Was last night's big debate winner not even on the stage? Update: Warren the 2020 Christie?

Was last night's big debate winner not even on the stage? Update: Warren the 2020 Christie?

Who won last night’s big debate in Nevada? We certainly know who lost it — Mike Bloomberg, in an almost Greek-tragedy sequence after his campaign’s hubristic call for the other candidates to withdraw from the race before he even stepped onstage. One could make the argument from that point that everyone who had a hand in Bloomberg’s destruction can claim to have won something in the debate. Call it the Murder on the Orient Express Debate, in that sense.

But if Bloomberg’s destruction is the measure, then first prize would have to go to the opponent who cut the deepest and the earliest, and that would be Elizabeth Warren. She’s getting her fair share of credit on line in the hours afterward, the BBC reports:

US Democratic presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren is being praised online for her fiery performance in a televised debate on Wednesday. …

The tone for the night was set when Ms Warren, a former teacher who has talked about her experiences of discrimination and unequal pay, branded Mr Bloomberg a “billionaire who calls women fat broads and horse-faced lesbians”. She repeatedly attacked his record on women’s rights, referring to private agreements he made to settle sexual harassment and hostile workplace lawsuits.

She continued her criticism in a tweet after the debate saying: “I hope you heard what Mayor Bloomberg’s defence of decades of mistreatment of women was: ‘I’ve been nice to some women.'”

The post was widely shared and #WarrenForTheWin was a top trend on Twitter on Thursday.

Warren did a great job as attack dog last night, but color me a little skeptical about this prompting a major renewal of interest in her as the nominee. She jumped into the race first, had her own boomlet a few months ago, and it dissipated when her “personal stories” turned out to be exaggerations and outright lies. It might generate some interest in Warren as a running mate, though, for a candidate who needs to come across as sweetness and light against Donald Trump’s chaos-agent persona. Amy Klobuchar would otherwise be the best choice for running mate in the field, but that presupposes a nominee in the Sanders mold.

If Bloomberg just peaked himself and is on his way out as a force in the primaries, then the obvious immediate beneficiary is Bernie Sanders. Sanders didn’t get many marquee moments in the debate, choosing instead to mainly launch secondary attacks on Bloomberg and stick to his script, but his momentum is strong enough to require only that much to keep going. A.B. Stoddard hits closest to the mark when she told MSNBC’s post-debate panel that the two big winners were Bernie Sanders, who stuck closest to his own script, and Donald Trump:

We’ll get back to Trump in a moment, but I’m also skeptical that Sanders won any long-term benefit, and he might have just seen his path to the nomination grow more complicated. Had Sanders led this attack on Bloomberg, he might have been the big winner. By allowing everyone else to score the major points, especially his closest ideological opponent Warren, Sanders allowed them all to breathe new life into their campaigns.

And that’s a problem for Sanders, not because they’ll overtake him, but because having severable viable opponents could preclude him from getting a first-ballot majority in the convention. Democrats’ proportional allocation of delegates makes it tough for Sanders to win that anyway, and having Warren and Biden catch a second wind threatens it even more:

While Sanders is projected to have a lead, the percentage of the rest of the delegates he needs to win will have gotten bigger. Right now he needs to win 50.3 percent of the remaining delegates. If he does as well as projected on Super Tuesday, he will have won only a bit over 40 percent of the delegates to that point, well off the 50-percent-plus pace. After Super Tuesday, then, he will need to win more than 56 percent of the remaining delegates, in part because there are far fewer delegates remaining.

That’s harder than it sounds, since delegates are awarded proportionately. Even if the field narrows to three candidates after Super Tuesday, those candidates will likely consolidate some support — and, therefore, will be more likely to hit the 15 percent threshold to earn delegates. If Sanders is at 55 percent in national polling after the field narrows and earns that percentage of delegates in each contest moving forward, he will not have enough delegates at the end of voting to clinch the nomination.

In that sense, the Democratic Party establishment might have been the biggest winner. Had Bloomberg cleaned up last night, he might really have made it a two-person race — and Sanders would have had an easy path to the majority of delegates, according to head-to-head polling between the two. This outcome made a brokered convention more likely, giving the party the opportunity to hand the nomination to someone else … but clearly not Bloomberg, not after this.

Even that victory has to be tempered, though, by the fact that Democrats probably did more damage to each other on stage last night than benefit. CNN’s panel coverage this morning featured a chyron calling it a “circular firing squad” and one that comes pretty late in the day. Even Claire McCaskill wondered about that last night on MSNBC, calling it a “presidential version of Survivor“:

That brings us to Trump, who spent the evening holding a rally in Arizona, a state that might swing either way in November. He certainly won the optics battle after his supporters carried a World War II veteran to his seat, in which Trump delighted during the speech:

At the very least, Boston Herald columnist Joe Battenfield writes, the Democrats’ “circular firing squad” had to make Trump smile:

Not a great night for Mike Bloomberg or the fractured Democratic Party.

Five of the six Democratic contenders on the Las Vegas stage spent the night launching withering attacks on Bloomberg in a wild shootout of a debate that exposed the simmering tensions within the party.

Bloomberg didn’t help himself with some flippant answers that will come back to haunt him. …

It was an ugly night all around for Democrats, and Trump had to be smiling if he was watching.

Democrats have a long way to go to unify their party and defeat Trump, and that was the real takeaway from this debate.

Plus, anything that either pushes Sanders into the nomination — setting up a socialism vs capitalism narrative in November — or pushes the Democrats to disenfranchise Sanders in a brokered convention helps Trump. This debate did one or the other, and likely a bit of both.

Update: Andy McCarthy adds his thoughts about Warren’s performance last night, analogizing her to Chris Christie almost exactly four years earlier:

It did, however, make Christie a little more visible as a running mate. Otherwise, this is a great point from Andy and one I’d not considered.

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