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Could 2020 Democratic nomination still be up for grabs come convention?

Wednesday's fiery 2020 Democratic debate came at a critical moment in the campaign, right before the Nevada caucuses and with early voting underway in a dozen states. Judy Woodruff talks to ABC News’ Matt Dowd, former chief strategist for President George W. Bush’s reelection campaign, and Democratic campaign advisers Michael Meehan and Iam Sams about debate performance and the race’s unknowns.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And so, after last night's drama-filled debate in Las Vegas, where does this unpredictable race for the Democratic nomination stand?

    Michael Meehan was a longtime aide for congressional Democrats and on Democratic campaigns, including then Senator John Kerry's 2004 presidential bid. Ian Sams most recently served during this current election cycle as the campaign press secretary for Senator Kamala Harris. And Matthew Dowd, he was the chief strategist on President George W. Bush's reelection campaign in 2004. He is now a political analyst for ABC News.

    And we welcome all of you to the "NewsHour." Thank you for being here.

    Let's start out with considering this debate. Now that we have had a day to let it sink in, how does it change the shape of this contest?

    Ian Sams?

  • Ian Sams:

    I think that, first of all, the biggest answer — the biggest question that was outstanding was, how many people watched it? And we saw that it was upwards of 20 million Americans. That's a lot of people.

    So, there's no doubt that the debate will have some sort of lasting impact on this race. Now, we are really close to voting, which I think is why you saw so many candidates willing to go after one another last night and really draw a stark contrast between each other, because the pressure is on.

    You have to make moves right now if you want to win, especially with Bernie Sanders having a pretty commanding position atop of the field.

    And so I think what we saw last night was Mayor Bloomberg probably got brought down a peg by especially Elizabeth Warren's pretty searing attacks on his history and record. But whether or not all the benefit goes to her, I think, is still up in the air.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Michael Meehan, what changes, if anything, as a result of last night, do you think?

  • Michael Meehan:

    Well, I think Michael Bloomberg getting on a stage was sort of the big news.

    And I think the fact Iowa and New Hampshire didn't actually do the winnowing process in the way that they typically have done over the last 50 years, and so the pressure is high. People are voting in Nevada right now. And then you have South Carolina.

    But I think Bloomberg is looking for a do-over, for sure. He showed his rust. He totally has another chance. The good news for him, the calendar work for him. He gets back on the debate stage next Tuesday. He doesn't have to simmer for weeks and weeks before he has a chance to do better than he's done.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Matthew Dowd, how do you see the results of last night on this race?

  • Matthew Dowd:

    Well, to me, it was the most significant debate we have had thus far because of the timing that we're at and the number of viewers.

    If you think about this, the total number of people that are going to vote in the Democratic primaries and caucuses is right at around 20 million people. And that's basically how many watched that. So, to me, it's the most crucial part of the debate.

    I think you basically have one through five, the candidates that basically finished one through five in how well they did, the gap between them is much smaller than the gap between the number five candidate and the number six candidate, which was Bloomberg.

    I think his performance was bad for him. There's levels of bad. His was the worst level of bad in a debate for somebody that came from the mayor of New York. And so I think he finally came out from under the air cover of his TV ads. And I think voters wanted to see what he was like.

    And so as — I agree with the previous person that said, we don't know where, if he falls in the polls from where he's at today, where that's going to go to. Will it go to Joe Biden?

    I thought Elizabeth Warren's performance was very well done. That may give her another set of oxygen in this race to have her do well in Nevada and South Carolina. So this race is still full of many twists and turns.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, I was hoping that all three of you were going to tell me exactly where this thing stood right now, but it sounds like still very much in flux.

    My question, Ian, is how much in flux is it? Bernie Sanders is leading in a number of polls, as you all have suggested, but you do have this bunching of other candidates and this big question mark, Mike Bloomberg and all of his money.

    So, some people are already asking, does Bernie Sanders — could he possibly be so far ahead at this point, it's hard to catch up with him?

  • Ian Sams:

    Well, the lead-in package, I think, before we started having this conversation really hit the nail on the head when they showed Vice President Biden's comment, which was mirrored by every other candidate on stage last night, besides Bernie Sanders, that they may be willing to go all the way to the convention, as long as there are delegates coming into their campaigns, and as long as their campaigns have enough cash to stay afloat, and not fold, which really changes the game in this.

    Bernie at this point is probably on pace to get somewhere between 30 and 35 to 40 percent of the delegates, which is not a majority, over the next little bit, if nothing changes. And so Bernie is ahead right now.

    But as long as these other candidates are pocketing away some number of delegates, and not getting blown out completely, we could be in a situation where they're all willing to go to the convention and try to fight it out there.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Michael Meehan, are — am I hearing some of you say that literally any one of these six candidates could make it to the nomination?

  • Michael Meehan:

    Oh, for sure, because, while Bernie Sanders has a lead, the lead is one delegate. I mean, the Buttigieg campaign would say, we're tied with you in delegates as we sit here this far out.

    So I think that any one of the six, for various reasons. Bloomberg didn't have a great performance, but he doesn't lose money because he doesn't need the money. Warren had a good night. She's going to raise a bunch of money online today. Sanders has a huge ability to continue to fund himself all the way through to Milwaukee.

    So those kinds of dynamics mean that the caucuses — there's more people who already voted in this caucus than voted last time in 2016. And we haven't even reached the date of the caucus yet. So there is a high level of energy and everybody is pretty bunched in between 25 and 15 percent. It's a small amount of delegates that get determined by that number.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Matthew Dowd, wide open, to an extent, and yet a lot of angst in the — among Democrats about Bernie Sanders and the fact that he's shown the strength that he has.

  • Matthew Dowd:

    Yes, it's fascinating to me.

    There's angst for — there's angst about Bernie Sanders, but there's angst about Joe Biden, and there's angst about Elizabeth Warren. And there's angst about — there's angst about almost every candidate in this race.

    I think what you have today is we have gone from one weak front-runner, Joe Biden, to no front-runner, to another weak front-runner in this.

    And I'm not a person that buys into this idea — the idea of electability, I think, is very ethereal. It moves and shapes in the race. I remember Bill Clinton in 1992 wasn't electable. Barack Obama wasn't the most electable candidate in 2008. And Donald Trump was certainly not the most electable candidate in 2016.

    All went on to win the presidency. So, I think deciding today who's the most electable or who's got the greatest vulnerabilities — I think everybody thought, wow, Michael Bloomberg is going to be powerful. Then he shows up at a debate and does awful. Then everybody's questioning now that.

    And so I think there are vulnerabilities that Bernie Sanders has, because of his self-label, his own labels on himself, but I don't think we really know where this race is going to go and who is the best candidate yet to beat Donald Trump.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, you do hear a lot of discussion, Ian Sams, about the so-called divide among Democrats over — the more liberal Democrats are in the Bernie Sanders camp, or they were in Elizabeth Warren, or maybe they still are, and then the more moderate Democrats.

    I think — I'm trying to understand, to what extent is each side saying, I'm not going to support your guy? If I'm a moderate, I'm not going to support Bernie. And, vice versa, if I'm a Bernie supporter, I'm not going to support anybody else out there.

  • Ian Sams:

    I don't think there's that high level of division in the party.

    I think that all the candidates specifically are saying, well, we will support the nominee no matter what. We have to. Donald Trump is an existential threat to the country, and we have to get him out of there.

    I think, the longer this goes on, it just depends on the tone and tenor of the race. I think last night was sharp, but I don't think that it was catastrophic. I think that it was people pointing out differences with each other and why certain opponents might not make the best nominee.

    But, right now, you do see, like, a lot more unity among the party and among the candidates than you do division. And I don't think that that's going to go away. You think back to 2008 or 2004, which Matt and Michael were both a part of that contest.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Ian Sams:

    The primaries were tough and sharp, and people hit each other, but came together at the end of the day, and then, 2008, won the election.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, Michael Meehan, you did hear Michael Bloomberg say last night, if Bernie Sanders is the nominee, he's going to lose Donald Trump. That was pretty definitive.

  • Michael Meehan:

    Well, I think we all run the last campaign over again, and Donald Trump won by 77,000 votes in three states.

    And so people make the premises of their campaigns on their ability to talk to those Midwestern states, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin. You flip 80,000 votes, someone else is in the White House.

    And Donald Trump is running the same play again. He hasn't changed his strategy a lick. So the question is, who can turn those 80,000 people in those three states? And that's why we're fighting over such a narrow sliver here.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we're looking at the polls from those three states and seeing some interesting numbers right now.

    But, Matthew Dowd, as somebody who has been — has been at the center of a campaign, in the other party, but watching the Democrats very closely, how do you see this party coming together eventually, or do you see this as something that could be really ugly right up until the end?

  • Matthew Dowd:

    Well, I remember very well when I was involved in 2000 for Bush, and — when Bush and McCain ran against each other. Talk about a bitter race that happened. The party came together because they had a — they had a principle that they wanted to get done, which is to win the race.

    I think one of the benefits the Democrats have that they have not had in a long time is, there is a unifying principle in the Democratic Party today among all voters, every single voter, which is Donald Trump. They do not want Donald Trump to be president for another four years.

    So I think, by the time the conventions comes, they're going to have to iron some things out, they're going to have to work out what's the best way to go in this, because I think for sure we're going to go into the convention where nobody has the total number of delegates when they walk in, but I think Donald Trump will help them unify the party.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, it's every reporter's dream to get to a convention where the results are a surprise.

  • Michael Meehan:

    And every operative's nightmare.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And every operative's nightmares. You're right.

    But we will — what a story we have, and so important to pay close attention.

    Ian Sams, Michael Meehan, Matthew Dowd, thank you all.

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