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Who really won the first Democratic debate: Clinton or Sanders? (+video)

Clinton was poised, knowledgeable, made very few mistakes and generally commanded the stage. But Sanders supporters have reason to claim their candidate won. 

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    Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton (r) speaks as Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont looks on during the CNN Democratic presidential debate on Tuesday in Las Vegas.
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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 Tuesday's Democratic presidential debate, and then focus on what I saw, drawing on my own comments during the live blog of the event. (And thanks again for all who participated despite the technological glitch that slowed down the initial feed.)

At this point, 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, hashtag 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 e-mails” 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 Tuesdy 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 e-mails, 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’s 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’s 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 US 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’s call for an overhaul of the US 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 e-mail 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 e-mail story makes the headlines.

Matthew Dickinson publishes his Presidential Power blog at http://sites.middlebury.edu/presidentialpower/.

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