably mastered the art of politician-speak, which consists of either responding to questions by evading them altogether, by changing the topic or simply repeating the problems either explicit or implicit in the question without offering up his own solution or plan of action. This plan of attack for debate questions only continued throughout the night, and, as an outside observer, it seems to me that Buttigieg’s charm and erudite articulation has lost the spark it might have had earlier in the campaign when more people were undecided. It was not a bad night for Buttigieg, but he has seemingly fallen to more of an afterthought to Biden, Sanders, and Warren,  rather than remaining competitive with the trio.