Who Won the Democratic Debate? Strategists Weigh In

Twitter can’t tell us whether, or how, Friday’s ABC News/WMUR Democratic debate might change voters’ minds. But it can give us the perspectives of some of the people with expertise on primary races: veteran campaign strategists and consultants from both parties.

Here is a sampling of their reactions to the candidates’ performances.

Commentators were startled by former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s remark, “I took a hit in Iowa and I’ll probably take a hit here” — an unprompted declaration that he didn’t expect to do well in New Hampshire, even as he was ostensibly trying to do exactly that. But at least one thought he had a strong night over all — strong enough, in any case, to stop him from slipping further than he already has.

“Does Biden just head to SC tonight and camp out there? Because it seems that he just gave his New Hampshire concession speech a few days early.” — Mo Elleithee, executive director of the Georgetown Institute of Politics and Public Service and former Democratic National Committee spokesman

“‘What’s so bad about the past’ isn’t the message I see winning back 2020 voters.” — Jess McIntosh, SiriusXM host and former spokeswoman for Hillary Clinton

“.@JoeBiden has had a good night. Have to believe this will help keep some support that might otherwise got to @PeteButtigieg in NH on Tuesday.” — Jennifer Palmieri, former spokeswoman for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama

Former Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., got good reviews for some of his responses but stumbled on questions regarding race — a serious weakness for him, based on polls, as the 2020 campaign heads into more racially diverse states like South Carolina.

“.@PeteButtigieg turned the Soleimani question into a Commander-in-Chief answer that was very powerful.” — David Axelrod, director of the University of Chicago Institute of Politics and former chief strategist for Barack Obama

“.@PeteButtigieg is better at diffusing the Hunter Biden scandal than Hunter’s own father is.” — Frank Luntz, Republican consultant and pollster

“@PeteButtigieg started STRONG – but tough questions about race made him slide off the pavement.” — Van Jones, CNN commentator and founder of Dream Corps

Strategists and commentators were generally in agreement that Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota had a strong debate. They were less united on how much difference it would make.

“Very strong response from @amyklobuchar to @PeteButtigieg’s comments about the recent impeachment hearings. She’s having a good #DemDebate so far.” — Laura Belin, Iowa political commentator

“.@amyklobuchar was a real star. Folks are voting in just a few days so think this will translate into support in the voting booth.” — Jennifer Palmieri

“Klobuchar has had the most consistently solid debate performances that have consistently failed to move her into the top tier.” — Dave Wasserman, editor at Cook Political Report

Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont was one of two winners in the Iowa caucuses, along with Mr. Buttigieg, and they both had targets on their backs as a result. But strategists — even ones who disagreed with him ideologically — thought Mr. Sanders handled it well.

“.@BernieSanders speaks with passion and moral conviction, which is the core of his appeal, not his math.” — David Axelrod

“Genuinely pleased to hear Bernie admit that his view on guns has changed as the world changed. I don’t think he made that concession in 2016.” — Jesse Lehrich, former foreign policy spokesman for Hillary Clinton

“I apologize for those who will be offended/triggered: @BernieSanders is simply the best communicator out there for the things he believes in. It’s a perfect combination of politics, policy, and passion – the three P’s of great communication.” — Frank Luntz

The former hedge fund investor Tom Steyer got somewhat mixed reviews, but he had a particularly well-received moment in response to a question about race, reiterating his support for reparations.

“Really love @TomSteyer idea of setting up a national commission on race.” — Aimee Allison, founder of She the People

“.@TomSteyer gets really wound up and then his delivery is hard to follow.” — Jen Psaki, former spokeswoman for Barack Obama

“Again, actual campaign wisdom from Steyer. Either he has brilliant advisors and/or he has been doing excellent reading of the political science literature. Trump will win if the Dems don’t pull down approval of what he’s doing for the economy.” — Melissa Michelson, professor of political science at Menlo College

Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts finished third in the Iowa caucuses but had the third-least amount of speaking time in the debate — less than Ms. Klobuchar, who placed fifth, and significantly less than Mr. Biden, who placed fourth. But there was broad agreement that she made the most of the time she had, particularly on the subjects of race and abortion.

“This is when we see @ewarren shine. Her grounding & arc on explaining race analysis across policy areas is strong. It’s critical for eventual Dem nominee to do this well, not bc it sounds nice, but bc it’s key to building support in confronting systemic racism.” — María Urbina, national political director of Indivisible

“Well-deserved cheers for that answer: Warren doesn’t just support reproductive rights, she has a broader solution for protecting them.” — Christina Reynolds, spokeswoman for Emily’s List

“She’s doing more with less, which is probably a product of lived experience.” — Jess McIntosh

The entrepreneur Andrew Yang had far less speaking time than any other candidate — only about eight minutes over the more than two-hour debate — and some commentators said that made it difficult to judge his performance.

“You don’t have to hate anybody to be on @JoeBiden or @AndrewYang’s teams. I like that. If Yang’s mad at anyone, it’s robots. In the long run, he might have one of the most consequential voices. I wish he had more attention & a better night tonight.” — Van Jones

“Has @AndrewYang gotten two questions? I feel like this is only the second time I have heard from him.” — Jennifer Palmieri

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