How CNN turned the second Democratic debate into a series of dogfights

Here’s which candidates got the most talking time

After two long July nights, the second Democratic presidential primary debate is in the books. Twenty contenders jostled for attention on the national stage, and CNN’s moderators wielded a heavy hand in policing their time — and provoking confrontation.

The four candidates who talked the most, according to The Post’s stopwatch analysis of the debate, are the four who are leading in the polls: Former vice president Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.).

Total minutes spoken

TuesdayWednesday

Biden, who took center stage during the second debate night, spoke for over 21 minutes, more than any other candidate on either night of the debate. He went unmentioned on Tuesday. On Wednesday, he spent much of his airtime defending his eight years in the White House and his long career in the Senate.

[Democratic debate: Candidates challenge Biden on keeping up with party, lobbing attacks from the left]

Harris followed Biden among Wednesday-night candidates with 17.7 minutes of airtime, closely matching what Warren and Sanders received Tuesday. She fielded criticism for her history as a prosecutor and as California’s attorney general.

Candidates struggling to break through also took advantage of their time in the spotlight. As one measure of American democracy in action, each candidate spoke for at least eight minutes, usually improving over their airtime during June’s (shorter) debate. Many of those gains came courtesy of CNN’s journalists, who gave time to low-polling moderates that served as foils for candidates towards the front of the pack.

The back-and-forth exchanges prompted by the moderators

At the beginning of each evening, Jake Tapper sternly laid out the rules: one minute to answer questions, 30 seconds for responses and rebuttals and 15 additional seconds if a moderator asks for a clarification. He warned: “A candidate infringing on another candidate’s time will have his or her time reduced.”

[Wednesday’s presidential debate turns on character as much as ideology, a foreboding turn for Democrats]

But the most testy and often least revealing exchanges were the ones that moderators instigated, calling out candidates with opposing policies and pitting them against each other. This conflict-heavy approach, coupled with an inconsistent enforcement of the time limits, created a debate that often reduced complicated policy discussions to unsatisfying soundbites.

In 26 cases across the two nights, candidates got into back-and-forth exchanges that consisted of at least three answers or responses. Most of these exchanges were set up or encouraged by the moderators, and they made up a large portion of each evening’s total time.

Total minutes spoken Wednesday night, by type

 

Time spent in back-and-forthsOther time

Harris vs. Biden on health care

CNN moderators started both evenings by setting up a conflict between candidates with contrasting health-care plans. In night two, moderator Dana Bash quoted criticism from Biden’s campaign of a “Medicare-for-all” plan proposed by Harris. That set off an exchange between the two that went on for more than five and a half minutes. The former vice president complained that Harris’s plan would be too expensive, while the senator said that Biden’s plan would not cover everyone, a claim which he denied.

DANA BASH: “Vice President Biden’s campaign calls your plan, “a have-it-every-which-way approach ...”

Harris

“... We must agree that access to health care must be a right and not just a privilege of those who can afford it ...”

Biden

“... there is no talk about the fact that the plan in 10 years will cost $[30] trillion. ...”

Harris

“... Your plan, by contrast, leaves out almost 10 million Americans ...”

Biden

“... The plan, no matter how you cut it, costs $[30] trillion ...”

Harris

“... the cost of doing nothing is far too expensive. ...”

DANA BASH: “Vice President Biden’s campaign calls your plan, “a have-it-every-which-way approach ...”

Harris

“... We must agree that access to health care must be a right and not just a privilege of those who can afford it ...”

Biden

“... there is no talk about the fact that the plan in 10 years will cost $[30] trillion. ...”

Harris

“... Your plan, by contrast, leaves out almost 10 million Americans ...”

Biden

“... The plan, no matter how you cut it, costs $[30] trillion ...”

Harris

“... the cost of doing nothing is far too expensive. ...”

Biden vs. Booker on criminal justice

After Wednesday night’s first commercial break, moderator Tapper asked Biden to respond to a claim from Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.) that Biden’s criminal justice proposal was inadequate. In the exchange, which lasted almost five minutes, Booker pushed Biden on his history of tough-on-crime legislation that increased U.S. incarceration. Biden countered that Booker had failed to clean up Newark’s police force during his time as mayor.

During the exchange, Biden made a verbal slip to refer to Booker as “the president, that, excuse me, the future president.” Booker jokingly thanked Biden for his endorsement.

JAKE TAPPER: “Mr. Vice President, Senator Booker called your new criminal justice reform plan, quote, ‘an inadequate solution to what is a raging crisis in our country,’ unquote. Why is Senator Booker wrong?”

Biden

“... when someone is convicted of a drug crime, they end up going to jail and to prison. They should be going to rehabilitation ...”

Booker

“... Mr. Vice President

has said that, since the 1970s, every major crime bill -- every crime bill, major and minor -- has had his name on it ...”

Biden

“... that the senator is talking about are bills that were passed years ago and they were passed overwhelming ...”

Booker

“... it’s no secret that I inherited a criminal, a police department with massive problems and decades-long challenges ...”

Biden

“... there was nothing

done for the entire eight years he was mayor, there was nothing done to deal with the police department that was corrupt ...”

Booker

“... There are people right now in prison for life for drug offenses because you stood up and used that ‘tough on crime’ phony rhetoric ...”

JAKE TAPPER: “Mr. Vice President, Senator Booker called your new criminal justice reform plan, quote, ‘an inadequate solution to what is a raging crisis in our country,’ unquote. Why is Senator Booker wrong?”

Biden

“... when someone is convicted of a drug crime, they end up going to jail and to prison. They should be going to rehabilitation ...”

Booker

“... Mr. Vice President has said that, since the 1970s, every major crime bill -- every crime bill, major and minor -- has had his name on it ...”

Biden

“... that the senator is talking about are bills that were passed years ago and they were passed overwhelming ...”

Booker

“... it’s no secret that I inherited a criminal, a police department with massive problems and decades-long challenges ...”

Biden

“... there was nothing done for the entire eight years he was mayor, there was nothing done to deal with the police department that was corrupt ...”

Booker

“... There are people right now in prison for life for drug offenses because you stood up and used that ‘tough on crime’ phony rhetoric ...”

Total minutes spoken Tuesday night, by type

Time spent in back-and-forthsOther time

Delaney vs. Sanders on Medicare-for-all

The moderator’s questions on the first night of the debate often pitted Sanders and Warren — two liberal contenders at center stage — against several others arguing for a more pragmatic approach. Right off the bat, Tapper asked Sanders to respond to former Maryland congressman John Delaney’s criticism of his Medicare-for-all plan. The 2020 field is split on Sanders’ plan, which would eliminate private health insurance in favor of a government-run system.

In the two-minute back-and-forth, the senator argued that his plan would provide more stability by enrolling all Americans in a single, government-run plan. Delaney warned that it would be a tough sell politically.

JAKE TAPPER: “Congressman Delaney just referred to it as bad policy. And previously, he has called the idea ‘political suicide that will just get President Trump re-elected.’ What do you say to Congressman Delaney?”

Sanders

“You’re wrong ...”

Delaney

“Well, I'm right

about this ...”

Sanders

“... tens of millions of people lose their health insurance every single year when they change jobs or their employer changes that insurance ...”

Delaney

“... But why do we got to be the party of taking something away from people? That's what they're running on.”

JAKE TAPPER: “Congressman Delaney just referred to it as bad policy. And previously, he has called the idea ‘political suicide that will just get President Trump re-elected.’ What do you say to Congressman Delaney?”

Sanders

Delaney

“You’re wrong ...”

“Well, I'm right

about this ...”

Sanders

Delaney

“... tens of millions of people lose their health insurance every single year when they change jobs or their employer changes that insurance ...”

“... But why do we got to be the party of taking something away from people? That's what they're running on.”

Warren vs. Bullock on nuclear weapons

During a three-minute foreign policy exchange, Tapper asked Warren to defend her stance that America should never use a nuclear weapon without another country doing so first. The senator argued that it would lower the chance that “someone miscalculates, someone misunderstands.” Tapper then turned to Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, who disagrees with Warren, to counter. “Part of the strength really is the ability to deter,” he said in response.

JAKE TAPPER: “Senator Warren, you want to make it U.S. policy that the U.S. will never use a nuclear weapon unless another country uses one first. Now, President Obama reportedly considered that policy, but ultimately decided against it. Why should the U.S. tie its own hands with that policy?”

Warren

“... we need to say so to the entire world ...”

Bullock

“I wouldn't want to take that off the table ...”

Warren

“... We have to have an announced policy that is one the entire world can live with. We need to make that clear.”

Bullock

“... I don't want to turn around and say, "Well, Detroit has to be gone before we would ever use that.”

JAKE TAPPER: “Senator Warren, you want to make it U.S. policy that the U.S. will never use a nuclear weapon unless another country uses one first. Now, President Obama reportedly considered that policy, but ultimately decided against it. Why should the U.S. tie its own hands with that policy?”

Warren

Bullock

“... we need to say so to the entire world ...”

“I wouldn't want to take that off the table. ...”

Warren

Bullock

“... We have to have an announced policy that is one the entire world can live with. We need to make that clear.”

“... I don't want to turn around and say, ‘Well, Detroit has to be gone before we would ever use that.’”

How each candidate stood out Wednesday night

Joe Biden
Joe Biden

The former vice president was not ready for Harris’s attacks in the first debate, when he stumbled to provide the kind of response that would inspire confidence in his ability to handle similar attacks from President Trump in a general election. In the weeks since, Biden has defended his record on civil rights against attacks from Harris and Cory Booker, and he subsequently vowed to be less polite this time — though he began the evening by telling Harris to “go easy on me, kid” when they met at center stage.

No one went easy on Biden, who was forced to defend himself over and over again.

“The fact is that we’re talking about things that occurred a long, long time ago. And now, all of a sudden ... Everybody is talking about how terrible I am on these issues,” Biden said. “Barack Obama knew exactly who I was. He had 10 lawyers do a background check on everything about me on civil rights and civil liberties, and he chose me, and he said it was the best decision he made.”

Former vice president Joe Biden speaks while Sen. Kamala D. Harris listens Wednesday during the Democratic presidential debate at the Fox Theatre in Detroit. The candidates clashed on health care early in the night. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Kamala Harris
Kamala Harris

Harris’s challenges to Biden’s record in the first debate momentarily altered the trajectory of her campaign, sparking a bump in polling and casting her as a more agile foil to the man leading the polls. On Monday, she released her version of Medicare-for-all, a plan Biden’s team attacked almost immediately, providing yet another source of tension between the budding rivals.

On Wednesday, Harris defended that plan against attacks from Biden and others, while also defending her prosecutorial record against attacks from Tulsi Gabbard and others.

“I think you can judge people by when they are under fire, and it’s not about some fancy opinion on a stage but when they’re in the position to actually make a decision, what do they do,” Harris said, without addressing the specific circumstances referenced by her challengers. “When I was in the position of having to decide whether or not to seek a death penalty on cases I prosecuted, I made a very difficult decision that was not popular to not seek the death penalty. History shows that, and I am proud of those decisions.”

Cory Booker
Cory Booker

Booker, the first African American to represent New Jersey in the Senate, has struggled to break out of the middle of the pack in a crowded field of Democrats. The former mayor of Newark has tussled with Biden in recent weeks over his record on issues of race. On Wednesday, they clashed during a debate on criminal justice reform. “We have a system right now that’s broken. And if you want to compare records — and, frankly, I’m shocked that you do — I am happy to do that. Because all the problems that he is talking about [are problems] that he created,” Booker said, and later added: “There’s a saying in my community, you’re dipping into the Kool-Aid and you don’t even know the flavor.”

Kirsten Gillibrand
Kirsten Gillibrand

The New York senator has yet to find traction in a massive field, despite running on a feminist platform and casting herself as the candidate most willing to stand up for women. She is in danger of not meeting the polling and donor fundraising benchmarks required to debate in September, and could therefore use a spark in front of a national audience. Wednesday, she tried to create it by challenging Biden on an op-ed in which he wrote about women working outside the home as a threat to families.

She also cast herself as an ally in the fight against racial injustice.

“I don’t believe that it’s the responsibility of Cory and Kamala to be the only voice that takes on these issues of institutional racism, systemic racism in our country. I think as a white woman of privilege, who is a U.S. senator, running for president of the United States, it is also my responsibility to lift up those voices that aren’t being listened to,” Gillibrand said. “And I can talk to those white women in the suburbs that voted for Trump and explain to them what white privilege actually is, that when their son is walking down a street with a bag of M&Ms in his pocket, wearing a hoodie, his whiteness is what protects him from not being shot.”

Jay Inslee
Jay Inslee

Inslee, the governor of Washington and an environmentalist, has struggled to rise from the bottom of the pack in national polls and is yet to qualify for the third debate. His bid to secure the nomination is built largely around the single issue of tackling climate change, which he has described as “the most urgent challenge of our time.” On Wednesday, he stayed on message. “We cannot work this out. The time is up. Our house is on fire. We have to stop using coal in 10 years, and we need a president to do it or it won’t get done,” he said. “Get off coal. Save this country and the planet.”

“I am running for president because the people in this room and the Democrats watching tonight are the last best hope for humanity on this planet,” he said.

Michael Bennet
Michael Bennet

The Colorado senator needs a splash to qualify for the debates in September, as his arguments against moving the Democratic Party left have not inspired support in the polls. Bennet is running as a common-sense moderate who is willing to get vocal with members of his own party. On Wednesday, he urged his fellow candidates to identify priorities and tell the truth — including when multiple candidates attacked Biden on his record.

“This is the fourth debate that we have had and the second time that we have been debating what people did 50 years ago with busing when our schools are as segregated today as they were 50 years ago,” Bennet said. “We need a conversation about what’s happening now.”

Tulsi Gabbard
Tulsi Gabbard

Gabbard has carved out a unique niche in the Democratic field, garnering support from far-right groups and far-left groups who praise her staunch criticism of American military involvement abroad. A member of Congress from Hawaii and a veteran, Gabbard recently took swings at Harris, who she said lacked the temperament to serve as president. On Wednesday, Gabbard tried to hit Harris when she touted former health and human services secretary Kathleen Sebelius as an endorser of the Harris health-care plan, suggesting that Sebelius’s affiliation made the plan subject to private interests.

Gabbard also hit Harris on her record as a prosecutor. “Senator Harris says she’s proud of her record as a prosecutor and that she’ll be a prosecutor president. But I’m deeply concerned about this record,” Gabbard said. “... bottom line is, Senator Harris, when you were in a position to make a difference and an impact in these people’s lives, you did not.”

Julián Castro
Julián Castro

Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio and secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development under President Barack Obama, has been keen to emphasize his executive experience. The only Latino candidate in the race, he clashed with Biden on Wednesday night as he defended his policy of decriminalizing illegal border crossings. “It looks like one of us has learned the lessons of the past and one of us hasn’t,” Castro said. “... What we need are politicians who actually have some guts on this issue.”

Bill de Blasio
Bill de Blasio

De Blasio, the New York mayor, has low favorability numbers on his home turf and has struggled to gain traction in the race. In recent weeks, he has faced criticism in the tabloids for his lackluster bid as New York has struggled with a series of blackouts.

At one point, protesters from the audience demanded that a New York City police officer involved in the chokehold death of Eric Garner be fired. De Blasio was later forced to defend his response in the case, and he blamed the U.S. Justice Department.

As the only candidate onstage who wants fully phased-in Medicare-for-all, de Blasio said: “There’s this mythology that somehow all of these folks are in love with their insurance in America.” In his opening statement, he said: “We will tax the hell out of the wealthy to make this a fairer country.”

Andrew Yang
Andrew Yang

Yang, a former tech entrepreneur, has run what he has described as the “nerdiest presidential campaign in history.” He has amassed a small following called the “Yang Gang.” In both the Miami and Detroit debates, Yang was the candidate to speak the least onstage. On Wednesday night, he was applauded when he deployed his catchphrase: “We need to do the opposite of much of what we’re doing right now, and the opposite of Donald Trump is an Asian man who likes math.” On his proposals for a universal basic income, he insisted it would be the “most effective way for us to address racial inequality in a genuine way.”

How each candidate stood out Tuesday night

Elizabeth Warren
Elizabeth Warren

The Massachusetts senator with the “I have a plan for that” catchphrase is faring well in early state and national polls, detailing ambitious plans to eradicate student debt, institute Medicare-for-all and reduce the influence of money in politics.

She spent much of Tuesday night fending off critiques from moderate candidates and showing unity with Bernie Sanders. And she chastised John Delaney for “using Republican talking points” and suggesting she offered “impossible promises” and “fairy-tale economics.”

“You know, 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,” Warren said.

Bernie Sanders
Bernie Sanders

The senator from Vermont, known for his Medicare-for-all bill and Democratic socialism, has slipped in some recent polls but maintains his devoted base. Recently, he has had his sights on Sen. Kamala D. Harris, a longtime Medicare-for-all supporter who recently released her own twist on the plan. Tuesday he defended his bill against attacks from more-moderate candidates.

“There are millions of people who have insurance, [but] they can’t go to the doctor, and when they come out of the hospital, they go bankrupt. All right?” Sanders said. “What I am talking about … is no deductibles and no co-pay.”

When Rep. Tim Ryan suggested that Sanders wouldn’t know what Medicare-for-all would really look like, Sanders responded with force.

“I do know it,” he said to applause, “I wrote the damn bill.”

Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) hug Tuesday in Detroit after the first round of the second Democratic presidential primary debate. The two top-tier contenders for the party’s nomination were unified in defending their liberal policies against a slew of moderates. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

Pete Buttigieg
Pete Buttigieg

The mayor of South Bend, Ind., hauled in $24 million in the second fundraising quarter, more than any of his fellow Democrats. But after a swift rise to prominence, Buttigieg has fallen in many recent polls and continues to struggle to energize minority voters.

On Tuesday, he insisted it was “time to stop worrying about what the Republicans will say” when it comes to debating new policy ideas.

“If it’s true that if we embrace a far-left agenda, they’re going to say we’re a bunch of crazy socialists. If we embrace a conservative agenda, you know what they’re going to do? They’re going to say we’re a bunch of crazy socialists,” he said. “So let’s just stand up for the right policy, go out there and defend it.”

Beto O’Rourke
Beto O’Rourke

The former Texas congressman has struggled to climb out of the crowd, and he did not help his chances when he struggled to handle attacks on his immigration policy in the first debate. Though he has already secured a spot on the September debate stage, O’Rourke’s campaign clearly needs a major jolt. On Tuesday, O’Rourke stuck to his highflying rhetoric, particularly on climate change — an issue he tried to address with a sweeping plan released early in his campaign.

“We don’t have more than 10 years to get this right,” O’Rourke said. “Those community college students that I met in Tucumcari, New Mexico, understand wind and solar jobs are the fastest-growing jobs in the country. And those farmers in Iowa say, ‘Pay me for the environmental services of planting cover crops and keeping more land in conservation easements.’ That’s how we meet the challenge: We do it with everyone in this country. We bring everyone into the solution.”

Steve Bullock
Steve Bullock

The governor of Montana was keen to make his mark after failing to qualify for the first round of Democratic debates last month. Having won in a red state as a moderate Democrat, his campaign has so far focused on his record of winning over Republican-leaning voters. In his first appearance on the debate stage, he criticized Sanders and Warren for proposing the decriminalization of illegal immigration.

“We’ve got 100,000 people showing up at the border right now. If we decriminalize entry, if we give free health care to everyone, we’ll have multiples of that,” he said. “You are playing into Donald Trump’s hands.”

Amy Klobuchar
Amy Klobuchar

The Minnesota senator leans on her Midwestern values and ability to win over voters in Trump districts and collaborate with Republicans in Congress. She has positioned herself as a moderate by questioning the viability and practicality of Medicare-for-all, free college and other policies advocated by more liberal candidates. On Tuesday, she cast herself as the candidate willing to stand up to the National Rifle Association.

“What is broken is a political system that allows the NRA and other large, big money to come in and make things not happen when the majority of people are for [it],” she said. “As president, I will take them on.”

John Delaney
John Delaney

The former congressman from Maryland has been running for president for two years, longer than anyone else, but has struggled to gain traction. He was forced to deny reports that his staff advised him to drop out of the race.

A critic of Medicare-for-all, Delaney on Tuesday night launched an attack on his more liberal rivals. We cannot “go down the road that Senator Sanders and Senator Warren want to take us, which is with bad policies like Medicare-for-all, free everything and impossible promises that will turn off independent voters,” he said.

Tim Ryan
Tim Ryan

The congressman from Ohio, pitching himself as the candidate best able to lead struggling industrial communities back from the brink, advocates investing in green jobs and technological training. Ryan has yet to distinguish himself from other moderate candidates with a similar pitch, and is still short of the donor and polling thresholds he must hit to be onstage again in September. On Tuesday, he argued against the policies of more left-leaning candidates.

“Now in this discussion already tonight we’ve talked about taking private health insurance away from union members in the industrial Midwest, we’ve talked about decriminalizing the border and we’ve talked about giving free health care to undocumented workers when so many Americans are struggling to pay for their health care,” Ryan said.

“I quite frankly don’t think that that is an agenda that we can move forward on and win.”

Marianne Williamson
Marianne Williamson

The author and spiritual adviser campaigns on ways to heal fissures in American society — most notably as a vocal supporter of reparations for slavery. She was panned for out-of-the-box answers in her first debate performance and probably needed a more impressive showing in her second. On Tuesday, she argued for a new approach to politics.

“This is not just about a plan. It’s about a philosophy of governing. And I’ve heard some people here tonight [and] I almost wonder why you’re Democrats,” Williamson said. “You seem to think there’s something wrong about using . . . the instruments of government to help people. That is what government should do.”

John Hickenlooper
John Hickenlooper

The former governor of Colorado and former mayor of Denver has so far cast himself as a pragmatic moderate and urged his party to avoid “socialist” policies. Since the first debate, he has fallen behind on fundraising and risks not qualifying for the next round.

Traditionally a noncombatant debater, Hickenlooper on Tuesday warned that Sanders’s policies would be a “disaster at the ballot box.” He continued: “You might as well FedEx the election to Donald Trump.” He added that he is more pragmatic about health care: “It comes down to that question of Americans being used to being able to make choices, to have the right to make a decision.”

Kevin Schaul

Kevin Schaul is a senior graphics editor for The Washington Post. He covers national politics and public policy using data and visuals.

Hailey Fuchs

Hailey Fuchs is a political reporter on the National desk. She joined The Washington Post as a Bradlee Fellow in June 2019 and previously contributed to the Toledo Blade in Ohio.

Ted Mellnik

Ted Mellnik explores and analyzes data and maps for graphics, stories and interactives.

Brittany Renee Mayes

Brittany Renee Mayes joined The Washington Post as a general assignment graphics reporter in June 2018. She previously worked at NPR on the visuals team as a news applications developer.

Chelsea Janes

Chelsea Janes is covering the 2020 presidential campaign. She was The Washington Post's beat writer for the Washington Nationals from 2014 to 2018 and was a sports intern for The Post in 2013.

Laura Hughes

Laura Hughes is the 2019 Stern Fellow at The Washington Post, focusing mainly on politics and the 2020 presidential campaign.

Emily Davies

Emily Davies is a reporter working on the National desk at The Washington Post. She previously covered politics for People Magazine. Davies joined The Post as a Bradlee fellow in June 2019.

Dan Keating

Dan Keating analyzes data for projects, stories, graphics and interactive online presentations.

Kevin Uhrmacher

Kevin Uhrmacher is a graphics editor for politics at The Washington Post. His work includes mapping trends in election results, analyzing data about President Trump’s political appointees and explaining the impact of congressional policies. He joined The Post in 2014 as a news designer.

Graphic by Emily Davies, Hailey Fuchs, Laura Hughes, Chelsea Janes, Dan Keating, Brittany Renee Mayes, Kevin Schaul and Kevin Uhrmacher. Reuben Fischer-Baum, Ann Gerhart and Ted Mellnik contributed to this report.

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Kirsten Gillibrand’s name.

About this story

The Post tracked approximately how much time each candidate spent talking. When multiple candidates spoke over one another, neither was awarded time.

Originally published July 29, 2019.

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