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Emory election experts weigh in on Nov. 20 Democratic debate

Democratic presidential hopefuls participate in 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.

Photo by Saul Loeb / AFP via Getty Images.

The ten leading Democratic presidential hopefuls took the stage at Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta the evening of Wednesday, Nov. 20, for the fifth presidential debate.

The debate included New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker; Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard; Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar; Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg; Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren; former Vice President Joe Biden; Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders; California Sen. Kamala Harris; tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang and billionaire-philanthropist Tom Steyer.

In advance of the debate, Emory launched a new Election 2020 site featuring the university’s leading political experts on a variety of topics including polling, health care policy, gender and politics, race and politics, among other key issues. The site will be updated throughout the election season to serve as a resource for media with expert commentary, media coverage, events and more.

With less than 100 days before the first votes are cast, the race is quickly heating up. We tapped our Emory Election 2020 experts to weigh in on the debate outcome.


Andra Gillespie, associate professor of political science and director of the James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Difference

Many people were surprised by the relative dearth of attention local and state issues played in last night’s Democratic debate. They weren’t completely absent — the candidates did answer questions about voting rights and abortion — but their discussion demonstrated the nexus between national and local politics. The national journalists and their presidential candidate debaters were concerned about these local issues because of their connection to larger, national political debates.

The seeming lack of customization, though, disappointed some who wanted to see the candidates and moderators talk more about Georgia, a state that has become increasingly competitive electorally in recent years. While I understand the disappointment, I would argue that Atlanta was front and center in this debate in an important, symbolic way.

Staging this debate in Atlanta was important because of Atlanta’s regional and demographic importance. As the crown jewel of the South, Atlanta represented not just itself, but all Southern states with large black Democratic electorates whose votes the candidates need in order to secure the nomination.

Thus, the focus for the candidates was on black voters, not necessarily black voters in Atlanta or black voters in Georgia. And in particular, the focus was on black women, who make up a disproportionate share of the black vote.

Black women’s issues were highlighted — positively and negatively — in the debate. Sen. Kamala Harris was very effective when she highlighted how pay inequity affects women of color more acutely or how maternal mortality kills black women. And of course, former Vice President Joe Biden’s biggest gaffe was rendering Harris — a black woman — invisible onstage when he claimed that the only black woman senator had endorsed him.

It’s too early to say what the impact of these moments will be. The big question will be if black women shift their support as a result of last night. In particular, will black women supporting Biden view his oversight of Harris as a malapropism or a symptom of his unsuitability for the nomination?


Pearl Dowe, Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Political Science and African Studies

The recent Democratic Party Debate was one of the more engaging debates and candidates. The significance of the host city was not lost on the candidates who attempted to interject issues concerning African Americans and women throughout the evening.

However, the issue of voter suppression was not raised until very late. This issue should be one of the most pressing for each candidate and the Democratic Party. The challenges that voters face to register and cast ballots are a direct challenge to representative democracy. The communities that are often plagued with purges, voter ID laws, long lines and faulty machines consist of those that are more likely to vote Democratic and turn out when mobilized.

Not only should the candidates speak to this issue, its origins and mechanisms to end disenfranchisement, they need to address the complexity of the economic and societal issues that these voters face. If the candidates and the ultimate nominee do not continue to earnestly discuss voter suppression along with policy solutions for the concerns of African Americans, Democrats will face an uphill climb to be successful in the fall.


Ed Lee, senior director of the Alben W. Barkley Forum for Debate, Deliberation and Dialogue

The creation of moments of connection with the audience and avoidance of moments of discord with their perspective determines each candidates' level of debating success. Those moments, positive and negative, can redefine and solidify perceptions about the candidate. They can also halt or energize entire campaigns.

Moments of connections or discord are rarely a part of highly scripted opening or closing speeches. Sen. Cory Booker's decision to toss his closing speech to a heartfelt tribute to Sen. John Lewis was a great choice. As usual, the crucial moments during last night's debate tended to occur with an impromptu utterance that either resonated or bewildered.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar had several moments of connection. The audience gathered at Atlanta's Tyler Perry Studios loved her discussion of voter suppression in Georgia and shout-out to Stacy Abrams during an exchange about wealth inequality. Additionally, Klobuchar's reference to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as empirical proof that a woman can beat President Trump was a moment of rhetorical brilliance that connected.

On the other hand, Biden had several gaffes that solicited nervous laughter. He looked puzzled by the smattering of laughs after he referenced the country's collective need to keep "punching" at the issue of domestic violence. Additionally, passionately stating that he has the endorsement of our nation's only black female senator while Harris was on the stage with him has to be one of the worst moments of this year's series of debates.


David Howard, associate professor of health policy and management at Rollins School of Public Health

The moderate Democratic candidates pushed back a little more forcefully against Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s costly single-payer plans. Yet, while scaling back her own ambitions vis a vis single payer, Warren continued to make ambitious and unrealistic promises regarding free dental care and free long-term care.

There was little or no discussion of how to pay for the Medicare and Medicaid programs in their existing forms or changes to coverage or payment that could make them more affordable.

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