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The Also-Rans Still Running

The South Carolina debate could have been a defining moment for the 2020 race. It wasn’t.
February 26, 2020
The Also-Rans Still Running
CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA - FEBRUARY 25: Democratic presidential candidates former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) interact at a break during the Democratic presidential primary debate at the Charleston Gaillard Center on February 25, 2020 in Charleston, South Carolina. Seven candidates qualified for the debate, hosted by CBS News and Congressional Black Caucus Institute, ahead of South Carolina’s primary in four days. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Imagine a person who had paid no attention whatsoever to the 2020 Democratic presidential primary race until Tuesday night’s debate in South Carolina. Even this blessed naïf, this unspoiled cherub, this lucky novice—yes, even this fortunate soul would be able to understand immediately who was in the lead as all of the candidates focused their fire on Bernie Sanders and Michael Bloomberg.

Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar attacked Sanders for being too radical and turning away key Democratic constituencies, especially the formerly Republican suburban women who gave Democrats control of the House of Representatives in 2018. Joe Biden and Klobuchar criticized Sanders for being an unproductive legislator. Elizabeth Warren gently critiqued Sanders for being a slightly not-as-good version of her.

And everyone piled on Michael Bloomberg for being a rich former Republican who enforced stop-and-frisk while mayor of New York.

Tom Steyer occasionally said some things, too.

At no point in the debate did any of the other candidates have to endure the kind of fire that Sanders and Bloomberg did in the opening segments. But that’s what happens to frontrunners.

There’s a chance—there’s always a chance, at least in the sense of cosmic possibilities—that one of the other candidates could still become the nominee, but since they all seem to agree on who the leading candidates are, who am I to disagree?

Elections aren’t predetermined. If they were, there would be no campaigns, much less dozens of televised debates. Any of these candidates, give or take a few lucky breaks, could have been the frontrunner. So it’s worth revisiting how the race turned out this way, and cataloguing the moments that condemned—for now—each campaign to also-ran status.

Klobuchar: The biggest moments in Klobuchar’s campaign have been her debate performances after the Iowa caucuses; they’re the only reasons she’s still around. When she’s able to overcome her apparently gut-wrenching disgust at the mere thought of Buttigieg, she makes an effective case not only for herself (centrist, pragmatic, accomplished, electable) but for her ideology. She’s an effective antagonist to the pie-in-the-sky plannifying of Sanders and Warren. But the reason her campaign is consigned to the second tier is that none of these moments happened before Iowa. She peaked too late. Though perhaps not too late to win the VP race.

Biden: The former vice president’s most important moment wasn’t in May 2019, when his polling averages soared over 40 percent. Nor was it his dramatic slide at the beginning of February, in which he clearly ceded the status of national frontrunner for the first time. The reason Biden isn’t the prohibitive favorite—the reason the Democrats are poised, for the first time in history, to deny their nomination to a vice president seeking it—is that Biden missed the impeachment moment. His campaign plan was always to run against President Trump in the primary, and the Ukraine scandal gave him an opportunity to do just that. It took him entirely too long to defend his son’s honor and his own, and to point out that the president’s fear of running against Biden was the motivation for the scandal itself. Had he made those points more clearly, more vociferously, and earlier, he could have made every other candidate look small in comparison. Instead, for whatever reason, he shrank from the moment.

Warren: In Policy Paradox: The Art of Political Decision Making, political scientist Deborah Stone describes the many benefits politicians derive from rhetorical vagueness. It unites different constituencies that favor the same policy for different reasons. It gives politicians room to negotiate compromises, which is still a thing that goes on in politics outside Congress. It allows politicians to claim that they “accomplished” things that they “promised” to do. And it provides a supple signaling mechanism for various kinds of collective-action problems. But nothing in Stone’s volume envisioned delaying a health care plan for months, only to roll out a nonsensical white paper that the candidate then disowned. Especially when that candidate has a Sam-and-Diane relationship with the truth. That’s what sank the Warren campaign.

Buttigieg: Mayor Pete was robbed twice. The first time was when the Iowa caucus debacle deprived him of his victory night. The second time was when Klobuchar decided to start being good at debates all of a sudden and rocketed out of nowhere to a strong third-place finish in New Hampshire. Had she maintained her earlier pattern of unmemorable debate performances, Buttigieg likely would have won the New Hampshire primary and would be one of the frontrunners heading into South Carolina and Super Tuesday. Instead, he’ll have to wait to run for president again until he’s (gasp) 42 or 46.

And even though Sanders and Bloomberg aren’t also-rans, they can’t both be the nominee, so I’ll say a few words about each of them, too:

Sanders: Tuesday night’s debate probably won’t be the thing that arrests Sanders’s rise (if anything does). While the rest of the candidates finally focused their attention on him in South Carolina, their punches probably won’t make a serious dent in his support in the Super Tuesday states. This debate didn’t change the fundamental question that has persisted about Bernie’s campaign since the end of January: Will someone be able to gather more support than he has?

Bloomberg: Bloomberg’s candidacy has been based on a set of assumptions: 1) Joe Biden’s support would collapse. 2) The non-Sanders vote would splinter. 3) It is theoretically possible for a mega-billionaire centrist to spend enough money before Super Tuesday to amass a plurality of delegates, or at least enough to be the kingmaker at a brokered convention. What Bloomberg didn’t account for were other strong centrist candidates in the race. Buttigieg kinda-sorta won Iowa and Klobuchar outperformed in New Hampshire enough to keep her campaign alive. If Bloomberg’s master plan fails, it’ll be because he didn’t start it early enough to prevent Pete and Amy from (however briefly) establishing themselves, not because of anything that happened on a debate stage.

Oh, I almost forgot:

Steyer: Yeah, good. Okay.

Benjamin Parker

Benjamin Parker is a senior editor at The Bulwark.