The third Democratic debate was the first opportunity to see former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) share the same debate stage. Both spoke more than the rest of the field, according to The Post’s stopwatch analysis.
Total minutes spoken
Biden spent much of the night defending against attacks from all directions, earning himself additional rebuttal time. Closely behind Biden and Warren were Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.). Largely left behind was tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang.
Candidates spoke for disparate amounts of time in the first two debates, largely tracking each candidate’s standing in the polls. Yang has spoken for less than a third the amount Biden has, even though his polling average puts him in sixth place, according to RealClearPolitics.
Total minutes spoken
How each candidate stood out
The former vice president, who holds a modest lead in the battle for the nomination, was put to the test by some of his strongest challengers on the debate stage. Biden, whose campaign has been plagued by a series of gaffes, has said he is running to “restore the soul” of the country and build on the legacy of former president Barack Obama. Flanked by Warren and Sanders, he described their Medicare-for-all program as unfunded and unworkable. “How are we going to pay for it?” he asked. “This is about candor. Honesty. Big ideas. ... I know the senator says ‘I’m for Bernie,’ ” Biden said, looking at Warren. “Well, I’m for Barack.”
“I think Obamacare worked,” he added. “My plan costs a lot of money ... but it doesn’t cost $30 trillion.”
Sanders entered Thursday night as one of three candidates (along with Biden and Warren) polling in double digits, and has yet to use the debate stage to challenge any of his major rivals, having been so far unwilling to criticize Warren and having not had the opportunity to share a stage with Biden. Sanders battled a raspy voice to make his usual arguments against corporate influence and government in response to questions about health care and the gun industry — though he refused to give support to abolishing the filibuster to pass “major legislation” to address big issues.
“What I would support absolutely is passing major legislation, the gun legislation, the people who are talking about Medicare for all, climate change legislation that saves the planet,” Sanders said. “I will not wait for 60 votes to make that happen. And you could do it in a variety of ways.”
Sanders also fielded a question about what makes his vision of socialism different from the versions spiraling into dictatorships around the world — a question Republicans are already raising in attack ads.
“To equate what goes on in Venezuela with what I believe is extremely unfair,” Sanders said. “I tell you what I believe in terms of democratic socialism: I agree with what goes on in Canada and Scandinavia, guaranteeing health care to all as a human right. I believe the United States should not be the only major country on Earth to not provide paid family and medical leave.”
The 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Ind., and Navy veteran raised more money than any other candidate in the 2020 presidential field during the last fundraising quarter. But Buttigieg, who would be the first openly gay president in U.S. history, is facing pressure to expand his support beyond the 4 to 8 percent he has received in recent polls. In an attack on Trump over his trade policy with China, he said: “You know, when I first got into this race, I remember President Trump scoffed and said he’d like to see me make a deal with [Chinese President] Xi Jinping,” Buttigieg said. “I’d like to see him make a deal with Xi Jinping.”
The former mayor of Newark and first African American to represent New Jersey in the Senate, has struggled to find his breakout moment. As other candidates spoke of the taint of slavery in America, Booker insisted that racism needed to be rooted out of American institutions today. “We have systemic racism that is eroding our nation, from health care to the criminal justice system,” he said. “It’s nice to go back to slavery, but we have more African Americans who are under government supervision today than all the slaves in 1850.” On gun control, he said: “The majority of Americans agree with me [on background checks] and not the corporate gun lobby.”
The senator from Minnesota is selling herself as the down-home pragmatist in a field of more liberal dreamers, a pitch that has yet to gain her much traction in the polls. As such, Klobuchar needs a debate-stage splash to inject some life into a so-far-quiet campaign. In the first two debates, she was not able to engineer one.
On Thursday, Klobuchar used her opening statement to articulate that argument more clearly than she had in previous debates.
“If you feel stuck in the middle of the extremes in our politics and you are tired of the noise and the nonsense, you’ve got a home with me,” Klobuchar said, “because I don’t want to be the president for half of America. I want to be the president for all of America.”
Klobuchar also delivered one of the evening’s strongest blows to the Medicare-for-all plan embraced by Sanders and Warren.
“While Bernie wrote the bill, I read the bill, and on page eight of the bill, it says we will no longer have private insurance as we know it,” Klobuchar said. “And that means 149 million Americans will no longer be able to have their current insurance. That’s in four years. I don’t think that’s a bold idea. I think that’s a bad idea.”
Though Warren trails Biden and sometimes Sanders in the polls, she entered Thursday night’s debate with more momentum than anyone in the field as the only candidate to see her poll numbers increase steadily since the campaign began. She had not shared yet a stage with Biden, making Thursday the first time two titans of the race got a chance to spar. They sparred briefly on health care, and Warren dodged a question about whether middle-class taxes would increase by explaining that total cost to average Americans would decrease.
“I’ve actually never met anybody who likes their health insurance company. I’ve met people. I’ve met people who like their nurses. I’ve met people who like their pharmacists. I’ve met people who like their physical therapists. What they want is access to health care,” Warren said. “And we just need to be clear about what Medicare-for-all is all about. Instead of paying premiums into insurance companies, and then having insurance companies build their profits by saying no to coverage, we’re going to do this by saying everyone is covered by Medicare-for-all, every health-care provider is covered. The only question here, in terms of difference, is where to send the bill.”
After a powerful performance in the first debate buoyed her in the polls, the senator from California looked less formidable in the second one. Her poll numbers have stagnated in single digits ever since. On Thursday, she eschewed attacking her opponents in favor of attacking President Trump.
“President Trump, you spent the last two and a half years full time trying to sow hate and division among us, and that is why we’ve gotten nothing done. You have used hate, intimidation, fear, and over 12,000 lies as a way to distract from your failed policies and your broken promises,” Harris said.
“I plan on focusing on our common issues, our common hopes and desires. And in that way, unifying our country, winning this election and turning the page for America. And now, President Trump, you can go back to watching Fox News.”
She also suggested that discussions of policy divisions on issues like health care were distracting Democrats from their ultimate goal.
“Frankly I think this discussion has given the American public a headache, what they want to know is that they’re going to have health care and cost will not be a barrier to getting it.”
The laid-back entrepreneur continues to draw crowds and meet polling thresholds with his promise of $1,000 universal basic income he calls “a freedom dividend.” But Yang entered Thursday night hunting a memorable moment, and his campaign called reporters to tell them he was planning to do something no candidate had ever done before.
Yang announced that he will fund freedom dividends for 10 winners of a raffle conducted through his website — an announcement that left some of his opponents, such as Klobuchar and Harris, chuckling in disbelief.
“When you donate money to a presidential campaign, what happens? The politician spends the money on TV ads and consultants, and you hope it works out. It’s time to trust ourselves more than our politicians,” Yang said. “If you believe that you can solve your own problems better than any politician, go to Yang2020.com and tell us how $1,000 a month will help you do just that. This is how we will get our country working for us again: the American people.”
Having battled to stand out in a crowded field of candidates, the former Texas congressman’s campaign transformed itself over the summer into a crusade for gun-law reform after a mass shooting in his hometown of El Paso. Speaking in his home state, O’Rourke said he would force Americans to give up guns designed for the battlefield. “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-4,” he said. “We’re not going to allow it to be used against a fellow American anymore.”
On Trump, he said: “We have a white supremacist in the White House, and he poses a mortal threat to people of color in this country.”
Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio and housing secretary in the Obama administration, has struggled in recent weeks to gain ground in the polls. On Thursday, he had an aggressive exchange with Biden and made a dig at his age, accusing him of forgetting the details of his own health-care plan. “Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago?” Castro asked Biden, 76. “Are you forgetting already what you said just two minutes ago?”
He also attacked Biden for making it harder for struggling Americans to get access to health care. “I’m fulfilling the legacy of Barack Obama, and you’re not,” he said. Biden hit back: “That’ll be a surprise to him.”
Graphic by Dan Keating, Ted Mellnik, Kevin Schaul, Chelsea Janes and Laura Hughes.
About this story
The Post tracked approximately how much time each candidate spend talking. When multiple candidate spoke over one another, neither was awarded time.
Candidate illustrations by Ben Kirchner.
Originally published Sept. 12, 2019.