If you thought Sen. Amy Klobuchar performed better than usual at last night’s Democratic debate, you’re not the only one.
A FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll of likely Democratic primary voters before and after Thursday’s presidential primary debate in Los Angeles found that the Minnesota senator saw the biggest boost, while one of her main targets, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, took a hit to his reputation as a star debater.
That’s not particularly surprising: As Vox’s Dylan Matthews and company noted, Klobuchar appeared more nimble and confident in her responses on Thursday evening compared with previous debates, and she landed several attacks on Buttigieg about both his inexperience and his relationships with rich donors.
The FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll took a look at how favorably respondents rated the candidates before the debate versus how debate-watchers rated their performances after. Former Vice President Joe Biden topped the rankings here, in contrast to some earlier debates in which he stumbled. He was followed closely by Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. To sum it up, the three frontrunners of the race were judged to have the best performances on Thursday — which, again, wasn’t especially surprising, considering that candidates who are already popular tend to be perceived positively during debates.
What does stand out in the poll, as FiveThirtyEight noted, is Buttigieg’s low ratings relative to how well-liked he was before the debate. He underperformed on Thursday, despite having previously outperformed his pre-debate ratings following a successful appearance.
As Vox’s Andrew Prokop pointed out, it was striking how candidates from both the left and center came out swinging for Buttigieg during the debate — and it seemed to leave an impression on the audience, too:
Overall, Buttigieg seemed to have been attacked more than the national frontrunner Biden — and the attacks on him were particularly dangerous because they came on two fronts. The candidates running to the left on economic issues (Warren and Sanders) slammed him for purported coziness with big donors, while the more moderate Klobuchar focused on his lack of experience. Voters considering Buttigieg heard two separate prominent arguments that could spur them to reconsider.
The FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll also pursued a more tangible line of inquiry, asking respondents which candidates they were thinking of voting for before and after the debate. Here, Klobuchar bested her rivals considerably, gaining over four points in the share of respondents who said they’d consider voting for her. By contrast, Biden and Sanders gained fewer than two points apiece, and entrepreneur Andrew Yang, Warren, and Buttigieg each gained less than a point.
As Vox’s Ella Nilsen pointed out, Klobuchar came out of her shell during Thursday’s debate — and it appears to have paid off:
Gone was the shaky candidate with the quivering hair that Rachel Dratch parodied on Saturday Night Live. In her place was a confident Klobuchar who was in a groove all night, with personal anecdotes, quippy one-liners about wine caves, a snappy moment telling Pete Buttigieg to respect the experience of his fellow candidates onstage, and clear, substantive responses to policy questions.
“We should have someone heading up this ticket that has actually won and been able to show they can gather the support that you talk about — moderate Republicans and independents as well as a fired-up Democratic base — and not just done it once,” Klobuchar told Buttigieg at one point, methodically dismantling his pitch for a fresh face in the White House. “I have done it three times. I think winning matters.”
There’s a clear strategy to Klobuchar going after Buttigieg — she wants to be the main moderate alternative to Joe Biden in the Democratic field. Voters in Iowa and New Hampshire who like Buttigieg often mention Klobuchar in the same breath. “Feisty” is often the word voters use to describe her, adding they think she could stand up to Trump — if she can only break through the Democratic pack.
When respondents were asked before and after the debate whether they believed a particular candidate could beat Trump — and to rank the candidate’s chances between 0 and 100 — Klobuchar stood out as the one who made the biggest impression. She gained 4 percentage points following her debate performance. Behind her was billionaire businessman Tom Steyer, with a gain of 1.7 percentage points, Yang with 1, Warren with 0.08, and Sanders with 0.02. Two candidates were perceived as having a lower chance of beating Trump after the debate: Biden, who dropped 0.06 percentage points, and Buttigieg, with a 0.08 drop.
Although debates tend to have a small, and often ephemeral, effect on presidential races, they can pique curiosity about more obscure candidates, or help trigger or slow the momentum of others. In a race as close and fluid as this, standout and lackluster performances are no small matter.