Thursday, February 20, 2020

Democratic Debate Review: A Telling Final Question

The news media didn't take very long Wednesday night to settle on a consensus interpretation of the evening's Democratic presidential debate. Before the first commercial break had been reached, the conventional wisdom had already swept across Twitter: the evening was a victory for Elizabeth Warren and a defeat for Michael Bloomberg. There were reasons to expect such a storyline even before Warren used her first statement of the debate to launch a direct attack on Bloomberg: the press has been stung all week by accusations that it hasn't been granting Warren the attention she deserves, and Bloomberg, who has has been looming over the race for months but hasn't yet competed for votes or participated in any debates, was facing the difficult task of living up in person to a set of rising poll numbers fueled by an unprecedented advertising blitz.

Whether Bloomberg experiences a serious popularity reversal as a result of the night's events is difficult to predict. He's likely to suffer negative news coverage over the next few days, but he doesn't have to worry about his funding sources drying up, and it's not clear that the specific subject that was the main source of contention at the debate—the use of non-disclosure agreements by former employees of his media company—will resonate strongly with the segment of the Democratic mass electorate otherwise open to supporting his candidacy. Warren can count on a temporary boost in positive publicity and fundraising, but with two early states that should have been relatively favorable ground already behind her and a much less friendly geographic path laying immediately ahead, she probably needs more than one strong debate to remain in serious contention.

All this is pretty good news for current front-runner Bernie Sanders, who mostly escaped attacks from the rest of the field on Wednesday and who has the least of all the candidates to fear from a continued media focus on Bloomberg. (The biggest threat to Sanders would be a resurgent Joe Biden, but while many media observers thought Biden's performance was stronger than usual on Wednesday, it won't be the major story coming out of the debate.) In fact, the final question of the night revealed the strength of Sanders's position: he was the only candidate to agree that if no single candidate wins a majority of pledged delegates, the candidate with the most delegates should receive the nomination.

This is, of course, partially the Sanders campaign's recognition that he is unlikely to be a compromise choice or the preferred nominee of Democratic superdelegates in the event of a contested convention. But it's also a signal to the party made from a position of strength. The Sanders camp is betting that there's a good chance that they will have at least a delegate plurality, and they want to warn Democratic leaders at this early stage that they will denounce any attempt to deny him the nomination under such circumstances as an illegitimate usurpation of the process.

The fact that the rest of the Democratic field responded to the question by defending the right of the party to select a different nominee reflects the extent to which contestation rather than an outright delegate majority is, in their minds, a live possibility even with 48 states and 7 territories still to vote in this race. Of course, we can expect any of them to make the same argument that Sanders is currently making if they wind up with a delegate plurality instead. But more than a third of the total national delegate count will be selected within the next two weeks, and it's quite possible that we're not very far away from a situation where a contested convention is the only numerically plausible alternative to a first-ballot Sanders nomination. With such a front-loaded nomination calendar, it gets late early out there.