Who Won The Seventh Democratic Debate In Iowa? Analysis of the Winners, Losers And Highlights

Elizabeth Warren sorted the candidates on the stage Tuesday night into winners and losers. "Look at the men on this stage," she said. "Collectively, they have lost 10 elections. The only people on this stage who have won every single election that they've been in are the women: Amy and me."

That was the biggest applause line of the night from any candidate, and Amy--Senator Klobuchar, that is--was happy to follow it. "So true!" she called out, before the Midwest lawmaker rolled out her favorite debate catchphrase, which she wheeled out twice during the evening: "I have won every race, every place, every time."

Warren's gamble, taking on the issue of electability, paid off. She was the night's big winner. And, because a rising tide lifts all boats, Klobuchar was also able to seize the moments handed to her while still staying in her moderate lane, even taking on Warren's progressive health care policies at times.

Among the men, only Senator Bernie Sanders had a strong debate. He emphatically denied the story that he had told Warren a woman couldn't be elected president, rolled out the Bernifesto of policy points with his usual energy, and promised to support whoever becomes the Democratic nominee. ("I hope that's not the case, I hope it's me," he said.)

Former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg had a lackluster night, struggling to break through and pinpoint specifics on his plans. That wouldn't have been an issue a debate or two ago when he was riding high atop the polls, but the former Rhodes Scholar has since dropped back down (though he's still a top 4 contender) and he needed a strong performance to soar upwards again. He didn't get it.

Neither did former Vice President Joe Biden, but so far his stumbling debate performances haven't hurt him, and that seems to still be the case. Lastly, billionaire Tom Steyer was also on the stage. That's all that can really be said about him, so we'll move on.

Democratic Debate Elizabeth Warren Joe Biden
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) speaks as former Vice President Joe Biden listens during the Democratic presidential primary debate at Drake University on January 14, 2020 in Des Moines, Iowa. Scott Olson/Getty Images/Getty

Warren Takes on Sanders, And Wins

Warren's big moment of the night came after moderators first asked Sanders if he had, in fact, said a woman could not win the presidential election. He denied it completely, deeming the whole idea preposterous.

"As a matter of fact, I didn't say it," said Sanders. "Anybody knows me, knows that it's incomprehensible that I would think that a woman could not be president of the United States. Go to YouTube today, there's some video of me 30 years ago talking about how a woman could become president of the United States. In 2015, I deferred, in fact, to Senator Warren. There was a movement to draft Senator Warren to run for president. And you know what, I said, stay back. And when Senator Warren decided not to run I did run afterwards.

"Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by 3 million votes. How could anybody in a million years not believe that a woman could become president of the United States? And let me be very clear, if any of the women on this stage, or any of the men on this stage, win the nomination, I hope that's not the case, I hope it's me, but if they do I will do everything in my power to make sure they are elected to defeat the most dangerous president in the history of our country."

When asked how she responded to Sanders at the time, Warren was strong but not overly-rehearsed. "I disagreed. Bernie is my friend and I am not here to try and fight with Bernie," she said. She did not back away from the assertion that he'd made the comment. "But look, this question about whether or not a woman can be president has been raised and it's time for us to attack it head on. I think the best way to talk about who can win is by looking at people's winning record.

"So, can a woman beat Donald Trump? Look at the men on this stage," she said setting up her drop-the-mic moment about the male candidates' losing records.

Warren also doubled down with another surprising claim about her fellow candidates: "And the only person who has beaten an incumbent Republican anytime in the past 30 years is me."

But this point was a little murkier. Sanders contended that he, too, beat an incumbent Republican. You could basically see the gears turning in Warren's mind as she interrupted to ask, "Wasn't that 30 years ago?" Sanders confirmed that, yes, it was in 1990. There was a pregnant pause and both candidates looked confused and unsure as to how the other was defining "in the last 30 years." Moderators thankfully moved on but not before viewers made some quips:

Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren get sidetracked over whether 1990 was 30 years ago.

Somewhere, @AndrewYang shakes a fist at the TV and yells “Math!”#DemDebate

— Sabrina Siddiqui (@SabrinaSiddiqui) January 15, 2020

I hate it when Gam-Gam and Grampy argue over what year something happened#DemDebate

— Tom Nichols (@RadioFreeTom) January 15, 2020

Still, it was a smart play. Voters have shown hesitancy about Warren's electability and she tackled the concern head on, focusing on actual election results. But if she won the battle, she may still be losing the war. Twitter reaction to her "30 years" line was polarized, with plenty of Sanders fans enraged by what they saw a cheap shot. The current law of political physics is that every Warren action draws an equal and opposite surge for Sanders.

The exchange obviously stung Warren: when the debate ended she turned away from Sanders' proffered handshake—a clip you are likely to see repeatedly from now on, and which may further alienate Bernie's bros.

Let's Get Personal

Like Warren's hot minute, the other best moments of the night came when candidates stopped talking about themselves and rather focused on the thousands of people affected by policies.

Buttigieg deserves an honorable mention for being the first to try it, leaning on his personal experience serving in the military as Trump sends more troops to the Middle East.

"Whenever I see that happen I think about the day we shipped out, the time that was set aside for saying goodbye to family members," Buttigeg recalled about the last moments before his deployment. "I remember walking with a friend of mine, another lieutenant I trained with, as we walked away, and his one and a half year old boy was toddling after him, not understanding why his father wasn't turning back to scoop him up but it took all the strength he had to not to turn around and look at his boy one more time. That is happening right now by the thousands as we see more troops sent into harm's way."

But no one could top Klobuchar's impressive bait-and-switch from a rather dry question on the USMCA to a heart-felt story of workers left behind by Trump's trade war.

"I will never forget going to Crawfordsville, Iowa. I went to this plant and there was one worker left in that plant. That plant had been shut down because of Donald Trump's trade policies, and because of what he had done to those workers, giving secret waivers to oil companies and ruining the Renewable Fuel Standard. That worker brought out a coat rack of uniforms and said, 'These are my friends and they don't work here any more.' And their names were embroidered on those uniforms: Derek. Mark. Salvador. These are real people hurt by Donald Trump's trade war."

It was a smart move by Klobuchar, whose campaign claimed she is the only candidate on tonight's stage to have visited all 99 Iowa counties. With just weeks to go until the Iowa caucuses, that non-stop campaigning is something she could have leaned into even more.

Democratic Debate Elizabeth Warren Bernie Sanders
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speak as Tom Steyer looks on after the Democratic presidential primary debate at Drake University on January 14, 2020 in Des Moines, Iowa. Scott Olson/Getty Images/Getty

No One Likes Dictators

There were strong disagreements on the stage tonight, particularly about health care and trade ("Joe and I have a fundamental disagreement here, in case you haven't noticed," Sanders joked at one point). But, the debate's focus on Iran and U.S. troops for the first 30 minutes, made clear that when it comes to foreign affairs there's barely a hair between them.

The lightest moment came when Biden began referring to himself in third person in response to a question about Trump's three meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

"I would not meet with the "Supreme Leader," who said Joe Biden is a rabid dog who should be beaten to death with a stick," the former vice president said.

"Other than that you like him?" Sanders said..

"Other than that I like him," Biden responded. "And then he got a love letter from Trump right after that."

Standing center stage, Biden and Sanders had the chance to steal tonight's limelight. Instead, they did well enough that it's unlikely they'd be knocked off their top positions in Iowa's polls. But with just 20 days left until the caucuses, Warren made a strong case tonight for the state's thousands of undecided voters. If her argument on electability gets through to voters, it could be enough to knock one of them off their perch.

The graphic below, provided by Statista, illustrates the number of minutes spoken by each candidate during the debate.

7th Democratic Debate Minutes Spoken Statista
Number of minutes spoken by each candidate during the debate. Statista

This article was updated to include an infographic.