Those exchanges are now famous, from Ronald Reagan’s showdown with a moderator who refused to include lower-polling candidates onstage, to Barack Obama’s glib comment on whether Hillary Clinton was likable, to Chris Christie pointing out that Marco Rubio was stuck on a robotic, unconvincing talking point. (“There it is, everybody!”)
That sets extraordinarily high expectations for tonight, for the candidates and for their — get ready to be sick of this word — zingers. No campaign is strong enough right now to have a disastrous debate and win this primary.
Do Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders want a fight? Up to now, Buttigieg has been largely uninterested in attacking Sanders. In his final pre-Iowa speeches, Buttigieg would tell voters they did not have to “choose between a revolution and a status quo.”
That was as rough as it got. Sanders hasn’t spent much time criticizing Buttigieg either, mocking him for the donations he had taken from billionaires, but letting Elizabeth Warren do the work of attacking Buttigieg’s fundraisers at the December debate in California.
Sanders was tougher on Buttigieg this morning, speaking before the banker-heavy audience of Politics & Eggs. “I like Pete Buttigieg, nice guy,” Sanders said. “But we are in a moment where billionaires control not only our economy but our political system.” Hours later, Sanders’s Twitter account — often punchier than his speeches — blasted out headlines about Buttigieg’s billionaire support.
Buttigieg has not given many hints about his response to that. When Warren hit him over the same thing, he accused her of hypocrisy (harder to do with Sanders) and said that Democrats would have a hard enough time beating Trump without piling litmus tests onto donors. Asked about Sanders at last night’s CNN town hall, Buttigieg praised Sanders's consistency, politely adding that he did not always agree with him.
But there’s far more for them to argue about. Sanders has been asked repeatedly to explain how Medicare-for-all will be funded; Buttigieg has not been pushed to explain a potentially unpopular provision of his “Medicare for all who want it” plan. If health care comes up, as it never ceases to, that could become a flash point.
Do Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar skate by? There will be seven candidates onstage tonight, and Warren ran ahead four of them in Iowa but has been largely erased from horse-race coverage. A new negative ad from Tom Steyer takes shots at Sanders, Buttigieg and Biden, but it does not mention Warren at all.
That could put Warren in the position she enjoyed for most of last summer, a candidate broadly liked by Democratic voters who gets chances to explain her plans. She is also closing out this primary, like the Iowa caucuses, emphasizing party unity, which could limit her or require workarounds when asked to get in on a fight with another Democrat.
More than the other top-tier candidates, she could benefit from turning questions into attacks on President Trump. Running stronger with registered Democrats, who will probably make up 60 percent of primary voters, would pull her out of the doldrums.
She will have competition from Klobuchar, who has made gains with moderate voters who had previously backed Biden and Buttigieg. Klobuchar has never taken a real hit at these debates, and no candidate is in a particularly good position to attack her on the vulnerabilities that have emerged this month, like fresh attention on her record as a prosecutor.
Does Joe Biden get a comeback? Everybody’s looking for one; the story of Biden getting off the ropes after Iowa with a strong debate performance is just begging to be written. We saw hints of this already, when Biden’s emotional answer to a CNN town hall question about stuttering went quasi-viral, with a push from the Unite the Country super PAC.
It’s a compelling story because, in a political career stretching back 50 years, Biden has literally never been in this position. (Not a joke. Literally.) He’s come into debates after a weak performance (as he did in July of last year) and come to bat cleanup after his running mate’s weak performance (the 2012 vice presidential debate in Kentucky).
Biden’s strategy heading into tonight is unclear; his campaign has sometimes given hints about how he’ll attack, only to see the candidate go another way. We did see him preview criticisms of both Buttigieg and Sanders this week, accusing Buttigieg of dismissing the achievements of the Obama administration and Sanders of promising a Medicare-for-all plan he can neither pass nor pay for. The bar has been lowered for Biden, not just by Iowa, but by the more commanding debate performances Democrats are used to from Buttigieg and Sanders.
What do Steyer and Yang do to keep themselves in the conversation? The DNC’s rules for the Nevada debate on Feb. 19 require candidates to hit the highest poll threshold yet or to grab a delegate from one of the first two states. Neither Yang nor Steyer has gotten close to this, and the DNC poll approval process (a shorter window for qualifying polls, high standards for pollsters) is especially harmful to Steyer.
The billionaire and first-time candidate has been politely received in previous debates, often getting questions to end a tough round between top-tier candidates. But he enters this debate after running the first real negative ad of the primary (more about that below), and staring down a disinvitation from debates in states where he has spent tens of millions of dollars.
Yang has shown no interest in going negative but does not have Steyer’s cushion of personal wealth. “It’s been a tough week and it’s now or never,” Yang told donors in an email today. “Looking at the polls we have to push now to have a chance to finish in the top 4 in New Hampshire and give our campaign the boost it needs.”
"His campaign on the line, Joe Biden goes missing in New Hampshire," by Matt Viser, Cleve R. Wootson Jr. and Michael Scherer
What the onetime man to beat is doing right now.
"Inside Buttigieg's Iowa comeback," by Elena Schneider
How a small, overrated fade turned into a good-enough delegate haul.
The never-Trump primary is over.
"Bernie's New Hampshire juggernaut," by Alexander Zaitchik
Inside the movement to overwhelm a small state with votes.
"Behind the chaos: How a small-city mayor and a democratic socialist finished on top in Iowa," by Michael Scherer, Holly Bailey, Sean Sullivan, and Annie Linskey
The whole story of Iowa.
On the trail
DERRY, N.H. — When Elizabeth Warren finished her stump speech and opened the floor to questions, Norma Bostarr grabbed the microphone.
“My name is Norma Bostarr, I'm 27 years old …”
“Hello!” Warren said.
“Hello,” said Bostarr, “and I'm here to talk to you about Alzheimer's, because for me, it is personal, it is professional and it is also a calling of mine. So there are many unimaginable numbers when you could talk about this. And one of them is that one in four unpaid caregivers are people my age. So when you think about the public health crisis this is creating, in addition to increasing funding for research, how are you going to support my generation of millennials and Gen Zs?”
Twenty-four hours earlier, in Keene, Tulsi Gabbard finished her stump speech, opened the floor to questions, and Norma Bostarr grabbed the microphone.
“My name is Norma, I'm 27, and I'm here to talk to you about Alzheimer's today,” she said. “So the number of older adults with Alzheimer's and dementia is set to triple in the next 30 years. And there is a huge number of caregivers already out there who are unpaid. And what's surprising to most people, or maybe what isn't surprising but we don't talk about, is that a quarter of all of those caregivers are people my age. They're millennials.”
Both Democrats had the same answer — more money for medical research — that ended up in different places, with Warren talking about her insurance plans and Gabbard focusing on her grandfather suffering from Alzheimer's. Over just four days in New Hampshire, Bostarr, who lives in California and works for the Youth Movement Against Alzheimer's, had asked basically the same question of every candidate.
If the New Hampshire primary has an image, it is of candidates roaming historic town hall buildings and diners, taking every question, convincing voters one by one that they can handle the presidency. But the circus-like conclusion of the primary is increasingly dominated by “bird-doggers,” advocates who want to get the candidates on the record (and on film) on the issue they are paid to advocate. When they succeed, it is filmed, but usually ignored, by swarms of international media that have shown up to see the candidates.
Crowd size is a famously unscientific measure of candidate strength. It's never good when a candidate draws tiny crowds, but it might not mean much when a candidate packs a room. In the final days before the New Hampshire primary, the best-known candidates are attracting scores of political tourists. Some of them will be able to cast votes soon; Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont vote Super Tuesday. But all of them crowd out New Hampshire voters, more than a third of whom tell pollsters they can change their minds before voting.
The bird-doggers take up space, too, and are adept at gaming the question-and-answer period. (Of the highest-polling candidates in New Hampshire, only Joe Biden and Amy Klobuchar do not regularly take questions.) At events this week, Sanders and Warren got nearly-identical questions from activists who wanted them to commit to skipping this year's meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a politically risky issue that is not exactly at the front of voters' minds. Yang and Warren got nearly word-for-word questions about climate change; in Derry, it came from Megan Seymour, an activist at the National Wildlife Federation.
“Here in New Hampshire we've seen the iconic moose population decline by over 60 percent since 2001,” said Seymour, whose organization is based in Virginia.
Getting these questions to Warren took special skill. Some candidates take questions at random, and some screen them. Warren's campaign events distribute raffle tickets to attendees, with the numbers read out onstage. To increase their chances at getting picked, activists must show up en masse, or persuade more shy attendees to give them their tickets. For Warren, it meant that three questions at one of her final pre-primary events came from activists, questions she used to pivot back to what she had wanted to say in the first place.
Tom Steyer, “Different.” On the stump, where he draws a fraction of the attention paid to other Democrats, Steyer has argued that a standard politician would struggle to defeat President Trump. His new ad sharpens that point, not only portraying Biden and Buttigieg as too weak to beat Trump but also saying that the president “outlasted Democratic insiders on impeachment.” That has angered Democrats today; surprising the White House, they held the entire Democratic caucus together in the Senate and for the first time persuaded a member of a president's party (Mitt Romney) to vote for his impeachment.
Mike Bloomberg, “Steady Leadership.” Barack Obama has starred or guested in Joe Biden's ads since the primary began. Elizabeth Warren only just started running ads with Obama's praise for her. Now comes Bloomberg, who endorsed Obama in 2012 (and Hillary Clinton in 2016), allying with the president on gun control and climate change campaigns. “At a time when Washington is divided in old ideological battles, he shows us what can be achieved when we bring people to seek pragmatic solutions,” Obama says in one of several clips recycled for the spot.
New Hampshire primary (Suffolk, 500 registered voters)
Bernie Sanders: 24% (-1)
Pete Buttigieg: 23% (+4)
Elizabeth Warren: 13% (+2)
Joe Biden: 11% (-2)
Amy Klobuchar: 6% (-)
Tulsi Gabbard: 4% (-1)
Andrew Yang: 3% (+1)
Tom Steyer: 3% (-1)
Michael Bennet: 1% (+1)
Deval Patrick: 1% (+1)
All the pre-Iowa numbers have fallen out of this tracking poll, and the result has been a surge for Buttigieg at Biden's expense. (For our purposes, “pre-Iowa” means “before the night of the caucuses.”) The trendlines here are from yesterday, but since the start of the week, when tracking began, Biden has dropped by 7 points, and Buttigieg's support has jumped by 12 points. Both Warren and Klobuchar have stayed flat, but both Warren and Buttigieg have ticked up among voters' second choices, from 14 and 13 percent to 18 and 17 percent, respectively. The percentage of voters considering Sanders or Biden as second choices has actually moved down, from 12 to 10 percent and from 14 to 11 percent, respectively.
What I’m watching
Congressional Democrats were dealt a setback Friday when a unanimous panel on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit halted their effort to enforce the Constitution's anti-emoluments clause, which prevents a president from receiving financial benefit from his office. As Democrats feared, the court ruled that they did not have standing, in part because they did not represent a majority of Congress.
“The Members can, and likely will, continue to use their weighty voices to make their case to the American people, their colleagues in the Congress and the President himself, all of whom are free to engage that argument as they see fit,” wrote the judges, all of whom were appointed by pre-Trump presidents.
Other emoluments lawsuits are working their way through the system, but in the week that Republican senators voted not to remove Trump from office, he has continued to avoid potential investigative risks. Efforts to force the release of his tax returns remain tied up in court, and the Department of Justice released updated guidance on politically sensitive investigations that added a new restriction: Any investigations into political donors had to be approved by the attorney general himself.
There's a growing asymmetry between the investigations Democrats could expect to bear fruit before November, and the ones Republicans are pursuing. There is no legal authority, for example, stopping Senate Republicans from demanding documents about the work and travel of Hunter Biden.
After tonight's debate, the Democratic candidates will roam New Hampshire again, but they'll spend half the day in the same room. Every candidate except for Joe Biden and Tulsi Gabbard will speak at an "Our Rights, Our Courts" forum in the morning; every candidate will end the day at the McIntyre-Shaheen Dinner in Manchester.
Bernie Sanders. He'll launch get-out-the-vote canvasses in Manchester, Dover and Concord and will hold a town hall in Rochester.
Pete Buttigieg. He'll hold rallies at Keene State College and Lebanon High School.
Joe Biden. He'll hold a rally at the Rex Theatre in Manchester.
Elizabeth Warren. She'll hold a town hall at Manchester Community College.
Amy Klobuchar. She'll hold a rally at the University of New Hampshire in Durham and Dartmouth College in Hanover.
Andrew Yang. He'll hold town halls at Windham Center School and Nashua Community College.
Tom Steyer. He'll launch a canvass in Manchester.
Michael F. Bennet. He'll join the Nashua Democrats' bake-off and rally with Democratic strategist James Carville in Manchester.
Tulsi Gabbard. She'll hold a town hall meeting in Rochester.
Bill Weld. Now the only Republican challenging the president in the Republican primary, he'll hold town halls in New London and Keene.
New Hampshire history
The first time anyone paid close attention to the New Hampshire primary, in 1952, it pushed a Democratic president into retirement. In 1968, it happened again, and yet the usual analysts were taken by surprise.
Their conceptual problem was with the candidates. Throughout 1967, antiwar activists and disappointed liberals urged Robert F. Kennedy to challenge President Lyndon B. Johnson. In early November, he declined, as did lesser-known liberals such as George McGovern. The “dump Johnson” movement settled on Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, a former monk with a healthy ego, who entered the race on Nov. 30.
McCarthy picked up media attention, and the binary choice quickly rallied antiwar activists behind him: There was no other clear way to humble the president and prove that Democratic voters wanted him gone. He had other advantages, like Johnson's decision to stand as a write-in candidate and the president's growing unpopularity with independent voters who could cross over and oppose him. And McCarthy had expectations on his side. A January story about the race in the New York Times speculated about a five-to-one Johnson landslide in New Hampshire, reporting that “pro-Johnson Democrats, anti-Johnson Democrats and Republicans are in general agreement that the Minnesota senator will probably get 6,000 to 7,500 votes.”
The muscle for McCarthy's campaign came from young, left-wing activists. The votes came from everywhere. McCarthy was even helped by the fact that a more-famous senator with the same last name, Joseph McCarthy, had a resilient appeal to conservatives, and that's who some of them thought was on the ballot. (This also explained why Republican write-in votes went heavily for McCarthy.)
On March 12, Johnson beat McCarthy, but he did not beat expectations. He won by single digits and announced the end of his political career two weeks later. But McCarthy's coalition was unwieldy. Exit polling found that most voters were unaware of McCarthy's antiwar position, and as the historian Dominic Seabrook pointed out, three-fifths of McCarthy voters opposed Johnson on the war because they felt he was not doing enough to win it. Johnson was out, but Kennedy quickly joined the race, exposing how a protest candidate could not necessarily hold on to protest voters.
... four days until the New Hampshire primary
... 12 days until the ninth Democratic debate
... 15 days until the Nevada caucuses
... 22 days until the South Carolina primary
... 25 days until Super Tuesday