Who Won? Clinton or Sanders?

After any debate, I always tell my students, “There is the debate you watched, and then there is the debate that the pundits will tell you that you watched. The two are not usually the same, and how they differ reveal important clues regarding how the debate’s impact is being disseminated by opinion makers.” With that caution in mind, I want to briefly review what the pundits are saying about last night’s Democratic presidential debate, and then focus on what I saw, drawing on my own comments during the live blog of the event last night.  (And thanks again for all who participated despite the technological glitch that slowed down the initial feed.)

At this point, less than 24 hours since the debate’s conclusion, there seem to be two sets of judgments circulating within the punditocracy. According to one group, who I label the “traditionalists”, there was a clear winner last night, and it was Hillary Clinton. Based on the traditional measurements – impressions of debating skills, point scoring, lack of gaffes, and the candidate’s stage presence, among other factors – Clinton removed any doubts about her front-runner status. As one pundit put it, “Republican and Democratic strategists found common ground on one point on Tuesday night: Clinton was the runaway winner.”  It was, according to another, “the best day of Mrs. Clinton’s campaign.” From this perspective, Clinton was poised, knowledgeable, made very few mistakes and generally commanded the stage.

From a second perspective, however, Sanders supporters have reason to claim their candidate won. A variety of social media metrics – increase in twitter supporters, google searches, hash tag mentions – indicates Sanders clearly sparked the most interest last night. His angry outburst telling the media that “the American people are sick of hearing about [Hillary’s] damn emails” instantly prompted a trending #Damnemails hashtag and was likely the most tweeted comment of the debate (never mind that Hillary benefited from Bernie’s tirade).

How do we choose between these two perspectives? In looking at my comments from the live blogging last night, which have the benefit of not being influenced by the post-debate spin, I think Hillary did exceptionally well. She clearly came prepared to address her most vulnerable spots – the vote to authorize war against Iraq, which cost her the 2008 nomination, the Benghazi controversy, and of course the emails, which Bernie bailed her out on. And when it came to targeting her main rival on his weak spots – gun control comes immediately to mind – she didn’t miss her target. She did issue a couple of clunkers – the remark about how she told Wall St. to cut it out, and her defense of her delay on deciding on the Keystone pipeline come immediately to mind – but on the whole it was an impressive performance.

On the other hand, I tend to put less stock in the social media metrics than do a lot of pundits. My guess is that the main explanation for Sanders’ boost in google searches is that a lot of viewers were seeing him for the first time in a sustained setting, and were simply trying to find out more about him by going online. It is also the case that the skew in social media trends reflects the deep generational divide in Clinton’s and Sanders’ supporters – his are younger, more passionate and, most importantly, far more comfortable with using social media as their primary platform of communication than are Clinton’s more seasoned supporters. (One of the reasons I continue to rely on live blogging is that a lot of my older audience simply isn’t on social media at all.) For these reasons, I tend not to rely on the social media metrics as an accurate  measure of relative support for the two candidates.

This is not to say Bernie didn’t do well. My students, who are predominantly Bernie supporters, left last night’s events generally pleased with his performance, as well they should be. Bernie was Bernie, particularly when the conversation centered on his touchstone issue: economic inequality. As I noted during the debate, “Bernie is at his best when he’s indignant – no one does outrage better than him. Crowd eating it up here at Bernie central.” He also generated strong applause when citing climate change as the greatest threat to national security. The problem, however, is that these positions, while applause generators with the #FeeltheBern crowd, aren’t necessarily going to broaden his support, particularly because Clinton is strategically placing herself just to the right of Bernie on almost every economic issue. As I noted very early on in the debate, only somewhat tongue-in-cheek, Hillary’s strategy in general was to say “I agree with Bernie’s objectives, only I’m not batshit crazy.” That strategy was most clearly visible in their exchange regarding social welfare programs. As I told my students, Bernie’s “I am not a capitalist” statement was without a doubt going to be used against him during the debate, and Anderson Cooper turned to it very early on in the evening. As expected, Bernie didn’t give ground, arguing that when it comes to social welfare programs like universal health care and family leave, the U.S. could learn something from the Scandinavian countries: “Those are some of the principles that I believe in, and I think we should look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway, and learn from what they have accomplished for their working people.” Clinton, however, was clearly ready for this, and pointedly noted that “We are not Denmark,” followed by an implicit defense of capitalism and a swipe at Bernie when she argued that “We would be making a grave mistake to turn our backs on what built the greatest middle class in the history of the world.”

My point here is not to criticize Bernie’s policy stances – they are what makes his progressive followers so passionate for him. But it’s a real question whether he leaves himself vulnerable to the charge that his “democratic socialist” views are outside the Democratic Party mainstream and thus make him less electorally viable than Clinton. As James Webb acidly remarked in response to Sanders’ call for an overhaul of the U.S. economic system, “there isn’t going to be a revolution.” Moreover, Sanders didn’t do much beyond some basic talking points to show that his single-minded focus on economic inequality really addresses the concerns about institutionalized racism that drive the BlackLivesMatter movement. At the very least, in his concluding remarks, why not add a reference to racial inequality to his recitation of the other inequalities? Clinton, in contrast, still seems much more comfortable talking about racial issues.

Let me conclude with a final point. For many pundits, one major takeaway from last night is that Hillary’s strong performance removed a justification for Vice President Joe Biden to enter the race. But in my view that is a complete misreading of the electoral dynamics leading up to the debate. In truth, there was never any reason for Biden to get in beyond the pundits’ deep-seated but misguided belief that Clinton’s candidacy was in trouble. In reality, by almost every metric that political scientists use to judge the state of the race – polling, endorsements, money raised – Clinton is the clear Democratic front runner. It was possible, but not likely, that Sanders might pull an inside straight flush by winning Iowa and New Hampshire, thus generating enough media momentum to cast doubt on Clinton’s viability and perhaps lead Joe to enter the race to save the Party. However, as I’ve repeatedly told my students, barring a smoking email that leads to an indictment, it is hard to see how she can lose. In short, there was never any viable reason for Biden to enter before the debate, particularly given his issue stances, which generally match hers, and his previous record of electoral futility pursuing the presidency. What Clinton’s performance last night did, I think, was finally make the pundits understand this.

That is, at least until the next Clinton Benghazi email story makes the headlines.

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  1. I think one component of Bernie’s secret sauce that was on display last night fits nicely in the Simon Sinek “Golden Circle” framework: “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” Clinton is all about the “What” and the “How;” Bernie is all about the “Why.” We know why Bernie is running: It is immoral and wrong that the top one tenth of one percent own almost all the wealth in this country; we have a moral obligation to leave this planet habitable for our children; etc. Clinton was great on the what & the how last night, but Bernie still has her on the why.

  2. Elise,

    I think you have pinpointed a major reason why Bernie’s supporters feel so strongly about him: by rooting his policy stances on the basis of fundamental moral questions of equity, fairness and social justice, he helps elevate political discourse above the usual questions of partisan tactics and gain. That sense of moral uplift is particularly appealing to a segment of the population that is deeply disenchanted with politics as usual. Why should we support Bernie? Because, in the end, he advocates for what is right, rather than what is only possible. I think that’s the logic driving a good deal of his support.

  3. Matt:

    I’m guessing neither you nor most of your students (who are mostly Bernie supporters) probably never watch Fox News.

    On the Megyn Kelly Show, Frank Luntz had a panel of Democratic Primary voters watch the debate. After, he asked, “How many of you came here tonight supporting Hillary?” Answer: Well over half (about 20 of the 35) raised their hands.

    Luntz then asked: “How many now support Hillary?” Answer: Four raised their hands.

    So, he then turned to Megyn Kelly and asked: “So, who won the debate?”

    (Disclaimer: I may be a little off on the numbers, as this is from memory)

  4. Shelly,

    I don’t remember the numbers either, but I do remember Sanders did well in a couple of focus groups, as well as dominating social media (more google searches, bigger gain in twitter followers, hashtags trends, etc.) We’ll see how the after-debate spin plays out in terms of what really counts: endorsements, money and polling. For what it is worth, Hillary is getting a big boost from the traditional pundits. And, frankly, Bernie has to do more than match Hillary if he’s going to close the gap – she needs to stumble (which she didn’t do last night) and he needs to do extraordinarily well. We can argue about whether he cleared that hurdle last night – clearly he did well!

  5. Two questions..

    Regarding Elise’s point, moral positions are attractive, indeed indispensable in dealing with the issues plaguing the nation. At the same time they can be dangerous to crafting effective policies to deal with those issues. The Republicans currently give valuable examples of how moral indignation can hamper governance regarding abortions; gay marriage; the proper functions of government; the ownership and use of guns in a free society; and legitimate levels, forms and purposes of taxation to name a few. Which candidate can best thread those needles?

    Also, there were three others on the stage last evening. Any thoughts on how each of them did?

  6. Bob – You have identified perhaps the major fault line separating the Sanders and Clinton candidacies. At the risk of simplification, Sanders seeks the best, Clinton says don’t let the best be the enemy of the good. My guess is Clinton will win this argument, but Elise’s post does a great job explaining why Bernie’s supporters are so passionate about his candidacy.

    As you implicitly suggest, I am guilty of doing what I often criticize the media for: trying to prematurely winnow the field in order to make the story easier to tell. Due to space constraints, I didn’t say anything about Webb, O’Malley or Chafee’s performances. I will try to do so in a separate post, but my short answer is I thought both Webb and O’Malley had strong performances – Chafee less so.

  7. After the debate, Bernie was seen walking off the stage to the rear with his wife and away from the audience and other debaters. He looked tired. Hillary, however was seen shaking hands and working the crowd with energy. An opportunity missed or is this just Bernie being Bernie. I think it is Bernie being Bernie and trying to envision him on the world stage where he will be on constant call to meet and greet makes me wonder if he will prove to be the best person for the job. With a nonsensicle 12 months to go we are going to see a real test of stamina.

  8. Dick – You raise an interesting point. For the most part, I haven’t seen even a hint of a whispering campaign targeting Bernie’s age, probably because Hillary, at age 67, isn’t exactly a spring chicken and so her supporters don’t want to make age an issue. But it is true that one defense that is often raised regarding extended presidential campaigns is that it serves as a good test of a person’s stamina. I always wondered, however, just how important stamina is for an effective presidency – didn’t Silent Cal Coolidge sleep 10 hours a day?

  9. It seems to me Sanders did what he needed to do and make himself look normal (and yes, being loud makes one look normal conversationalist). I understand the media found Hillary more telegenic, and to me she came across as a good candidate. They both came across as Alphas on the stage. The problem with dismissing Sanders as fringe is that he has been growing fast since April, larger rallies and done so without any media assistance or establishment help (putting debates during baseball season is the opposite of help). To pin the “he is old and tired and not working the media room” is contradicting the line of attack on him that he is loud and angry (kinda like saying Obama is a dictator yet effete/ineffective).

    he problem Hillary will have coming out of this debate is any regular viewer (remove the pundit class and people whose jobs depend on critiquing elections), will see the things that Sanders said hit home- Wall Street is a fraudulent model (Hillary did not do herself a favor by saying she told W.S. to cut it out, her pleas only lead to one of the biggest crashes in history). And telling people they have to pay for education and work 10 hours a week, that will not sit well with parents and students, because most of these people are not like Hillary/Chelsea, they likely may not even have jobs when exiting college to pay for the loans. Sanders did well to connect to day to day lives of audience, his initial pitch to Blacks, Hispanics, Black Lives mattes, and bread and butter. (Hillary saying blacks need a new New Deal, would not connect because most people don’t know what the New Deal was to begin with, she needs to speak in clear modern terms).

    Sanders weak point was gun control and Hillary should attack him on that.

    But Hillary may have a problem if she thinks she is in safe territory now after the debate and listening to the media class sing praises in her ears, because these are the same people that say Trump will implode every other week (there appears to be disconnect on regular voter perceptions and media/consultants).

    And saying Sanders is a Socialist is not a negative. I think for the last 8 years the media and republicans have continuously called Obama a socialist and he still got elected twice. This is a case where there is decreasing marginal return on this line of attack, and it assumes the voting public does not want socialism (or even knows what it is)

    Ultimately, I am ok with either winning.

  10. Fascinating. If you were a Bernie supporter before or a Hillary supporter before, your candidate did the best job and won the debate.
    But aside from Frank Luntz’ bogus Focus Groups, I think HRC did the better job of making her case, stating her positions, and helping the undecided understand her brand and make a buying decision.

  11. Weiss – I think your bottom line says it all: many (most?) Democratic supporters that I have talked to who saw the debate thought both Hillary and Bernie did well, and many seem to be ok, as you are, with either Hillary or Bernie as the Party’s nominee. The Socialist issue is an interesting one. While most U.S. voters have negative connotations with the word socialism – something Hillary tried to tap into in her critique of Bernie’s Denmark example – they seem to signal greater support for some of the policies Bernie espouses, as long as they are decoupled from the word “socialist”. So Bernie’s objective is to get voters to focus on the substance of what he wants to do, rather than the labels applied to those policies.

  12. Ed – The dynamic you identify – that Bernie and Hillary supporters both thought their candidate won – is actually a pretty familiar one when it comes to predicting audience reaction to debates. It’s why debates often have less impact, particularly during the general election, than the media would have us believe.

  13. Just saw news that there won’t be a cost of living increase for Social Security next year (and Medicare cost will increase). This is another one of those bread and butter issues that Sanders mentioned in the debate (he favors an increase in benefits), Hillary said only for poor and widows. She may need to revise her position before the end of the year, because older voters will not be happy.

    People ultimately vote their pocket books or their prejudices.

  14. No picking a winner or loser here. The most classy act of the evening was Bernie’s dismissal of the EMAIL problem as old and tired. Would any other debater have missed the chance to stab the opponent? The final Demo ticket Clinton/O’Malley.


  15. Arnold – There’s been lots of media chatter, and not all of it only from Bernie supporters, pointing out how magnanimous Bernie’s gesture was. Nonetheless, more than one critic has intimated that if Bernie really wants to become presidents, rather than simply run for the position, he should be more pragmatic and less principled by, in this case, using the emails to illustrate Hillary’s trustworthiness/competence problem. Simply put, the argument goes, it’s not a personal attack on Hillary to point out that she exercised poor judgment in utilizing a private server, etc., and what does this say about her qualifications for the presidency?

    Just sayin…..

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