Kessel: A Pre-Nevada Democratic Outlook

Zach Kessel, Columnist

We’ve seen this movie before.

Things got heated in the Wednesday night Democratic debate before the Nevada caucuses. However, instead of casting their ire towards frontrunner U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the candidates lined up in a circle, faced each other, and shot.

Anyone who’s followed electoral politics over the past five years understands what the circular firing squad does.

Back in 2016, when Donald Trump held a commanding lead in the polls, his Republican opponents had two options: either take direct shots at Trump in hopes of chipping away at his lead, or try to stamp out any non-Trump opposition. Each Republican candidate chose the latter, aside from former Wisconsin governor Scott Walker — who dropped out much earlier than expected, ostensibly thinking that other Republicans would do the same and voters would coalesce around a non-Trump candidate. We all know how that worked out.

Wednesday night, the Democrats took the second approach as well. Instead of attempting to knock down Sanders ahead of an incredibly important primary state, they turned on each other. Heading into the Nevada caucus, and after a streetfight of a debate, it’s worth looking at where each of the eight remaining candidates stand.

Bernie Sanders

RealClearPolitics’ polling average has Sanders as a ten-point favorite, polling at 28.6 percent nationally. In Nevada, he’s doing even better, coming in at an even 30 percent and leading Joe Biden by 14 percentage points.

Sanders was the clear winner of Wednesday’s debate. The frontrunner escaped any serious attacks and was able to communicate his message effectively and clearly. This is where the Democrats’ strategy needs to change.

Sanders has a high floor, but also a low ceiling. While he can definitely poach most of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Mass.) supporters if she drops out, it’s hard to see any supporters of other candidates rallying to his side. Wednesday night was when the Democrats should have tried to chip away at his lead. Former South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D-Ind.) and former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg were the only candidates who made concerted efforts to go after him, but each had rough nights themselves.

Sanders, many have written, is running a campaign very similar to Trump’s in 2016 — the clear leader of one wing of the Democratic Party facing myriad candidates in the more mainstream wing. If any of the moderates want to defeat Sanders, their best move would be to drop out. What the moderates need is one candidate. The issue, though, is that it’s not clear who that candidate will be, which brings me to the former frontrunner.

Joe Biden

The former Vice President had perhaps his strongest debate yet, but it may not be enough. After disappointing — though not damning — finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, Biden desperately needs a strong showing in Nevada. If he doesn’t place a strong second, his campaign is effectively over, regardless of how he does in South Carolina. This debate should be a boon for him, but momentum is not on his side, and at this point in a primary, momentum is everything. Speaking of momentum…

Mike Bloomberg

Bloomberg’s long-awaited debate debut did not go as planned. While he held his own when discussing electability, the environment and gun safety, he was woefully unprepared to defend his record on sexual harassment allegations, his answer when probed by Warren on non-disclosure agreements left much to be desired for his supporters and multiple other candidates hit him hard on stop-and-frisk. The question is: does that matter?

Bloomberg did have some good moments, like when he brought up the fact that he was the only candidate on the debate stage who has started a business, and when he hit Sanders with the line, “the best known socialist in America is a millionaire who owns three houses.”

Bloomberg’s strategy thus far has been a massive ad campaign, and that campaign has worked. Since January 1, Bloomberg has risen from 4.8% in the polls and in fifth place to 15.9% and creeping up on Biden’s second-place spot. For the majority of voters, who don’t watch the debates, Bloomberg’s stumbles won’t have much of an effect. There is still a compelling case to be made that he is the most viable of the moderate candidates, seeing as he polls far ahead of Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.).

If anything does get him, though, it’ll be the sexual harassment allegations and NDA questions.

Elizabeth Warren

At this point, she should drop out.

Yes, Warren had a good performance last night attacking Bloomberg’s record, but that shouldn’t be her strategy. Maybe if she had positioned herself as a more mainstream Democrat from the outset, her campaign wouldn’t be flailing, but here we are.

Warren’s only hope was to cut into Sanders’ lead among progressives. She certainly can’t gain any traction in any other lane, seeing as Buttigieg and Klobuchar performed well in Iowa and New Hampshire. Warren’s lack of an ability to go up against Sanders means that she is no longer a viable candidate, and it’s too late for her to come back.

Pete Buttigieg

Buttigieg is one of the more interesting candidates still left in the race. He had a strong performance, save for his spat with Klobuchar about her forgetting the name of Mexico’s president. For a candidate whose major weakness is the appearance of ambition and condescension, that could have been a moment to — to use Marco Rubio’s ill-fated expression — “dispel with this fiction.” Instead, he came off as a pompous Ivy-leaguer. A bad-faith attack like that will only serve to highlight his perceived disingenuity. Though he’s done well through New Hampshire, his low national polling numbers should give moderates pause.

Amy Klobuchar

The Bulwark’s Jonathan Last put it best when he wrote that “the tone of her voice suggested she would not be unhappy if Buttigieg tripped and fell into a wood chipper.” His line of attack was baseless, but Klobuchar’s defense wasn’t great, either. The only thing viewers gained from watching her Wednesday night was the knowledge of where Post-Its were invented. Though she has #Klobmentum or #Klobucharge or whatever you want to call it, her polling numbers should be worrisome to those who think she could be the last moderate candidate standing.

Tom Steyer

It still doesn’t really make sense that he’s running, but for some reason, he’s doing very well in South Carolina. Whoever finishes after him in that state is going to look terrible, which may mean the end for a campaign or two.

Tulsi Gabbard

Doing a good job of getting herself a Fox News gig after the election is over.

After Wednesday night, it is clear that Sanders is a strong front-runner, but his main challenger remains to be seen. Nevada will clear that up — if Biden performs well, he can regain the ground he’s lost. If not, even with the NDA attack, the moderate vote is Bloomberg’s for the taking. The moderates won’t have a chance, though, if they don’t go after Sanders. Come Saturday, we may see a field without Warren or Biden, and perhaps then voters will coalesce around an alternative to Sanders.

Zach Kessel is a Medill freshman. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.