The final Democratic presidential debate before Iowans make their preferences known next month was a policy-heavy discussion that focused first on a topic not often explored over the past six debates: foreign policy.
Debate moderators from CNN and the Des Moines Register led Tuesday night’s debate at Drake University with the United States’ assassination of a top Iranian military general, asking the candidates to explain why they are best suited to serve as commander in chief, particularly in light of escalating tensions in the Middle East.
Starting Line reporters fanned out to candidates’ debate watch parties on Drake’s campus, including for Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren, as well as Papa Keno’s Pizzeria, where College Democrats gathered to watch the debate. We also were in the East Village with Bernie Sanders’ supporters and the Joe Biden field office in Des Moines.
Iowa was brought into the discussion on the second topic of the night: trade.
Klobuchar name-dropped Crawfordsville and the biodiesel plant that recently closed there, due in part to President Donald Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency and its proliferation of waivers to oil refineries as a way to skirt the Renewable Fuel Standard.
The elephant in the room was addressed when Sanders was asked whether he told Warren in 2018 that a woman couldn’t win the presidency. Sanders denied ever saying that, repeatedly reminding viewers that his 2016 Democratic rival Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by 3 million votes.
Warren did not take the opportunity to directly spar with Sanders, instead telling the crowd that the women on stage were the only politicians there to have defeated incumbent Republicans over the last three decades.
With that, Warren’s debate watch party at the Olmsted Center erupted into applause. Chants of “Warren, Warren, Warren” rang out as CNN cut to its first commercial break.
Across town, chants of “Bernie, Bernie, Bernie” broke out at his watch party in the East Village.
“Referencing closed-door discussions between candidates is a slippery slope. And I don’t find it necessary,” said Rachel Gulick, 33, of Des Moines, at the Sanders watch party. “The way they differ or align is important to me. To me, the point of that question is to pit two individuals who have very few differences against each other. I think they should be asking the pertinent questions about policy and platform. It’s stirring up the pot.”
Drake student Aspen Walters was deciding between Warren and Sanders and felt the “most important moment” at the debate was instead the discussion on climate change.
“I’m deciding between Bernie and Warren, so that whole incident with him supposedly saying a woman can’t be president was interesting to see come up over the last few days,” Walters said. “I’m not sure quite what I believe there, but I thought it was interesting how Warren did make that statement, but in the debate she decided not to speak much about it and say she wasn’t going to bash Bernie. I don’t know, I guess I’ll just brush that issue off and keep trying to decide.”
Others, like undecided Drake student Ian Klein, was glad the dispute didn’t take up too much time.
“It was one of those things that I’m glad was addressed, but I’m glad it wasn’t belabored to a point where it could have been an exhausting issue,” he said. “They addressed it and then they moved on to the other issues that most Americans think need to be discussed.”
When the conversation switched to health care in the second half of the debate, the moderators challenged Sanders to explain how his ‘Medicare for All’ health care proposal could be implemented with a $34 trillion price tag over 10 years.
Steve Wilson of Des Moines said he was “90%” behind Sanders and enthusiastically supported Medicare for All.
But in a debate largely devoid of drama, Wilson found the Sanders-Warren dispute entertaining.
“I liked it,” said Wilson, 35. “I thought his rebuttals to what she said was good. It was a good response. I think these things are kind of dry, and that mixes it up a little. It’s entertainment while you’re getting the facts.”
Drake student Sonita Van Der Leeuw attended the debate watch party at Cartwright Hall as an undecided caucus-goer and left as an undecided caucus-goer.
“The most interesting conversation for me was about public tuition, just because I’ve never really heard some of those points before,” said Van Der Leeuw, referencing the debate over whether the government should cover the cost of tuition at public colleges and universities.
“Tonight definitely helped me understand more of people’s values and where they’re coming from,” she said.
Cheyann Neades, a 20-year-old Drake student, said she was no closer to making a decision after tonight’s debate.
“I’m pretty sure that I’ll caucus for Warren, but right now I have to make sure that I’m 100% committed before I do anything,” Neades said. “In terms of policies and things like that, especially when they were just talking about health care and taxing the wealthy, I think that attracted me more towards her.”
With 20 days left until Iowans head to their caucus locations, Neades said she was “just going to wait and see what happens until then before making a decision.”
Foreign policy received far more attention tonight (about 30 minutes) than it has in past debates. Six candidates squabbled over the best way to keep American service members out of “endless wars” and whether combat troops were still necessary in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“I liked [Buttigieg’s] foreign policy answer,” said 64-year-old Kristi Mignano, of Des Moines, at the Buttigieg watch party. “I think he’s right. I have a bunch of friends that have kids, and my nephews went over to Afghanistan, and you don’t want to see anyone have to go through it. There’s no real reason to go.”
Tammy Clore came to Iowa from Duluth, Minnesota, to attend Klobuchar’s watch party at the Olmsted Center on Drake’s campus in downtown Des Moines.
“I’d like to hear more about foreign policy from all the candidates,” said Clore, 49. “That is really the most important job of president of the United States, and I think they did a better job of it in the last debate, but I’d like to hear more of it, especially with what’s going on.”
Out-of-state supporters and endorsers made up a significant portion of attendees at debate watch parties in Des Moines tonight. Iowans, unlike most voters in America, have been up-close with presidential candidates for more than a year at this point, perhaps resulting in a more diverse crowd of debate watchers eager to get in on the action that does not often touch their states.
At Klobuchar’s debate watch party, four buses full of supporters were brought in from her home state of Minnesota. And at Biden’s field office in Des Moines, the crowd was largely out-of-state campaign workers and high-profile endorsers like Brigadier General John Douglass, a former assistant secretary of the Navy.
To qualify for tonight’s debate, candidates needed to have at least 225,000 individual donations and had to earn 5% support in at least four national or early-voting state polls, or at least 7% in two early-voting state polls.
John Delaney and Andrew Yang were the only two candidates to hold events in Iowa today. Yang was on the debate stage in December, but failed to meet the Democratic National Committee’s polling threshold this time around. Delaney, who still is actively campaigning in Iowa, has not been on the debate stage since July. He did, however, run a 60-second TV ad statewide during Tuesday night’s debate.
By Elizabeth Meyer, with reporting by Josh Cook, Paige Godden, Nikoel Hytrek, Isabella Murray, Lauren Johnson and Jake Bullington