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5 Questions Answered About The 3rd Democratic Debate

Heading into Thursday's Democratic presidential debate, the third this campaign season, we had five political questions.

Here are those questions and how they got answered:

1. What was the Biden-Warren dynamic like?

There weren't tremendous fireworks between the two. Former Vice President Joe Biden signaled that he'd be ready to go after Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and he took a couple of shots at her, especially on health care. "The senator says she's with Bernie," Biden said, referring to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders' Medicare for All plan, which would replace private health insurance. "I'm with Barack."

The health care focus was more on Sanders, which allowed Warren to skate unscathed. And that was largely the case for most of the debate. It's safe to say if Biden and Warren continue on the current course, they won't be able to avoid each other so easily in the near future.

2. Was Biden able to take the heat — again?

Well, yes. This was Biden's best debate of this campaign. At the outset he was the crispest he has been. Biden started to slip some in the last hour, but his campaign has to hope that fewer people were watching, and the highlights had already occurred. What helped him was that the debate didn't turn into a pile-on of Biden again because Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota decided to hug the moderate lane, seeing an opening to do so.

Remember, on health care, the July NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist pollfound Medicare for All as a replacement to the current health care system was unpopular. As an option, however, it was far more popular. And that led to perhaps a surprising split onstage with Biden, Klobuchar and South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg on one side (against Medicare for All as a replacement) versus Sanders and Warren, and it was mostly Sanders doing the defending. After all, he "wrote the damn bill," which he reminded the audience again.

3. Did the candidates double down on positions unpopular with general-election voters?

Not so much. Many candidates were more careful than in prior debates not to go along with positions popular with the progressive base but unpopular with the general electorate. They were also much more gushing about the tenure of former President Barack Obama. They have up to this point largely ceded the pro-Obama turf to Biden, who has been leading in the polls, a reminder of how beloved the former president is within the party.

Here were the most unpopular candidate positions in the NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll from July and what happened with them in the debate Thursday night:

A universal basic income of $1,000 a month to stave off the effects of automation — 27% good idea, 66% bad idea

This is an idea exclusive to entrepreneur Andrew Yang. When Yang offered to hold a competition to give money to 10 contestants, there was a dismissive laugh from California Sen. Kamala Harris and a side-eyed dismissal from Buttigieg.

Providing reparations for slavery — 27%/62%

Former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke forcefully said he was in favor of reparations, but his was the only mention of it in the debate. Previously, other candidates have essentially side-stepped the issue, mostly saying they're in favor of commissions to study the subject.

Decriminalizing illegal border crossings — 27%/66%

This was a flashpoint between former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro and O'Rourke in a previous debate, but it did not come up Thursday night. Castro touted that he would get a comprehensive immigration overhaul bill done in his first 100 days, and Warren noted that she wanted a "path to citizenship that is fair and achievable." That position is much more popular – 64% said it was a good idea to provide a path to citizenship for people in the U.S. illegally.

Health insurance for immigrants in the U.S. illegally — 33%/62%

This was another flashpoint in an earlier debate, but not Thursday. Instead, mentioned more often were Dreamers, people who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children. Giving them citizenship is a far more popular policy issue than health insurance for those in the country illegally. Warren and O'Rourke did argue for Dreamers' relatives to also get citizenship, but it's not clear whether that's popular with voters.

Abolishing the death penalty — 36%/58%

This didn't come up Thursday night. Criminal justice reform, yes, something President Trump has pursued. The death penalty – no.

Medicare for All as a replacement to the current health care system — 41%/54%

This was the major subject of the night. Nothing creates a debate within the Democratic Party quite like health care. That's because it routinely ranks as the top issue for Democrats, and their candidates have given it quite a bit of thought over the years. If the individual mandate was the health care debate point of the 2008 campaign between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, Medicare for All is this year's.

And, as noted earlier, Sanders and Warren were left on their own to defend it, mostly from Biden, Klobuchar and Buttigieg. By the way, Medicare for All as an option, rather than replacement, is far more popular – 70% of Americans think it's a good idea.

What about guns?

Klobuchar noted that everyone on the stage is in favor of an assault-style weapons ban. That is a remarkable thing considering just how controversial it is in public debate, but the latest NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found a ban fairly popular overall – 57% want Congress to pass it (but only a small minority of Republicans).

Sanders, Biden and Warren raise their hands during the debate.
Win McNamee / Getty Images
Getty Images
Sanders, Biden and Warren raise their hands during the debate.

4. Did Sanders and Warren maintain their nonaggression pact?

Yes. Sanders and Warren did not go after each other, but notably Sanders was under fire from Biden and others, who used his professed democratic socialism as a foil to paint Sanders and his policies as extreme.

That allowed Warren to use Sanders as something of a heat shield. Sanders seemed irked by it all. One wonders whether the detente shall hold if Warren's numbers continue to rise and surpass Sanders.

5. What kind of chances did candidates needing a breakout take?

If prior debates saw candidates cautious in the kinds of chances they would take, Thursday night saw lower-polling candidates take more risks and throw more Hail Marys. Yang tried his competition stunt. Klobuchar went for broke in the moderate lane.

O'Rourke, who was in full reboot mode of his candidacy, said he is in favor of reparations for African Americans as recompense for slavery, called Trump a "white supremacist" and added, "Hell yes," when asked whether he is going to take away assault-style weapons as president.

Castro forcefully went after Biden and took a big risk, accusing him of "forgetting" what he said earlier (four different times) — something that, to many, looked and sounded like an assault on the 76-year-old Biden's mental acuity. Castro argued after the debate that he was right on the merits, but the approach left a sour taste for many who saw it.

New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker said flatly that Trump is a "racist" and called for an office in the White House to deal with the problem of white supremacy and hate crimes.

So will any of that work? For what it's worth, Klobuchar and Booker seemed to deliver good performances, and O'Rourke made a mark, standing out more than in the first two debates.

There doesn't, however, seem to be much evidence from Thursday night's debate to suggest that the shape of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination was altered in any fundamental fashion.

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Domenico Montanaro
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.
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