The Las Vegas Democratic Debate Live Diary

Politics Features Las Vegas
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8:47 p.m.: The Actual End

That’s it for tonight. The spin room was as you’d imagine—crowded, loud, with every representative claiming their candidate had won. Sanders entered later and was immediately mobbed, to the point that when he was in the hallway he had to yell a the camera people to “please move back!” His wife Jane seemed genuinely worried for a moment. Meanwhile, Martin O’Malley was questioned by a kid with a weird little chin strap, whitewashed jeans, and a neon green hat with the words “Make America Great Again” written sloppily in magic marker.

We’ll have much more about all of in tomorrow’s feature. Thanks for reading, and come back tomorrow.

8:00 p.m.: The End

Okay, we’re done, and all I want to say for the moment is that I’m stunned that Webb talked about killing a guy on stage. It’s time to hit the claustrophobic lunacy that is the spin room—I’ll see you soon.

7:48 p.m.: Commercial Break Number Three

At this point, it seems like everyone has settled into a groove. Hillary scored a major point with her passion on Planned Parenthood, but Sanders was equally solid as the topics stayed within the domestic realm. O’Malley has had himself an increasingly good debate, and Chafee and Webb are still jokes. I suspect that within a couple weeks, this will be a three-horse race—provided Joe Biden doesn’t enter.

7:29 p.m.: Commercial Break Number Two

Okay, let’s give a one-line analysis of each candidate after 90 minutes:

Sanders: Terrific second segment, solid on domestic issues as expected. And man, did he need it.

Clinton: Still fairly consistent, though she got caught looking less progressive on issues like Glass-Steagall, college education, and immigration—which she is.

Chafee: Destroyed his own campaign, apparently does not read Senate bills.

Webb: Had already destroyed his campaign, but continued complaining and cynicism was icing on the cake.

O’Malley: A little nondescript so far. Not as bad as Chafee or Webb, but on Sanders and Clinton’s level.

I’m giving segment two to Bernie, which puts him on level footing with Hillary, though you could argue that the first segment was more valuable.

7:06 p.m.: The Bernie Revival

It’s been a very solid half hour for Bernie Sanders, who desperately needed to dig himself out after a rough start, and that’s exactly what he did. Of course, it’s predictable based on the topics—he’s strongest on domestic issues.

Oh boy, as I’m writing this, Chafee admits he didn’t know what he was voting for when he first came into the Senate.

6:50 p.m.: Emails!

Two great moments as Bernie Sanders actually defends Hillary, “we’re sick of hearing about these damned emails!” And then when Chafee takes her to ask, Hillary gets a huge laugh when Anderson asks her if she wants to respond: “No.”

6:41 p.m.: First Commercial Break

Wow. It’s hard to know what to think after about 40 minutes of red-hot debating action. I’ve been monitoring Sanders very closely, and I don’t think it was his best showing of the campaign—he got roundly attacked on the gun issue and looked like he might be spacing out slightly when asked to respond to Webb’s rambling about China. He got it back in style at the end with his response to the Vietnam question and pinpointing climate change as a national security threat. Webb certainly came off the worst, and might as well pack his bags now. O’Malley made very little impact, and Chafee, I thought, came off pretty well. It was the frontrunner, though, who I think had the best opening. Hillary looked more presidential than her colleagues, had the best command of the issues and her own speech, and probably solidified those of her supporters who were wobbling after an early political season that has favored Sanders.

6:31 p.m.: Stop, Webb!

Someone needs to tell Jim Webb to stop complaining about participation. It looks really bad, and reminds me of the legendary Admiral Stockdale, who did not have a great debate back in ‘92.

6:25 p.m.: Hillary’s Fans

Seems a lot like the hall is loaded with Hillary supporters—she’s getting cheers on almost every point.

6:12 p.m.: Cooper’s Coup

So, one thing that’s become clear is that Anderson Cooper has decided to make himself the focus of the debate, rather than the candidates. This is a strangely aggressive performance, and feels more like a confrontation than a debate. But of course, it’s pretty standard when you consider the sensational coverage CNN has been pushing all day…and for years.

5:49 p.m.: Chafee Burn

Big laughs in the media room when Chafee says he’s proud “never to have had a scandal.” Strong attack.

5:41 p.m.: The Information You Need to Know

One last thing: As Sheryl Crow sings the national anthem, approximately five percent of the media room stands unnecessarily. About 50 percent of those five percent have their hands on their hearts.

5:30 p.m.: GAME TIME

Okay, here we are. Debbie Wasserman Schultz just hyped the crowd and introduced a video from Obama. “I’m asking you to work even harder,” says the prez. At this point, I’m assuming most of you are watching the coverage. I’ll check in when I can over the next two hours, especially during commercials, but I’ll be riveted just like you. I’ll let you know what happens in the spin room afterward, but you can probably guess. Check back in, and be sure to check us out tomorrow morning for the feature I’ll write based on everything that’s happened today.

5:01 p.m.: Ugh, CNN

This will seem ungrateful, since CNN gave me a credential to this event, but I CANNOT BE BOUGHT. So I’m saying it: CNN’s debate coverage is fairly disgusting up and down the line. It’s like someone once accused them of sensationalizing political coverage, and they were like, “sensational? I’ll show you sensational!” And then just dedicated themselves to making everything as superficial as possible.

The worst part is their “Elections USA” Facebook zone, which contains about 50 vapid millennials hovering around video screens to monitor exactly what every idiot with a Facebook account is saying at every second. They’ll blather on about the importance of social media and etc., but what it boils down to, philosophically, is a shitty motto: The issues don’t matter, but the reactions do. No matter who’s reacting.

Believing that perception is reality is one thing, but actively trying to erase reality is going a bit far. From the social media obsession to the endless “spinning” by pundits who don’t belong on television, to reducing every candidate to a label (Bernie is socialist! Hillary is dishonest!), it’s just endless blather with almost literally no substance.

This is not a new thing, or a new opinion. I get that. Still, seeing it up close makes you feel a little more nauseous than usual. If you gave CNN absolute power, I imagine they’d place banana peels all over the show and allow the audience to throw pies at the candidates when they didn’t agree. Anything to ratchet up the purely reactive bullshit! And it’s worth reiterating another point—when you treat politics like a hashtag-infused sideshow, why would any citizen see it differently?

4:41 p.m.: O’Malley’s Pre-Debate Statement

Lots of swagger coming out of the O’Malley camp. They released a statement tonight containing some pretty strong language designed at engaging both Clinton and Sanders. (For some reason the URL has to be pasted in full to work, so here we go:

The first sentence:

The American people want a President who will lead, not just tell them what they want to hear, or what polls best.

In case you couldn’t decipher the code, “not just tell them what they want to hear” equals Sanders, and “what polls best” equals Clinton. Some more:

What sets Governor O’Malley apart from every other Democrat on stage are a few things. Many of the other Democrats on stage espouse progressive values, but he’s the only one who has actually put them into action: he raised the minimum wage; he abolished the death penalty; and he signed into law marriage equality, the DREAM Act, and the most comprehensive gun safety laws in the nation. He didn’t decide to fight those tough fights because of polls?—?he fought them on the basis of his principles.

Fascinating opening salvo.

4:15 p.m.: The Hour Approaches

Martin O’Malley himself just strode down the hallway outside the media center, telling journos that he’s off to see “mi familia.” He’s tall and slim and presidential-looking, and you can tell why he’s been so frustrated at the lack of debates. This is his chance not only to paint a contrast with Hillary and Bernie on the issues, but to present a physical contrast—he’s a confident commander-in-chief straight out of central casting. If anything, he’s a little too imposing, and a little too polished when he speaks—it’s hard to tell if this guy is for real.

Speaking of uber-polished personalities, Anderson Cooper is also in the house. He just passed by on his way to the debate hall, looking sharp.

We’re about an hour away…I just caught up with Michael Briggs, Bernie’s campaign manager, and he told me that they had started doing some vaguely mock debate-like activities yesterday, but prior to that, it was just an informal gathering of Sanders and his advisers talking about the issues. He emphasized that even when they did the mock debates, it was only sporadic, and nothing highly organized—another contrast to Hillary’s camp.

I asked him if he was nervous, and he grinned and said no…and then crossed his fingers.

3:23 p.m.: Obama’s Prescription for Beating Hillary

Fascinating stuff from Ryan Lizza at The New Yorker—earlier today, he released the full text of a memo circulated among the Obama campaign in 2008, outlining their plan to attack Hillary Clinton at her point of greatest vulnerability: Character. A sample:

HRC is driven by politics, not conviction. From the war, to NAFTA, to Social Security, to her choice of baseball teams, Clinton is constantly shifting, dodging and changing positions to satisfy the politics of the moment. Her penchant for secrecy and nondisclosure reflect an underlying disdain for the “invisible” people for whom she claims to speak.

It’s amazing how little has changed in eight years—these are the exact same complaints that Sanders supporters level at Clinton today.

David Axelrod, one of Obama’s top advisers, just appeared on CNN and was asked whether he had authored the memo. The most he could muster was a sheepish smile.

It was the most interesting moment on CNN all day. Otherwise, it’s been hours of speculation on issues that seem to increase in banality, such as why Hillary Clinton opted not to take a walk-through on stage like Sanders and O’Malley have, delegating the task to Huma Abedin instead.

3:01 p.m.: Bernie Arrival Video

2:33 p.m.: Who Needs it More?

Okay, let’s start talking debate. The conventional wisdom is that Hillary has the most to lose, but I would argue that’s not the case at the first debate. First off, it’s not clear how many people will be watching, so you could easily flip this question and say, who loses the least if they flop? The answer there is clearly Hillary—the groups she leads in are more “solid” in their support. Seniors, women, and minorities all essentially chose Hillary before the campaign even started, and those that haven’t wavered yet are less likely to waver now. Sure, they could see Sanders or O’Malley put forward an amazing performance and decide to switch, but if it’s true, as I believe, that Hillary’s base is less passionate about the issues and more about the candidate, it matters way less if she struggles. The path to winning these voters for Sanders is slow and gradual, just as it was for Obama in 2008 (aside from black voters). It doesn’t happen overnight.

The Sanders supporters, on the other hand, have by and large joined the bandwagon at some point within the last six months. They know his policy positions, they care about the issues, and they’re more likely to jump ship if the candidate looks weak, because they also care about winning the general election.

In other words, Bernie Sanders can’t win the primary tonight, but he can certainly lose it. With Hillary, the situation is reversed—she can absolutely win the primary tonight with a spectacular performance, but she only stands to lose a portion of her support with a flop. It’s critical for Bernie to do well, but less so for Hillary.

That being said, if O’Malley, Chafee, or Webb don’t do something huge tonight, they’re gone. The situation is already desperate in the polls, and they’re blocked by Hillary in the center and Bernie on the left. If they’re going to find any traction, it has to be tonight. So, at least technically, they have the most to lose, because it’s not even enough for them to be “good.” They have to be great—there’s no second chance to make a first impression.

Less than three hours to go.

2:08 p.m.: More Scattered Thoughts

—The next time CNN mentions Bernie Sanders without quickly adding “a self-described socialist” will be the first. It’d be interesting if they described Donald Trump as a “self-described capitalist.”

—Chris Matthews is blathering away in the MSNBC studio. He looks even angrier in person.

—Earlier, Harry Reid was practically inaudible over the camera shutters, which got me thinking about photographers in general. They’re a strange species—the best ones are usually small and strong, aggressive, quick, and easily annoyed if you get in their shot. They care only about their dark arts, not about what the subject is saying, and they communicate best within their own sub-culture. Best avoided in the wild.

—Journalists are way worse. It’s insane that there are 700 of us here. We definitely don’t need that many. We need like three. Everyone else is redundant, but apparently the economy supports a giant political journalism industry, and the only solution is to buy in.

1:52 p.m.: A Few Minutes with Debbie Wasserman Schultz

First—Bernie Sanders is on the scene! We’re less than four hours from the start of the debate, and the energy is starting to build.

Debbie Wasserman Schultz, DNC chair, just held a roundtable with the goal of drawing distinctions between Democrats and Republicans on the key issues of labor unions, health care, and immigration reform. A Nevada firefighter appeared alongside a young immigrant Dreamer, and a nurse to show both how Democratic policies have improved their lives, and how Republican obstruction has threatened the welfare of everyone in the state.

A Wall Street Journal writer was quick to ask about the lack of debates when the Q&A started, but Schultz shut him down immediately. Other questions got close to the theme, but she’s an expert at shifting the parameters of a question, or just answering an entirely different question that nobody asked. I managed to sneak in under the wire and ask the final question, and I decided it wouldn’t be worthwhile to hit the debate theme again, so I asked if she sensed a frustration with center-left politics after eight years of Republican obstruction, and whether that explained Bernie Sanders’ support and portended a leftward movement for the party in general.

Not surprisingly, she used the question to talk about mistakes the Republicans had made in the past eight years, without addressing the larger trend of her own party. So, in essence, I have nothing to report.

A little pre-debate analysis to come. In the meantime, I’m off on a desperate mission to steal a sandwich from the TV spread. I can’t eat another Luna bar today…

Update: I was late on the sandwiches, but I snagged a warm pretzel and some blueberry Chobani.

12:45 p.m.: The Harry Reid Chronicles

Harry Reid held what could be called a “press conference,” provided you were feeling generous. He came in wearing a dark pinstripe suit, looking every bit of his 75 years, and spoke for eight minutes. He wouldn’t directly answer questions about the number of debates, or whether he wanted Biden to enter the race, but he did confirm (as if we needed confirmation) that the Vice President wouldn’t be making a dramatic last-minute entrance tonight.

Mostly, he spoke about Republican efforts to disenfranchise poor and minority voters. He also referred to his semi-derogatory statement about New Hampshire from last night’s Washington Post Q&A, when he said the state didn’t represent America, and that “there aren’t any minorities there; nobody lives there.”

“It’s full of people, and there are minorities everywhere,” he said wryly, drawing laughs.

11:24 a.m.: The Walk-Through Report


—Under normal circumstances, the LaFite Ballroom at the Wynn features a predominantly burnt orange carpet/wall scheme, along with elaborate golden light fixtures that look a little like flowers, and more like the horn on an old phonograph.

—Under debate circumstances, it’s an impressive 1,300-seat darkened theater surrounded by large blue curtains keeping out the light. On stage, a red-white-and-blue graphic backdrop with plenty of CNN branding serves as the backdrop for the five candidate podiums (believe it or not, they have an extra waiting in case Biden makes a last-minute entry). The whole thing is washed in blue and red light, with giant video screens on either side and a smaller screen near the back of the floor seats, where Don Lemon will field questions (some of them video) from Facebook throughout the debate. Aside from Lemon and Anderson Cooper, the other questions will come from Dana Bash and Juan Carlos Lopez.

—There were no tickets available to the public. Of the 1,300 who will attend (800 more than the 500 CNN hosted at the last GOP debate at the Reagan Library), the candidates got around 40 each, and the rest were dispersed between the DNC, the Nevada Democratic Party, CNN, and the Wynn to use as they saw fit.

—There are 16 cameras in use, including some hidden in the backdrop. For the first time, the debate will be broadcast in virtual reality, and there are special cameras for that, as well.

—There are 700 credentialed media here, and “enough security to keep us safe.” I’ve spotted only one secret service member, but I imagine most of them don’t wear their titles on their shirt. Lots of Las Vegas Metropolitan PD.

—The official start time of the debate is 8:30, but it won’t truly kick off until about 9:00 with opening statements (all times eastern).

—CNN has worked around the clock to set up the theater since Friday morning.

—The candidates did a walk-through yesterday to learn about the set-up, and they’ll take another tour later this afternoon to familiarize themselves with camera cues and moderator positions and etc.

—Each candidate will be based before the debate in a “star wagon”—a personal trailer of the kind you see on Hollywood sets.

—This was both the first and last time most of the media, including myself, will see the debate hall from the inside. Only four photographers will be allowed in for the debate itself.

10:40 a.m.: Scattered Thoughts

A few things before I take the walk-through of the debate hall.

First, some interesting stuff from Politico on Hillary Clinton’s debate prep, with her friend and attorney Bob Barrett playing Bernie Sanders, and adviser Jake Sullivan playing O’Malley.

Second, CNN has been running Benghazi ads from some anti-Clinton conservative super PAC or other, which represents, if nothing else, interesting timing.

Also, the “rules” were introduced early today, and are fairly basic. Hillary will stand in the middle, flanked by Sanders and O’Malley, with Chafee and Webb (barely polling) on the far wings. Poll strength will also determine the order of opening and closing statements. No props, no phones, just a sheet of paper and a pen, and some water. Responses to direct questions will be one minute long, with 30-second rebuttals. Warning lights will be in use, and Anderson Cooper can decide to let them run wrong if it feels appropriate.

10:16 a.m.: The Tulsi Gabbard Chronicles

There’s a good amount of controversy surrounding the Democratic debates this year, mostly because DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz is blatantly limiting the number of debates in league with Hillary Clinton, whose campaign she worked on to the bitter end in 2008. (By this time in ‘08, there had been 13 debates, which helped Barack Obama overcome a huge deficit and take Clinton down…history the DNC elites are eager to avoid.) Earlier this week, it came out that she had disinvited Tulsi Gabbard, a vice chair who was been vocal in demanding more debates. Schultz, who has been dodging the question for months and has even been roundly booed at Democratic events, appeared with both Andrea Mitchell and Wolf Blitzer to deny those claims, and say that Gabbard had merely been asked to “focus on the candidates.” In other words, toe the line or stay at home.

At this point, Schultz has pissed off the other candidates so much that Clinton is the only one who would support her leadership, and apparently she’s decided to double down. It’s not like she can stand on her record as DNC chair, which has been abysmal. Why she continues to appear on television is beyond me, since it inevitably turns into a defensive, stammering disaster, but there we are.

9:25 a.m., Tuesday, SPIN ROOM

Just took my first spin through the spin room, which is a dream come true. The action is all very preliminary right now, but you can feel the energy building for all the diminishing, exaggerating, and outright lying to come. It’s set up like an office, with the various TV “cubicles” separated by black curtains. CNN commands a raised stage in the center of the room and a lovely corner office for their house Facebook team (apparently they’re very committed to monitoring social media reactions, in a worshipful nod to the dubious minutiae of horse race politics). MSNBC and Bloomberg have large staging areas on the left side of the room, while the smaller “studios” occupied by Univision, Al-Jazeera, BBC, CNN Newsource, CNN International, and a variety of local affiliates. Then, in a cubicle just slightly narrower than the others, Fox News.

There are boxes of cables and other equipment on most of these stages, and as far as I could tell, MSNBC was the only channel operating in full swing. Tad Devine, one of Bernie Sanders’ advisers, waited by the door while one of Hillary’s people spoke live with Andrew Mitchell. When they switched places, they exchanged very cursory smiles. The tension mounts.

There’s a nice food spread outside—superior to the print media offerings—and a golf course, somehow, beyond. Also, I just saw this….dammit:

9:02 a.m., Tuesday, Press Room at the Wynn Casino

A nice man at the airport last night told me I should avoid walking in the neighborhood of my hotel (I’m at the Stratosphere, apparently on the wrong side of town), but operating under the theory that everywhere is safe at eight in the morning, I braved the mile-and-a-half walk on South Las Vegas Boulevard, aka The Strip, to the Wynn Casino. I saw a man in a cowboy hat frantically drumming his pen on a metal converter box, and another man staring into space in the parking lot of a Circle K gas station. There were a few more characters like this, probably homeless, seeming to hover in place, too wired to sleep, or even to stop vibrating, but past the electric hours of the night.

I passed the minor hotels and casinos, the world’s largest gift shop (their claim, not mine), pawn shops, gold buyers, joggers, palm trees, pigeons, bus stops, and the stony desert-red mountains in the distance. I passed the Hilton and the Encore and Circus Circus and the SLS, all doing their best to blot out a sun that will threaten 100 degrees this afternoon.

And now here I am at the Wynn, having passed through security in under two minutes despite my fears that a team of secret service agents would detain me and ask why I wasn’t wearing nicer clothes. But no—a dog lazily sniffed my backpack, a nice woman looked in my backpack, and here I am in the Mouton Room, aka “Press File,” in seat no. 269. You’ll be interested to know that two of Hillary’s apparatchiks are already in front of the hotel, beneath the gigantic video billboards advertising the debate like a boxing match, spinning signs and chanting. I hope they have replacements.

There are a few things happening this morning, including a walk-through of the debate hall and some interviews with DNC heavies and Nevada Senator Harry Reid. The TVs in the room, all set to CNN, are already telling us about the rules Anderson Cooper will enforce with an iron fist tonight. All this and more to come.

PS—the press gifts are a metallic gray CNN notebook, and a Wynn Las Vegas coffee thermos, stainless steel.

11:30 p.m., Monday Night: Hell in the Desert

Las Vegas is a nightmare.

After two hours in the city, which I’ve never visited before tonight, I’m ready to start drawing wild conclusions. Vegas struck me as strange and almost magnificent from the window of the airplane, but then we touched down and the grotesque immediacy of the place slapped me hard on both ears, and I’ve had a pounding headache ever since. I never should have told the cabbie to drive down the strip.

It’s not just that the place is aggressively garish, which you already knew. It’s not any kind of repulsion at the naked face of capitalism run amok, because I imagine that comes later, after the shock wears off…and actually, this is less like hyper-capitalism than circus capitalism—here, they only pollute your eyes.

My problem, I think, is that it’s like a loud friend who insists you’re about to have the best time of your life. The friend who won’t shut up. The friend who is the human equivalent of a video slot machine in an airport, which is a thing they have here. The friend who is a walking billboard with bright neon colors and a coded message that reads “YOU WILL NOT ACTUALLY HAVE THE BEST TIME OF YOUR LIFE UNLESS YOU’RE A SOULLESS BRO WHO BELIEVES THAT FULFILLMENT COMES FROM RE-LIVING THE HAPPY PARTS OF SWINGERS AT ALL COSTS.”

It’s a weird place to have the first Democratic debate.

From the air, Vegas is a marvel. It comes out of nowhere, and while it’s not quite the New York City skyline at night, the surprise of it, springing up out of the desert in violation of logic—a massive, sprawling, hyper-lit metropolis that wasn’t even built on a river—is almost more startling. Where the hell does it come from? Will it spread until it takes over the entire country? Will it be the first or the last thing to go when we finally collapse like Rome? Is this what the whole world would be like without religion—just a collection of gaudy little desert oases offering false salvation?

Enough. The headache is getting worse, my ear still hasn’t popped, and I need to get to sleep. It took 40 minutes just to check in at this hotel, in a meandering line full of miserable people who thought they’d be deliriously happy by now.

The plan is this: Tomorrow, at 8 a.m. local time, I’m going to deal with credentials, get some sweet, sweet Internet by noon eastern in the press area, and start live blogging about whatever happens when Las Vegas and CNN team up to host a debate—with a focus on the TV angle. I’m particularly obsessed with the “spin room,” an unironic testament to dishonesty in politics.

Refresh this post for updates, and come back Wednesday morning for a feature on the debate itself.