Winning and losing a debate is usually very subjective, and the event on Thursday night in Los Angeles sponsored by PBS NewsHour and POLITICO was no different. We saw some new dynamics start to play out, with Mayor Pete Buttigieg finding himself attacked often.

The topic of “wine cave” fundraisers became a punchline thanks to Sen. Elizabeth Warren accusing Buttigieg of holding a closed-door fundraiser in a wine cave. I think wine cave is a fancy way to say wine cellar, but if your wine cellar is large enough, maybe it becomes a wine cave? I don’t know, add it to the life goals list.

Related: Watch the PBS/POLITICO Democratic Debate

Debate Winners

Joe Biden is absolutely on the “winners” list for this debate. In Biden’s case, he wins by not speaking much and not making mistakes or saying off-color things that sounded acceptable forty years ago but sound pseudo-racist in 2019. Biden actually stayed on message, didn’t wander off too far in the weeds on his answers, and generally avoided being the main point of discussion all evening. It’s possible that with the new dynamic, where Sen. Kamala Harris was missing, along with Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, that Biden found a new flow to sit back and let the others quarrel.

Amy Klobuchar also had quite a noteworthy night. In all the prior debates, she has never received this much speaking time nor has she been ready with solid answers to almost every question she fielded. Her “shaking” problem from the prior debate seemed to be solved, though you could tell she was trying hard to be aware of it and avoid it. Perhaps in November, it was nerves, but she managed to iron that out for this debate and came off as a reasonable contender. Perhaps even if she’s still a vast underdog for the nominee, she proved her chops as a viable vice-presidential pick if not for the simple fact that she has proven her ability to improve and hold her own on the debate stage.

Bernie Sanders also comes in with a “win” checkmark by default. If you watch Sanders in the last five debates, then include this one, you’ll find his rhetoric is usually identical. His point about the concentration of wealth, and the healthcare system that’s “not working” are staples of his stump speech. However, the place where Bernie often falls flat comes with questions about social issues and minorities. After watching Bernie in six debates, I think he genuinely doesn’t know how to answer some of those questions about whether “old white men” retain too much power in America because, frankly, he’s an old white man. Plus, Bernie’s policies aren’t designed to be geared toward one ethnic group or one minority, they’re designed to be targeted to everyone who’s not a “millionaire or billionaire,” which cuts across all demographic lines. Therefore, when asked for specifics about how he would help women of color or transgender people, for example, he doesn’t have mindblowing answers for that.

Andrew Yang deserves to be in the winning column this time around. He hasn’t figured out how to use all his allotted time to continue explaining himself and what he believes, but he does manage to get in the important facts and stats which back up his views and policies. He also received much more speaking time and camera time than he has in prior debates, and managed to keep the audience in his corner the entire time. Some analysts deride his “wonkiness” on the issues where his “matter of fact” type responses sound as if he’s solving political questions like a math problem, which could be a turn off to some voters who are drawn in with emotional pleas. Still, for Yang to make it this far, and get as much face time as he did is a definite plus.

Debate Not-Winners

In this list, it’s not that these candidates “lost,” but they didn’t have the best night.

Elizabeth Warren seemed to struggle throughout the evening as she took some difficult questions and attacks right from the start over her proposed tax plan. Beyond that, many of her answers seemed to rely heavily on emotional stories over the course of three hours. Many politicians use emotion to connect with voters, and it often works. In this case, though, perhaps due to the increased talk time each candidate received, it started to feel overdone or very rehearsed to some extent. It was not her best night as she was often playing defense or being passed over, believe it or not, for other candidates to field questions that were in her wheelhouse.

Pete Buttigieg had some strong answers, but he also took on the most attacks compared to his prior debates. The takeaway seemed to be that Buttigieg is good on the debate stage, but some of the attacks exposed his weaknesses as a candidate. In the “wine cave” argument with Elizabeth Warren, Buttigieg made good points, but the prevailing wisdom in the Democratic primary right now is that money is bad in politics, and “closed-door” fundraisers give voters a sour taste in their mouth. While some of his answers and arguments to other questions were worthwhile and seemed to connect well with the topic, they were overshadowed by the multiple tiffs and overall defensive posture he was forced to take.

Debate Loser

Tom Steyer is trying. In fact, he’s trying way too hard to connect with Democrats and “working class” voters. He’s got his talking points down, and he’s ready with long-winded answers to address almost every question. However, there was something lacking in his performance on Thursday. Some of it is unquantifiable, but some of it is a simple fact that Steyer comes across like a billionaire trying to relate to common folks. Then add to the fact that Judy Woodruff, as a moderator, seemed to mistake him for another candidate and/or generally not know who he was and you got a taste of what many viewers at home were probably also feeling. Steyer was uninspiring and sounded like a Wikipedia article of every liberal issue known to mankind. As one analyst put it, Steyer can do great things with his money for the Democratic Party and for progressive causes, but running for president and wasting time on a debate stage isn’t one of them.

In The End

Having just seven candidates to write about is nice, let’s keep it that way, shall we? No need for the DNC to expand the stage once again. The three-hour block of time set aside for this debate seemed like overkill at first, but the moderators made it work, and they let the candidates talk and respond and discuss. For once, this smaller debate stage gave the appearance of an event that could be helpful to voters trying to gain a little more insight into each candidate.

That’ll do it for 2019. The next debate isn’t on the schedule until January 14 which might be smack dab in the middle of a Senate impeachment trial so that should be interesting.

Voting begins on February 3, 2020, with the Iowa caucus.