Pop Culture

Why the Bizarre Democratic Debate Set Off a Conspiracy Theory

Tuesday night’s Democratic debate—the 10th one—was pure chaos. The moderators frequently seemed nonexistent as the candidates repeatedly talked over one another in Charleston ahead of the South Carolina primary on Saturday.

The last debate in Las Vegas stood out for Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren’s relentless body-slamming of billionaire Michael Bloomberg, and for the tense exchanges between South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg and Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar. Vermont senator Bernie Sanders emerged mostly unscathed, as did former president Joe Biden.

But Tuesday night resembled a free-for-all, with everyone’s knives out for Sanders and Bloomberg in particular. There was certainly a target on Sanders, who, after his big victory in Nevada, where he scored 24 delegates, became the first presidential candidate of any party to win the popular vote in Nevada, New Hampshire, and Iowa. And he is currently in the lead with 45 delegates, with Buttigieg in second at 25, followed by Biden with 15, Warren with eight, and Klobuchar with seven.

One of the weirder parts of the whole debate was the audience, which was loud and erratic. At one point, Warren was winding up to lambast Bloomberg yet again, talking about her experience losing her teaching job when she became pregnant. “Pregnancy discrimination, you bet,” she said. “At least I didn’t have a boss who told me to ‘Kill it.'”

Warren was referring to an incident where an employee of Bloomberg’s claimed the billionaire said, “Kill it!” when he learned she was pregnant. The line would have landed sharply, but the audience began booing as she hit the last words.

At another moment, Sanders was taking a shot at Bloomberg, saying the former New York mayor has a “solid base of support, unfortunately, they’re all billionaires.” The audience again booed, though it’s not clear if it was at the billionaires or at Sanders for mentioning them. And in another exchange, Warren got boos when she said Bloomberg should release his tax returns, and Bloomberg got cheers when he retorted that he was working on it.

Conspiracy theories started firing across Twitter, with Krystal Ball, host of The Hill’s morning news show Rising, suggesting that the crowd was flooded with Biden supporters. Biden’s press secretary Symone Sanders shot that down.

A more believable theory is that those seats were bought and paid for. According to local Charleston news station WSCS, sponsorship ranges for seats at the debate cost from $1,750 to $3,200. Considering how often Bloomberg was booed in the last debate and that his campaign is willing to shell out $2,500 for some flattering tweets, the billionaire candidate certainly has the means and motivation to flood the audience. And the article began circulating on social media along with questions about the audience’s striking participation.

Given the confusion of the debate, it seems unlikely that it will affect much leading into this Saturday’s primary. In South Carolina, where black voters make up nearly two-thirds of the Democratic electorate, Biden remains the frontrunner but his lead has steadily diminished over time. Among black voters he’s polling at 35 percent, though Sanders has risen in recent weeks to 20 percent. According to the average at RealClearPolitics, Biden leads with 30 percent with all voters, followed by Sanders at 22 percent and Steyer at 13. Of course, Biden also led the polls in Iowa.

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