Who Won the Fifth Democratic Debate? Analysis of the Winners, Losers and Highlights

For the first time in this election season's Democratic debates, the candidate who came in as frontrunner finished the evening unscathed. Pete Buttigieg, now leading in Iowa, took a couple of hard hits from fellow military veteran Tulsi Gabbard but didn't wobble. The night's other big winner was Senator Kamala Harris, who came into the Wednesday debate in the opposite position, having started the campaign season strong and then fading.

Harris, who has been struggling in the polls and has had to lay off staff to refocus on early caucus states, came out fighting Wednesday night. She was also part of a significant debate moment: for the first time, there were more women than men on stage, with four women candidates and an all-women moderator panel. And their presence dominated. In the first hour, three of the top four candidates with the most speaking time were women: Senators Harris, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar.

Of the six men on stage, Buttigieg was expected to leave tonight looking, at the very least, like he got into a schoolyard yelling match, if not battered and bruised. When Warren briefly eclipsed former Vice President Joe Biden before October's debate, nearly all the candidates—led by Buttigieg—turned on her. So when Mayor Pete leapfrogged into first place in Iowa ahead of tonight's debate, pundits were ready for a fight.

Women for the Win

Fifth Democratic Debate
Democratic presidential candidates Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) (L), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), (R) participate in the Democratic Presidential Debate at Tyler Perry Studios November 20, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. Alex Wong/Getty Images/Getty

All three women senators were expected to come out swinging against Buttigieg: Warren in response to his jabs at her about paying for Medicare for All in October, Klobuchar over the issue of sexism that she intimated had favored the city mayor and Harris over a Buttigieg campaign misstep that saw a stock photo of a Kenyan woman used to illustrate an African American woman on his website.

And while Klobuchar and Harris did take their shots, they spent most of their early speaking time focusing on women voters (and in Harris' case, on issues that particularly affect women of color).

"Women are held to a different standard. Otherwise we could play a game up here called Name Your Favorite Woman President. They've all been men," Klobuchar said to laughter from the audience. "I think every working woman knows what I mean. We have to work harder. That's a fact."

She cited her own record of winning elections and added, "It you think a woman can't beat Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi does it every single day."

The panel also provided considered questions on a paid parental leave and plans to pay for childcare, an issue that probably took up more time than other debates have spent talking Vladimir Putin. The candidates who spoke about abortion rights said that support for choice is, and should be, a litmus test for Democratic candidates—a position that Gabbard, who favors tight restrictions on third-trimester abortions, may not agree with.

Entrepreneur Andrew Yang got in a good line: "There are only two countries in the world that don't have paid family leave for new moms: the United State of America and Papua New Guinea. That is the entire list, and we need to get off that list."

Kamala Goes All In

Harris, whose campaign has been struggling in no-(wo)man's land, repeatedly drew attention to the plight of black women, who have historically been the backbone of the Democratic party. Kamala criticized the party at large for not doing more for these voters outside of election season.

"Folks get tired of saying oh thank me for showing up, and say—well, show up for me!" she said.

But her strongest, and most strategic, moment came early in the evening when she boldly criticized Gabbard for dissing the Democratic party and "buddying up" to Steve Bannon. "We have someone on this stage that is attempting to be the Democratic nominee for president of the United States, who during the Obama administration spent four years full time on Fox News criticizing President Obama."

Mayor Pete's Enduring Endearment

Fifth Democratic Debate
Democratic presidential hopefuls, Mayor of South Bend Pete Buttigieg (L), Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren (C) and former Vice President Joe Biden, arrive onstage for the fifth Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season co-hosted by MSNBC and The Washington Post at Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta, Georgia on November 20, 2019. SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images/Getty

Buttigieg and Gabbard had the fiercest exchanges of the night. She criticized him for saying he'd employ troops in Mexico; he fired back that the comment was taken out of context. He lambasted her for meeting with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, and she smacked him for lacking courage. The crowd loved the fireworks but seemed equally delighted by both sides.

Warren, likely wary of waking October's Medicare for All beast, left well enough alone. But Klobuchar and Harris were asked outright about their criticisms of Buttigieg and, well, walked right past.

Klobuchar went first. One of the moderators asked her what she meant by a recent comment that, "Of the women on the stage, do I think we would be standing on that stage if we had the experience he [Buttigieg] had? No, I don't." In her reply, the Minnesota senator carefully avoided taking on the mayor directly.

"Pete is qualified to be up on this stage and I'm honored to be standing next to him," she started her answer.

And Harris pulled off a similar move when asked about the stock photo error on Buttigieg's site that she quipped about just days ago. "The mayor has made apologies for that," she said, before pivoting to focus on black voters.

Buttigieg hit all his talking points, kept his cool, and even managed to squeeze in a line that Forbes had ranked him as "literally the least wealthy person on this stage."

Electability, Schmelectability

Biden couldn't even get out his first sentence without stammering, "who is most likely to win the presidency in the first place?" Polls say he's still in a good position, but the fact he could hardly get the statement out shows that candidate may not be him. Biden continued to play his Obama card--"I come out of the black community.. In terms of my support and cite his vast experience in Washington, which may not play as well with many voters as Buttigieg's selling point of not having vast (or any) experience in Washington.

Minutes later, Biden's first gaffe appeared in talking about his health care plan that would "not make people choose. Allow people to choose, I should say."

Later on, when talking about violence against women, he said that politicians and society need to "keep punching at it, keep punching at it." Not a great choice of words. He said men should never raise a hand to a woman "except in self-defense, which rarely happens."

These sorts of gaffes don't seem to have mattered in the past to Biden voters. Still, when he started the campaign the nomination was his to lose--and he seems up to the task of losing it.

Candidates Looked Like They Were... Having Fun

Democratic Debate Kamala
Democratic presidential hopefuls Former Vice President Joe Biden and California Senator Kamala Harris share a laugh during the fifth Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season co-hosted by MSNBC and The Washington Post at Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta, Georgia on November 20, 2019. SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

There was another Biden gaffe when he spoke of getting the support of "the only black woman to be elected to the Senate." There was a pause as Senator Cory Booker looked across the stage and Harris could be heard yelling, "No, I'm standing right here."

Moments earlier, Booker redirected a question thrown his way, saying, "I'd like to return to the issue of black voters, I've been one my entire life." The audience loved it, nearly as much as when Booker said he thought Biden "might have been high" when the former veep said he opposed legalizing marijuana.

In other news, Warren had a plan, Bernie Sanders called for political revolution and Tom Steyer talked about climate change. As the field whittles down and the caucuses get closer, the candidates actually seem to be enjoying themselves more, which made for a more entertaining debate.

The next Democratic debate is December 19.

The infographic below, provided by Statista, illustrates the number of minutes spoken by debate participants.

Democratic Debate 20 November Minutes Spoken Statista
Minutes spoken by candidates in the November 20 Democratic debate. Statista

This article was updated to include an infographic.