Yet another Democratic debate is in the books, the sixth one featuring several more contentious moments between the candidates that many expected to finally come. Elizabeth Warren faced off with Pete Buttigieg over fundraising strategies, while Amy Klobuchar got in some points on the candidates’ varied levels of experience. Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden had a fiery exchange late in the evening on health care.
Starting Line reporters were out at several debate watch parties, though as time has gone on, the number of neutral-site gatherings has declined. For the previous debate, we visited watch parties organized by the Buttigieg, Klobuchar and Warren campaigns, along with a neutral location. Last night, we attended watch parties for Biden and Sanders groups, as well as one neutral watch party at Progress Iowa’s event and Cory Booker’s office, where the candidate not on the debate stage held a phone bank with volunteers.
Some news outlets dubbed the sixth Democratic debate the “wine cave debate” over Warren’s attack on Buttigieg for hosting a high-dollar fundraiser at a fancy California winery. While that led to plenty of jokes on Twitter about wine caves, the underlying discussion was an important one over money in politics.
“I think the significance of that portion of the debate is that a lot of candidates speak on the necessity of taking money out of politics,” said Logan Haskill, 20, of Des Moines, at the Progress Iowa watch party. “This is difficult to do when big corporations and millionaires are contributing to candidates – thus the elites have a larger say due to their capacity to donate more. I think this was very well put by Warren and echoed by Sanders … I’m not sure how we’re supposed to trust Pete Buttigieg to take money out of politics.”
The Sanders watch party particularly enjoyed the exchange and the discussion over how much influence billionaires may have in the race.
“I liked Bernie calling out Biden and Buttigieg for billionaire donors,” said Derek Muse Lambert, 33, of Des Moines, at the Sanders event. “I’d say Bernie [won the exchange] for sure. He’s the only one who truly doesn’t have billionaire donors.”
But while the very online crowd may have better understood the wine cave reference (a photo of the Buttigieg event went viral earlier this week), not all the Iowans watching the debate knew the full story, though they mostly understood the issue around it.
“Is that about the big donors?” asked Mike Power, 55, at the Biden watch party, when asked about the wine cave. “I guess Citizens United is a dangerous thing to happen to this country. I think we are losing our voices.”
Even if people weren’t readily aware of the specifics of that back-and-forth, the money-in-politics issue still resonated with many.
“I think, at the heart, they were honest and respectful, but I think there needs to be pushback,” said Danielle Wirth, of Woodward, at the Progress Iowa event. “When you take money from billionaires and claim to be a more common person, it’s a tough spot.”
Others over at the Biden event weren’t that concerned about Warren’s criticism of Buttigieg’s fundraisers.
“The wine cave? Nobody cares. That’s a Bernie thing,” said Darrell Lewis, of Des Moines, at Biden’s event. “If I gave $2,800 to Biden, who cares? … Most people except politicos like us don’t even know that the maximum you can give is $2,800. Bernie and even Warren tonight would have you believe that at the wine cave they were giving him a half-million dollar check. Those people were giving him $2,800. That was it. And when push comes to shove, I don’t think people care.”
Later on in the debate, there was another flashpoint on the stage, this time between Biden and Sanders over their different health care policies.
“I mean, I agree with Bernie. I think the whole public option thing is a farce. I like single payer,” said Lambert at the Sanders event, who enjoyed the direct exchange on the issue. “I think it’s important to stand up for it and defend it.”
“Bernie came out on top of the health care debate,” added Dillon Baker, 31, of Des Moines, at the Sanders event. However, the policy debate was pretty familiar to him at this point. “For me, it’s still kind of the same. A lot of these people are on topic with what everyone else has said.”
But over at Biden’s watch party, support for the former Vice President’s position wasn’t simply centered on ideology or what they thought could get done. For some, keeping and improving the Affordable Care Act was very personal.
“That’s a huge issue for me. I happen to be a person living with HIV,” explained Darrell Lewis, who was a national DNC delegate for Howard Dean in 2004. “Thirteen years ago, I lost my health insurance. I found a pharmacy in Canada that illegally sent my drugs to me in the United States. I lost my health insurance because of preexisting conditions … I worked very hard to get the Affordable Care Act passed. I spoke a lot. I went around. That act has saved so many lives and it saved my life.”
Lewis was concerned about the more progressive candidates’ plans to completely overhaul the system and whether it would actually improve things.
“Bernie’s plan is dead on arrival and so is Warren’s,” he added. “Anyone who believes their plans have a chance is living in a fairytale world.”
Several political analysts noted that Biden had a particularly strong debate this time around, and several people at his watch party — including those who admitted he’d struggled in past debates — agreed.
“He doesn’t do that well in debates, but I think it’s because of his past and his stuttering and he likes to think things through,” commented Kim Burns, a retiree from Indianola at the Biden watch party. “He’s doing great tonight. Tonight he’s just right on.”
One thing that people at multiple watch parties agreed on: they were impressed by Klobuchar’s performance.
“I think Amy Klobuchar had a great showing,” said Wirth, at the Progress Iowa event.
Almost all the attendees at the Biden watch party mentioned Klobuchar in some way.
“I thought [Klobuchar] was the winner of the debate,” commented Lewis.
“I was surprised at Amy Klobuchar’s performance,” Power said. “I think it was more commanding than it has been in the past. I noticed Warren and Buttigieg lost their cool with each other. That was interesting to see because you see a little bit of their personality and what they do under stress. But one of them said this during the debate: any one of those persons on the stage would be better than what we have right now.”
While many at the Sanders event jeered the other candidates’ responses on stage, some were still open to the field. Nolan Crees, 26, from Hinton, was watching his first debate at the Sanders gathering. He was considering Andrew Yang and Warren, and wasn’t too much a fan of the contentious exchanges.
“That was a little uncomfortable. I’m not into the conflict,” he said. “Everyone here would be better probably [than Trump].”
While the seven Democrats debated on stage, one who was missing it for the first time was instead in Iowa. Booker visited his state headquarters in Urbandale, where a few dozen people had gathered for a phone bank. The candidate himself jumped on the phones for a while to chat with Iowans during the debate.
“I wish that he was on, because the more exposure, the more exposure, but I trust the universe,” said Elizabeth Sharp, one of Booker’s cousins living in Des Moines, at the office. “That the universe knows what its doing, and I believe that his footsteps are guided. And I pray that everything happens for a reason. And so we don’t sweat these things. He’s laying the groundwork here. And Iowa is a place where his focus needs to be right now.”
In talking with reporters later, Booker explained what issues he would have added to the debate that night.
“I’m the first candidate of either party in 20 years to talk about child poverty from the debate stage,” Booker said. “The first candidate in the history of our country to talk about what we’re seeing right now, which is a crisis for black trans women. I have a lived experience, that I know from traveling the country, that speaks as a guy who lives in a community below the poverty line, for 20 plus years.”
There was significant concern among Democrats that the level of candidate diversity on the stage was decreasing after Julian Castro and Booker failed to qualify and after Kamala Harris’ departure. Yang was the only person of color on the debate stage, and Booker noted he’d been exchanging texts with Yang about it.
While Booker was in Iowa working to win votes, Castro was running a TV ad in Iowa during the debate telling Iowans why the state shouldn’t go first in the primary process, a stance that Castro only took up recently. Other members of the Castro team seemed to attack Iowa voters themselves for supporting other candidates.
.@CoryBooker @JulianCastro Hey guys, I know you ran major cities but maybe if you spend some time running South Bend, Indiana, the people in Iowa and NH will think you’re qualified to be President. #JulianDebates
— Joaquin Castro (@Castro4Congress) December 20, 2019
Booker said he was optimistic about making the January debate stage.
“I think my staff said that in four polls we hit 4%, since they closed the debate criteria for this one,” Booker said. “We’ll see which ones are qualifying polls, and I’m just very confident I’ll be there in January.”
The senator also weighed in on the wine cave debate after being told that’s what the candidates were discussing on stage.
“If I was going to have a cave in my house, I’d put something better in it than wine,” Booker, who does not drink alcohol, said. “I might make it a sci-fi tribute, with a great TV for me to watch episodes of Star Trek.”
by Pat Rynard, with reporting by Josh Cook, Paige Godden, Nikoel Hytrek and Isabella Murray