In the wake of last week’s Democratic presidential debate, the verdict of many in the pundit class was decisive on two points: South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg was the winner and Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren the loser.
“Buttigieg is dominating the debate,” tweeted CNN’s Chris Cillizza, who declared Buttigieg the top winner and Warren the number one loser in his post-debate rankings. (Cillizza previously declared Buttigieg the “hottest candidate in the 2020 race” back in March, right before Buttigieg flatlined and Warren surged.) Panelists on cable news joined the chorus: “I sort of call it a revenge of the pragmatic moderates, who I think really came out in full force," Democratic strategist Adrienne Elrod enthused on MSNBC. Many major news outlets anointed Buttigieg the winner and Warren a loser.
Voters took a different view. In FiveThirtyEight’s post-debate panel, Warren netted the highest overall score and outperformed all other candidates among voters most concerned about electability. Buttigieg made modest gains relative to his starting point, but they were more muted than the punditry’s reaction suggested. The polls conducted after the debate showed no significant change in the state of the race. As one summary put it, “Warren faced an uptick in broadsides from her opponents in Tuesday’s Democratic presidential debate, but it did not impact her standing among the party’s primary voters.”
It’s risky to conclude too much from a few polls, but a similar pattern occurred after the last debate. Joe Biden “delivered the kind of performance his supporters have been waiting for,” Dan Balz of the Washington Post wrote. “Moderates strike back on health care,” another analysis concluded. But after that debate, too, the FiveThirtyEight panel showed Warren the clear winner, and then events bore it out: Biden slid in the Economist’s average of polls while Warren surged and Bernie held steady. Biden’s fundraising collapsed, while Warren and Bernie posted massive hauls. Beyond Biden, no other moderates showed any meaningful upward trajectory in polls or fundraising.