Did Bernie Sanders win the Democratic debate?

Bernie Sanders scored big on social media, fundraising, and in a post-debate focus group and instapolls. He came in well ahead of Hillary Clinton. 

Lucy Nicholson/Reuters
A supporter wears campaign buttons during a rally by Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in Hollywood, Calif., Wednesday.

There’s no doubt that Hillary Clinton had a good debate Tuesday night. She was poised, prepared, presidential, even funny. She commanded the room.

Many pundits (including Donald Trump) declared her the winner, creating an echo chamber of affirmation for the Democratic front-runner. Mrs. Clinton won the “after debate,” as the Monitor’s Peter Grier puts it

But is there a more scientific way to determine the winner of a debate, and does it even matter? After all, President Obama was skunked by Republican nominee Mitt Romney in their first debate in 2012, and we all know how that election turned out. 

The biggest measure of who “won” Tuesday’s debate won’t truly be known until next week, after major pollsters have had several days to gauge Democratic voter opinion. But in the meantime, there are signs that, in fact, Bernie Sanders scored big Tuesday night.

First, Senator Sanders of Vermont raised $1.3 million online in the four hours after the debate began. The Clinton campaign has not released fundraising numbers for that period.

The Sanders campaign also organized debate viewing parties around the country, 4,000 of them, an indication of the grass-roots energy behind his populist message on income inequality and big money in politics.

On Facebook and Twitter, Sanders was the most-talked-about candidate around the debate, and he picked up far more Twitter followers than Clinton did: 42,730 vs. 25,475. According to Brandwatch, 69 percent of tweets about Sanders were positive, versus just 56 percent for Clinton. 

Instapolls gave Sanders a big win (though those results are less than reliable). Ditto the Fox News focus group organized by Frank Luntz. The same caveat applies: The focus group Mr. Luntz conducted after the first Republican debate showed a mass exodus of support for Mr. Trump, a result not borne out by actual polling data a week later.

Former top Obama adviser Dan Pfeiffer even saw fit to tweet about Sanders’s victories in the focus group and online polls, and said that “losing the pundits is reminiscent of Obama in 07-08.” 

When others pushed back, arguing that Sanders is not another Obama, Mr. Pfeiffer agreed.

But his points about Sanders’s strength Tuesday night added to the counter-narrative that the debate wasn’t an unalloyed victory for Clinton.

MSNBC host Chris Matthews also pushed the line that Sanders won in his day-after interviews. 

“I don’t care who gets declared the winner,” said Mr. Matthews, the host of “Hardball.” “I think he won because he’s built up his troops, and he’s going to have a lot more numbers coming up in the next week or two in the polling.”

Also, let’s not forget that Sanders has drawn massive crowds, some upwards of 10,000 and 20,000 people, another sign of the grass-roots energy Sanders is attracting and Clinton isn’t.

In pre-debate polls, Clinton still had a significant lead for the Democratic nomination, 18 percentage points ahead of Sanders. If Vice President Joe Biden decides not to run, polls show more of his support will go to Clinton than Sanders. And it’s looking late for Mr. Biden to be starting a campaign.

So Clinton probably has nothing major to worry about with Sanders’s strong debate showing. The five-way boxing match in Las Vegas wasn’t a game-changer. And the only winner that really counts won’t be determined until voters start attending caucuses and primaries in February, and candidates start accruing convention delegates.

The challenge, then, for Clinton may be how to harness the energy of the Sanders supporters when and if he drops out. She’s already been shifting leftward on key issues, such as trade and climate change. But she’s a hawk on Syria and is playing the big-money game with campaign donations, both positions that are anathema to Sanders followers. If she can’t get liberal voters excited about her in November of 2016, she could have a real problem on her hands.

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