Democratic candidates convened yesterday evening in Ohio for their sixth debate of the presidential campaign season. The venue, Otterbein University in Westerville, was not chosen by accident. Ohio remains the bellwether in presidential races, having voted for the winner in 29 out of the last 31 national elections. Despite losing the national popular vote by two points in 2016, Donald Trump won the Ohio popular vote and its corresponding eighteen electoral votes by eight points, which suggests that Democrats have a lot of ground to cover in the coming year.
There were twelve candidates on stage, following a decision by the Democratic National Committee to limit the event to just one night. The unprecedented size of the field was not particularly conducive to a detailed discussion of public policy, which may explain why the candidates were often successful in executing the “pivot” - answering the question you would prefer to answer rather than the one that was actually posed.
Not surprisingly, the moderators raised the issue of impeachment immediately and each of the candidates took turns excoriating President Trump and expressing support for his removal from office. The topic of health care was next on the agenda and here again the rift among the leading contenders for the nomination was on display. Former vice-president Biden defended his support for a public option while Senators Warren and Sanders reiterated their support for the federal government as a single payer.
The difference last night was the animated criticism of “Medicare for All” from Mayor Pete Buttigieg. His more aggressive criticism of Warren and Sanders appeared to be an effort to distance himself from other second tier candidates and position himself closer to the political center as an alternative to Biden. His subsequent disagreements with Rep. Gabbard over foreign policy and former Rep. O’Rourke on gun control stood in stark contrast to his more amiable demeanor in past debates.
Senator Warren now shares “front runner” status with Biden, which may explain why she captured the most air time on stage. The senator was obliged to defend her policy proposals from criticism by almost all of her competitors. Nebulous answers regarding the need for a middle-class tax hike to pay for universal health care put her on the defensive but she parried the criticism effectively enough to cement her position as the leading progressive candidate opposing Biden for the nomination.
The biggest surprise of the night was the absence of climate change as a topic of discussion. According to a recent poll by Ipsos, it ranks among the top four issues in terms of importance to Democratic voters. Despite Senator Sanders’ repeated attempts to raise the topic, the moderators didn’t take the bait.
The debate underscored the difficulties facing second tier candidates in the race for the Democratic nomination. Senator Klobuchar and Mayor Buttigieg arguably made the most progress in distancing themselves from the rest of the pack chasing the three leading candidates, while Senator Harris probably lost some ground. And while there were no obvious gaffes, some of the candidates mired in single digits may encounter more fund-raising challenges in the weeks ahead.
Thomas McLoughlin, Head Americas Fixed Income, UBS Financial Services Inc. (UBS FS)