It is an accepted rule of presidential races that, when your campaign is in retreat in the polls, your best defence lies in attack.
Senator Elizabeth Warren demonstrated this the week before last, taking the opportunity of the Nevada debate to knife Mike Bloomberg straight off the bat, before going after just about every other candidate on the stage. The result? $1 million in donations during the debate, a figure that rose to $2.8 million by the end of the day, accompanied by a 9-point increase over the period in the following days, placing second to Senator Bernie Sanders. Sanders being the front runner in all metrics considered by the New York Times, this wasn’t too bad a result.
Sanders had begun to dominate the contest – as mentioned, he led commandingly in convention delegates, media coverage, contributions and the polls. The best defence in a presidential campaign is the attack. Preferably in a live debate, with as many witnesses as possible. The South Carolina debate beckoned.
So attack they did. On the economy, healthcare, and his history on guns. On his ability to pass bills, his approach to government expansion, and his lack of support for Barack Obama. On his divisiveness and whether or not he was electable, which saw both former Mayors Pete Buttigieg and Mike Bloomberg claim that a Sanders ticket would ensure another 4 years of a Trump White House, on account of his inability to woo moderate Republicans. Indeed, the debate at times resembled more a verbal brawl, with the moderators often apparently missing in action.
Sanders was not the only one who came under fire in the debate. Bloomberg, a registered Republican until 2018, was attacked on his record on race, gender, and being a billionaire who has gained entry into the debates by spending over $500 million on advertising. His record of doing business in China was also scrutinised by Warren. His expansion of stop-and-frisk as mayor of New York, a policy deemed deeply discriminatory to black people and ethnic minorities, were also raised by his fellow candidates while allegations of sexual harassment and misogyny have dogged him throughout the race, as have his use of non-disclosure agreements to avoid these damaging his reputation. Buttigieg came under fire for accepting funding from billionaires. This was largely a result of Sanders attempting to deflect some heat on to someone besides him, with Buttigieg and Bloomberg proving his go-to targets – one is the only candidate to have run him close in a poll, the other is a billionaire, which Sanders says shouldn’t exist.
Race featured heavily in the debate (South Carolina’s population is almost a third African American), with all candidates united in a rare moment of agreement on the point that more needed to be done to address inequalities between black and white communities. This meant plenty of appeals to the black community. Biden, who needed to win South Carolina to have a chance of contending for the nomination, stressed his connection to the state and its black community time and again, and was unusually vocal about gentrification – an issue that affects inner city areas in America that are often disproportionately populated by ethnic minorities. Buttigieg declared that there was a need to listen to the lived experience of disadvantaged communities, while Tom Steyer promised reparations for slavery. Sanders attacked the criminal justice system for being racist. But this focus did not save Bloomberg from having previous comments implying that black and hispanic homeowners were responsible for the 2008 financial crash brought back to haunt him.
As mentioned before, the quality of moderation was substandard, with time limits on speaking largely ignored, and candidates interrupting and pre-empting each other. This latter phenomenon lead to a couple of instances in which the moderators called on an individual, only to find another ended up actually speaking. CBS, the broadcasters of the debate, will have had much to ponder in the aftermath. But another aspect was the audience participation. Many debates ban outward shows of support, as it can encourage what is known as ‘stocking the room’ – packing the audience with your supporters in order to make you seem as popular as possible. And while there was not clear evidence of this during Tuesday’s debate, Sanders seemed to be booed remarkably often for a man who can realistically look at winning the Primary. Meanwhile, Bloomberg appeared to have a very vocal, if at times isolated, support base in the audience.
There are innumerable debates over the course of an election cycle, particularly in a presidential election, and it is tempting to dismiss this one as ‘just another debate’. But this debate was the last before ‘Super Tuesday’, 3rd March, on which Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, and Virginia all hold their primaries this year, with a third of all convention delegates up for grabs. Historically speaking, those that win the nomination have performed the best on Super Tuesday, a pattern that goes back to 1984, when the day was established. And while Sanders lost out to Biden in South Carolina, he is first in national polling averages by a margin of 12 points. Add into the mix the fact that at this point in the year, in the last 3 elections the polling frontrunner has typically gone on to win the nomination, and the Sanders camp has plenty to be optimistic about.
But we haven’t even got to the convention, let alone the general election, Sanders is the most left-wing presidential candidate in living memory, and we are living in a time of political upsets.
We have a long way to go.