Live Blogging the South Carolina Democratic Debate

Heading into tonight’s Democratic debate – the final one before the Iowa caucus – media pundits would have us believe that a surging Bernie Sanders has turned the race for the Democratic nomination into a dead heat, in no small part because Clinton is making the same strategic mistakes that doomed her in 2008.  But despite the understandable urge among pundits to hype the electoral horse race, the reality is a bit more complex than the prevailing media narrative would have one believe.

1. Is Bernie Sanders surging in the Iowa polls? In December, he averaged about 38% support in the Iowa polls. So far in January, he’s up to 42%. But in the three most recent polls in Iowa, he’s slipped back down to his December level, after averaging 47% in the three previous polls and leading Clinton in two of them. Note that the Des Moines Register poll that received so much media attention had 14% of Iowans likely caucus participants undecided – a relatively high number compared to other polls.  Compared to an earlier Des Moines poll, it seemed to indicate that Sanders wasn’t gaining support so much as Clinton supporters were reconsidering their options.  In contrast, the newest Gravitas Iowa poll that has Clinton up big 57%-36% apparently did not give respondents an undecided option.  In short, it may be that the race appears to have tightened because some previous Clinton supporters have moved into the undecided column, but that doesn’t mean they are ready to commit to Bernie.  The bottom line is that polling in the Iowa caucus is notoriously difficult, and that in previous years there has been significant movement in the last two weeks prior to the caucus.

2. There’s been a lot of stories on background in which unnamed sources argue that Clinton should have been more aggressive attacking Bernie from the beginning. This type of arm-chair strategic advice is to be expected whenever a front-running candidate appears to be performing below expectations. But there’s no evidence that I know of suggesting that a more aggressive strategy would have changed the electoral dynamics of the Democratic race.  In fact, Sanders is doing about as well as I expected when I was interviewed on this topic back in June.  He’s doing well among more progressive voters, but so far hasn’t shown an ability to expand his coalition much beyond that.

3. A related media theme that has gained traction in recent days is that we are seeing a reprise of 2008 when Hillary blew a big lead in the polls and lost the nomination to Barack Obama. As she did then, the argument goes, Clinton is once again gaining a reputation as a political opportunist who takes her “coronation” for granted, but who does not match up well with a more principled opponent. This time around, Bernie Sanders occupies Obama’s role. But the historical analogy does not stand upon closer scrutiny.  At this time in 2008, Obama had already pulled ahead of Clinton in the South Carolina polls by about 10%. In contrast, Sanders trails Clinton there now by more than 40%. More generally, Sanders hasn’t demonstrated nearly the support among minority voters that Obama did eight years ago.  This is 2016, not 2008, and Sanders is not Obama.

I understand the incentives driving political pundits to make the race for the Democratic nomination appear closer than it really is. But I haven’t seen anything in the last couple of week to suggest that anything has altered the fundamental dynamics driving this race from what I predicted this past summer, which is that Sanders’ two strongest states are likely to be Iowa and New Hampshire.

So where does that leave us heading into tonight’s debate? Both Sanders and Clinton are likely to sharpen their respective attacks, with Clinton targeting Sanders’ plan for single-payer health and his past record on gun control. In an effort to preempt that attack, Sanders has said he will support current legislation designed to rescind portions of the 2005 law granting gun manufacturers and dealers broad immunity from lawsuits resulting from gun deaths. Sanders has also recently released a policy proposal to move toward a single-payer health care system. For his part, I expect Sanders to continue to attack Clinton for her ties to Wall St. And, in an effort to tout his electability, he will likely reference recent polls showing him doing better than Clinton in head-to-head matchups with different Republican candidates.

The debate begins at 9, and airs on NBC. Keep in mind that there’s a third Democrat still in the race: former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, who is languishing in the polls in both Iowa and New Hampshire. This represents his best remaining chance before Iowa to change those dynamics.

I’ll be back on shortly before 9.

Matthew Dickinson January 17, 201611:34 pm

And, to put this all in perspective, I just received this email from Marco Rubio commenting on tonight’s debate and why he likes Republicans better: “Because unlike the Democrats, none of them is a socialist and none of them is currently under investigation by the FBI.”

Matthew Dickinson January 17, 201611:25 pm

One other point: don’t be fooled by any social media metric that purports to show that Bernie “won” the debate – these are completely unrepresentative sample of the debate audience.

Matthew Dickinson January 17, 201611:16 pm

One final observation: what’s interesting tonight is what did not come up: there was no discussion of Clinton’s email, or Benghazi.

Matthew Dickinson January 17, 201611:11 pm

I’ll be on tomorrow to discuss several topics: I have write-ups on my visits to both Rubio’s and Rand Paul’s campaign events, as well as the post-debate wrap up.

Matthew Dickinson January 17, 201611:05 pm

Now it’s time for the spin. As always, I issue my usual caveats: there is the debate you saw, and then the debate the media will tell you you saw. We’ll have to wait until tomorrow to see how this plays out, but I wouldn’t put it past pundits to try to hype the horse race by saying Sanders won this debate.

Matthew Dickinson January 17, 201610:59 pm

And that’s the wrap. My guess is that this debate will have very little impact on the dynamics of this race. Candidates largely reiterated previous talking points, and no one made any gaffes. I expect that Chuck Todd will try to say otherwise, which will help reinforce my point.

Matthew Dickinson January 17, 201610:53 pm

I just don’t believe that Citizens United and outrage over campaign finance is going to expand Bernie’s support.

Matthew Dickinson January 17, 201610:53 pm

As always, Hillary prepped well for this debate. She preempts Bernie tonight on the Flint water issue, and does it with a Berniesque indignation.

Matthew Dickinson January 17, 201610:50 pm

Poor O’Malley – he’s now getting sympathy applause whenever a moderator asks him a question.

Matthew Dickinson January 17, 201610:45 pm

Finally, Sanders’ comment regarding Bill Clinton’s treatment of women takes center stage. Poor Hillary maintains poker smiley face while Sanders reiterates that Bill’s behavior was deplorable. This can’t be easy for her.

Matthew Dickinson January 17, 201610:36 pm

Not surprisingly, Rand Paul has just launched a series of twitter blasts as the Democratic debate moves into the area of surveillance, privacy and civil liberties. He talked quite a bit about this during his appearance on Saturday in Hanover. Remember, he’s trying to attract Democratic support in those states holding open primaries.

Matthew Dickinson January 17, 201610:33 pm

O’Malley just got shut down, again, by Holt: “That question was actually meant for Senator Sanders.”

Matthew Dickinson January 17, 201610:33 pm

It’s not clear to me why Holt felt it was appropriate to ask Clinton about her relationship with Putin. Doesn’t that appear to advantage her foreign policy background?

Matthew Dickinson January 17, 201610:32 pm

Interesting. Sanders just created some daylight with Clinton on Syria by arguing that the destruction of ISIS should take priority over the removal of Assad.

Matthew Dickinson January 17, 201610:28 pm

Hoping no one holds Bernie’s pronunciation of “Mooslum” against him.

Matthew Dickinson January 17, 201610:26 pm

Clinton makes a point of noting she spent hours in the situation room advising the President, followed by a detailed recitation of foreign policy in the Mideast. Just in case you wondered if she’s qualified to be commander-in-chief.

Matthew Dickinson January 17, 201610:24 pm

Just in case you missed Bernie’s earlier reference to Iraq and Clinton’s vote to intervene there – he just indirectly referenced it again.

Matthew Dickinson January 17, 201610:21 pm

And there’s the reference to not getting involved in the Iraq quagmire. Indirect, but the underlying reference is clear.

Matthew Dickinson January 17, 201610:19 pm

Look for Bernie to push back against Clinton’s past more hawkish foreign policy record.

Matthew Dickinson January 17, 201610:19 pm

Clinton, understandably, is a bit more fluid and expansive in her response to dealing with Iran.

Matthew Dickinson January 17, 201610:18 pm

Bernie is a bit more restrained and a bit less indignant, when talking foreign policy. Treading carefully regarding the question whether to reopen the U.S. embassy in Iran.

Matthew Dickinson January 17, 201610:16 pm

Poor Chuck Todd is desperate to create the perception of a horse race by hyping Bernie’s performance tonight.. The fact is that nothing has happened so far that is likely to change the dynamics of this race, Todd’s bleatings to the contrary notwithstanding.

Matthew Dickinson January 17, 201610:12 pm

The foreign policy portion of this debate should be interesting – this is where Clinton can, potentially, move the needle a bit more over her two opponents, neither of whom has much foreign policy street cred.

Matthew Dickinson January 17, 201610:09 pm

The climate change question is not going to elicit much policy differences among the three candidates.

Matthew Dickinson January 17, 201610:09 pm

Here’s a question for all of you out there – do women find it irritating when Bernie constantly talks over and cuts Clinton off?

Matthew Dickinson January 17, 201610:07 pm

This youtube graphics/questions are beyond irritating. Please make them stop!

Matthew Dickinson January 17, 201610:07 pm

On policies alone, one would think O’Malley would be doing better with Democratic voters. But he just hasn’t gotten any traction.

Matthew Dickinson January 17, 201610:04 pm

The question about paying for these programs is a potentially vulnerable spot for Sanders, but Clinton is not pushing this issue nearly hard enough.

Matthew Dickinson January 17, 201610:03 pm

Sanders’ critique of Clinton is a bit more pointed this time around.

Matthew Dickinson January 17, 201610:01 pm

Frankly, this exchange is getting a bit too deep into the weeds, with Clinton talking about swaps and derivatives. I think she realizes that this is not terrain she wants to fight Bernie on.

Matthew Dickinson January 17, 20169:58 pm

I’m not sure how much sense it makes for Clinton to criticize Sanders for criticizing Obama when she spent an entire electoral cycle trying to defeat him.

Matthew Dickinson January 17, 20169:56 pm

Poor O’Malley is ready to leap over the podium. Meanwhile the television camera continues to show a split screen that excludes him.

Matthew Dickinson January 17, 20169:55 pm

Again, Clinton smart to wrap herself in Obama’s mantle. This is all part of maintaining the South Carolina firewall among minority voters.

Matthew Dickinson January 17, 20169:51 pm

As expected, Bernie is heavy on indignation, Clinton focusing more on policy details, and O’Malley repeatedly citing his record as an executive. In some ways, he should be doing better.

Matthew Dickinson January 17, 20169:49 pm

Chuck Todd tweeting that Sanders is dominating this portion of the debate, which is pretty good evidence that Clinton is actually winning this segment among most viewers.

Matthew Dickinson January 17, 20169:45 pm

For those of you wondering who the hell Vincent Sheheen is – he ran for Governor of South Carolina in 2014. O’Malley working hard to curry favor with the locals with his response.

Matthew Dickinson January 17, 20169:45 pm

One of the secret’s to Sanders’ polling success in Iowa is that many likely Democratic caucus goers actually look favorably on socialists!

Matthew Dickinson January 17, 20169:42 pm

Bernie is very adept at bringing the debate back to familiar terrain – here painting both Republicans and Democrats in Congress as in the back pocket of Wall St. and the billionaires.

Matthew Dickinson January 17, 20169:39 pm

I’m not sure that Sanders’ defense that he’s a Senator, not a Governor, is an effective response to why health care reform failed in Vermont.

Matthew Dickinson January 17, 20169:39 pm

By the way, speaking of the Governor of Vermont – he’s out in Iowa working on Hillary’s behalf.

Matthew Dickinson January 17, 20169:36 pm

Once again, O’Malley makes a very reasonable argument – as Clinton acknowledges – but is anyone still listening to him?

Matthew Dickinson January 17, 20169:35 pm

This is why critics view Clinton as opportunistic when they hear her implying that Sanders wants to, in effect, tear up Obamacare.

Matthew Dickinson January 17, 20169:34 pm

This is a strong issue for Bernie, mostly because there’s a perception that Clinton’s attacks on Bernie’s health care approach were politically motivated and misleading. She’s insinuating that he wants to repeal Obamacare – he says he wants to expand it.

Matthew Dickinson January 17, 20169:31 pm

The health care issue might one place where we might get some genuine disagreement. I’d like to see some old-fashioned Bernie indignation!

Matthew Dickinson January 17, 20169:30 pm

Unfortunately, I suspect this debate will not have nearly the entertainment value that the Republican debate did, since the candidates agree on 90% of the issues.

Matthew Dickinson January 17, 20169:29 pm

According to Twitter, the talking times during that first segment were: Clinton 6:17 Sanders 7:30 and poor Martin O’Malley trailing the field at 4:33.

Matthew Dickinson January 17, 20169:27 pm

Poor Martin! Lester doesn’t even let him get a 10-second comment in – story of his campaign.

Matthew Dickinson January 17, 20169:25 pm

I wonder whether Bernie’s inability to hear the Youtube question will trigger a question re: releasing his medical records!

Matthew Dickinson January 17, 20169:21 pm

I have to say touting his polling lead in New Hampshire and Iowa is not necessarily going to help persuade minority voters that Sanders is electable.

Matthew Dickinson January 17, 20169:20 pm

Here’s where Bernie is going to tout his viability based on head-to-head polls showing him beating Trump. Never mind that these are completely irrelevant this early in the campaign.

Matthew Dickinson January 17, 20169:19 pm

Bernie has been working very hard to build up his bona fides with minority voters. They are not his natural constituency – a point Lester is driving home right now.

Matthew Dickinson January 17, 20169:17 pm

This is where Bernie needs to step up and speak the language of the BLM movement – he needs to get beyond economic inequality issues.

Matthew Dickinson January 17, 20169:16 pm

O’Malley giving a strong response here in touting his gun record.

Matthew Dickinson January 17, 20169:14 pm

This is not a strong issue for Sanders, and there’s really not much he can do about it except takes his lumps. The fact is he represents a rural state where lots of people have guns.

Matthew Dickinson January 17, 20169:12 pm

I don’t expect Hillary to let Bernie off on this topic, despite his effort to amend his position on the gun manufacturer liability issue. Not sure this exchange will shake up the race – this issue has been pretty well chewed through.

Matthew Dickinson January 17, 20169:09 pm

Lester asks about the three things the candidates will do in their first 100 days. For once, I’d like a candidate to say I would be sure not to do anything based on the artificial 100 Days deadline, which is completely irrelevant and entirely a media contrivance.

Matthew Dickinson January 17, 20169:06 pm

Like Clinton, Sanders and O’Malley both reference King as well.

Matthew Dickinson January 17, 20169:05 pm

One of Bernie’s objectives today is to broaden his economic inequality message to make it more appealing to minority voters.

Matthew Dickinson January 17, 20169:04 pm

Clinton wasting no time in playing to her strength by referencing Martin Luther King in her opening statement.

Matthew Dickinson January 17, 20169:03 pm

And we are going to get these wacky youtube questions as well.

Matthew Dickinson January 17, 20169:03 pm

Unfortunately, NBC is only allowing for 60-second answers – not nearly enough to let candidates talk in any depth.

Matthew Dickinson January 17, 20169:02 pm

As always, the wildcards in these events are the moderators, and the questions they will pursue. Will they inject themselves into the story, or will they let this be about the candidates?

Matthew Dickinson January 17, 20169:01 pm

And we are on. Note that the debate is taking place in the crucial state of South Carolina. I expect that Sanders’ supporters will try to pack the arena, given the lack of support he is receiving in the polls in this state to date.


  1. Matt,

    I completely agree about Chuck Todd and the talking heads trying to create the illusion of a horse race between Sec, Clinton and Sen. Sanders. It will be no surprise if he squeaks out victories in Iowa and New Hampshire, though I personally expect a split decision. The question I have is that if he does win both will that improve his odds in SC, NV, and on March 1? He is making an appearance in Birmingham, AL tomorrow…one of the SEC Primary states.


  2. Rob,

    I am actually planning on doing a post on this. But my short answer is that I think Bernie will get a boost if he wins both Iowa and NH, not least because the media will jump on the outcomes to say that we are in a new race, dead heat, Clinton’s struggling, etc. – but then Clinton will win South Carolina, Nevada and will clean up during Super Tuesday.

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