Previewing The Sixth Democratic Debate

It's time for the last Democratic debate of 2019, and the stage will be smaller than it has at any time in the past.

Photomontage via CNN

In just under seven hours, the ten candidates who were able to meet the criteria established by the Democratic National Committee will meet on a stage in Atlanta for the sixth debate of the Democratic campaign cycle. Coming as it does some 47 days before the Iowa Caucuses, this will be among the more significant of the encounters between the candidates, and could mean the end of the road for some candidates unless they are able to revive campaigns that are quite clearly floundering while the frontrunners continue to advance forward, Additionally, thanks to some significant changes in the polls over the past month we’re likely to see increased focus on candidates who have previously sailed under the radar even as their poll numbers rose, specifically including South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

The first debate, of course, resulted in significant changes in the nature of the race from what it looked like prior to the debate. As we saw in a series of polls in the immediate aftermath of the debate — see hereherehereherehere and here — that immediate impact consisted of significant gains for both Senator Harris and Senator Warren, largely at the expense of Senator Bernie Sanders and former Vice-President Biden. As time went on, though, there were signs that the post-debate bump was relatively short-lived, especially for Senator Harris.

The second debate, meanwhile, had relatively little impact on the polls, except to the extent that what had been a four-person race seemed to be slowly transforming into a three-person contest as Senator Harris continued to decline in nationwide polling. (See here and here.)

The most notable thing that happened after the third debate was the fact that Massachusettes Senator Elizabeth Warren has continued to surge in the polling at the state and national level to the point where she and the former Vice-President were close to forming a tier all their own while Sanders, Harris, and Buttigieg made up a second tier. 

The fourth debate in October consisted of much of the same clash between the party’s progressive’s and moderates that we’ve seen before but didn’t really result in any significant changes in the polls as Biden and Warren continued as the top two candidates, followed by Sanders and Buttigieg, with Harris fading but still hanging on in most national and state polling.

Finally, the fifth and most recent debate was if anything even more subdued than the previous four. While many observers, myself included, expected that there would be some focus on Pete Buttigieg, who had risen in the polls in the weeks prior to the debate, that focus didn’t really take place and there were in fact fewer fireworks, and viewers, for this debate than for any of the previous debates.

Heading into tonight’s debate, there are two new polls out that continue to show former Vice-President Biden leading the pack, and Senator Elizabeth Warren slipping back to third place behind Senator Bernie Sanders. First up, is a new CNN/SSRS poll:

Joe Biden continues to hold a lead in the race for the Democratic nomination for president and remains the candidate potential Democratic voters think has the best shot to defeat Donald Trump, according to a new CNN Poll conducted by SSRS.

Biden has the backing of about a quarter (26%) of registered voters who are Democrats or Democratic-leaning independents, with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders at 20%, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren at 16%, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg at 8% and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg at 5%. Three candidates hold 3% support each in the poll: businessman Andrew Yang, and Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.

As 2019 comes to a close, a look back at where things were a year ago suggests two major changes have emerged in the national picture. The first is Elizabeth Warren’s rise, and the second is the emergence of Pete Buttigieg as a top-level contender.

Compared with a year ago, Biden’s support is just a bit lower (33% said they backed him in December 2018, 7 points better than his current backing), while Sanders’ is just a bit higher (14% chose Sanders last December). Warren is the only candidate tested in both surveys to move double-digits in the last year (up 12 points from 4% a year ago). Buttigieg hadn’t yet made the list of contenders, and 11 candidates tested in the survey last December have since opted out of the race, including two — former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rouke and California Senator Kamala Harris — who had landed in that poll’s top six.

Overall, the contours of the race for the Democratic nomination remain fairly similar to where they have been recently. Biden leads among non-white voters, while whites are more evenly split between Biden, Warren and Sanders, with Buttigieg not far behind. Younger potential Democratic voters continue to provide a boost to Sanders, while older ones favor Biden. Warren’s strength lies in those with college degrees as she runs near even with Sanders at the top among liberals. Those who consider themselves moderate or conservative generally lean Biden’s way.

The poll suggests, however, some hesitancy developing among potential Democratic voters. The share who are “very satisfied” with the field of candidates has dipped from 38% in June to 31% now. The share who say they might change their mind about the Democratic field ticks up to a majority and stands at 51% nationally. In January 2016, the closest comparative datapoint available from that cycle, 37% felt the same way.

At the same time, however, the poll finds a sharp uptick in enthusiasm among Democratic voters. Half of all registered voters now say they are extremely enthusiastic about voting for president next year, the largest in any CNN poll on enthusiasm about voting in a presidential election, which date back to 2003. Among Democrats, that figure has spiked from 46% last month to 58% now, while independents have held steady and Republican enthusiasm has climbed a more modest 7 points to 59%.
Democrats’ priorities in choosing their nominee may have shifted, according to the poll. The share who say it is more important to them that the party nominate a candidate with a strong chance of beating Trump over one who shares their positions on major issues has fallen to 47%, the smallest in CNN polling on this question so far. Meanwhile, the share who offer that both electability and issues are equally important has climbed to 11%, a new high.

Biden leads the field by a wide margin on electability: 40% call him the candidate with the best chance to beat Trump, while 16% choose Sanders, 10% Warren, 6% Bloomberg and 4% Buttigieg. Biden is also well ahead of the field on having the best chance to unite the country (37% Biden, 14% Sanders, 10% Warren, 7% Buttigieg and 5% Bloomberg).
On the issues, however, Sanders holds the lead: 28% say he agrees with their views on the issues that matter most to that voter — with Biden at 19%, Warren at 15%, Buttigieg at 10% and Bloomberg at 5%. Sanders also leads on empathy (26% to Biden’s 18%, Warren’s 16% and Buttigieg’s 9%) and honesty (27% Sanders, 21% Biden, 13% Warren, 8% Buttigieg and 5% Yang).

The second new poll comes from NBC News and The Wall Street Journal:

WASHINGTON — Former Vice President Joe Biden remains the frontrunner in the race for the Democratic nomination, while Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren has returned to the level of support that preceded her autumn surge, a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows.

Biden gets the support of 28 percent of Democratic primary voters, statistically unchanged from his standing in the NBC/WSJ October poll, while Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders stands at 21 percent and Warren has 18 percent.

Warren’s 18 percent share is a 5-point drop from her level of support in October and a 7 point fall from her peak in September.

The trio of top candidates is trailed by South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg at 9 percent, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar at 5 percent, former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg at 4 percent, and businessman Andrew Yang at 3 percent.

Both Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker have the support of 2 percent of Democratic primary voters, while the remainder of the candidates — businessman Tom Steyer, former Housing Secretary Julian Castro, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, former Maryland Rep. John Delaney, former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and author Marianne Williamson — receive 1 percent support or less.

In addition to these polls, there have been a number of new polls released over the past several weeks, all of which can be found in the table for the RealClearPolitics average for the race. As for the average itself, it shows the following:

  1. Joe Biden — 27.8%
  2. Bernie Sanders — 19.3%
  3. Elizabeth Warren — 15.2%
  4. Pete Buttigieg — 8.3%
  5. Mike Bloomberg — 5.0%
  6. Amy Klobucher and Andrew Yang — 3.3%
  7. Cory Booker — 2.5%
  8. Tulsi Gabbard — 1.7%
  9. Tom Steyer — 1.5%
  10. Julian Castro — 1.3%
  11. All other candidates at or below 1%

Looking at the RealClearPolitics chart, here’s what the race looks like:

Looking at the state averages, we see the following:

  • In Iowa, Pete Buttigieg remains in the lead at 22.0%, followed by Bernie Sanders at 20.0%, Joe Biden at 18.8%, Elizabeth Warren at 16.0%, Amy Klobuchar at 6.3%, Cory Booker at 2.8%, Andrew Yang at 2.3%, Tulsi Gabbard at 2.0%, Mike Bloomberg at 1.3%, and all other candidates under 1%;
  • In New Hampshire, the average has Bernie Sanders, who won the Granite State primary in 2016, at 19.0%, Pete Buttigieg at 17.7%, Joe Biden at 14.3%, Elizabeth Warren at 13.3%, Tulsi Gabbard at 5.7%, Andrew Yang at 4.7%, Tom Steyer at 2.7%, Amy Klobuchar at 2.0%, Cory Booker at 1.7%, and all other candidates at or below 1%;
  • Nevada has not seen much polling, but the average there currently puts Biden at the top at 29.0%, Warren at 20.0%. Sanders at 19.8%, Buttigieg at 7.3%, Harris at 4.0%, Steyer at 3.5%, Yang at 3.0%, Klobuchar at 2.0%, Booker at 1.3%, and all other candidates averaging at or below 1%;
  • In South Carolina, former Vice-President Biden continues to maintain a strong lead at 35.0%, Warren in second place at 16.3%, Sanders at 15.3%, Buttigieg at 7.7%, Steyer at 4.0%, Yang at 2.5%, Booker at 3.0 %, Gabbard and Yang at 2.0%, Klobuchar at 1.3%, and all other candidates under 1%.

Thanks to a significant increase in the debate criteria, this will be the smallest debate stage we’ve seen so far for any Democratic Debate. The only candidates who have qualified are Vice-President Biden Senators Sanders, Warren, and Klobuchar, Tom Steyer, and Andrew Yang. At the very least this should allow for more time for the candidates to set forth their positions in a way that the previous ten-person debates did not. This debate could also be the last chance for candidates like Amy Klobuchar to breakthrough in early states such as Iowa.

Debate coverage begins at 8 pm tonight on your local PBS station and also on CNN and its cable and streaming apps. We’ll have a wrap-up post up tomorrow morning.

FILED UNDER: Bernie Sanders, Campaign 2020, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Politicians, US Politics, , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook


  1. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    The problem with money in politics…Booker and Harris should be on this stage…Steyer should not.

  2. Harris did not fail for lack of money, she failed because she was a bad candidate, and had she stayed in the race she would have been in this debate.

    Booker is failing because he’s just not a good campaigner.

  3. ed pyett says:

    Biden is done tonight…fried
    doctor says he has heart condition
    Michelle to VP for Warren

  4. David S. says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Nevertheless, there’s still no reason for Steyer to be on that stage. Especially since his entire platform is to do something that happened yesterday.

  5. wr says:

    @ed pyett: “Biden is done tonight…fried
    doctor says he has heart condition”

    Are fried doctors better than grilled ones?

  6. @David S.:

    He met the debate criteria both in terms of small-donor fundraising and polling

  7. Biden’s “heart condition” is an irregular heartbeat, an easily treatable and largely benign condition,

  8. More details:

    The new records show that Biden has a history of atrial fibrillation, which was discovered during a routine check before he had his gallbladder removed in 2003. Biden has never required any medication or electrical treatments, but he does take a blood thinner. He also uses over-the-counter esomeprazole for gastroesophageal reflux and uses Allegra and Dymista to treat his sinus symptoms.

    The Mayo Clinic has more information on atrial fibrillation

  9. Gustopher says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Booker is failing because he’s just not a good campaigner.

    How would anyone know?

    I’ll reserve judgement on whether he is a good campaigner for when he gets a moment in the spotlight and fails to capitalize on it.

    I think Booker is completely the wrong man right now and has utterly failed to resonate — not enough visible fight in him. But I think that says as much about right now as it does about Booker.

  10. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Absolutely correct on the A-fib issue. I’ve had it for 15 years so far; it’s no big deal.

  11. Gustopher says:

    My new cat (Pork Chop? Flapjack?) keeps attacking my iPad every time Bernie Sanders speaks.

    Seems a little harsh to me, but what do I know?