Who won the Democratic debate?

Focus group polling shows an edge for Clinton, but that may not give the whole picture. 

AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall
Bernie Sanders and Hillary Rodham Clinton argue during a Democratic presidential primary debate, Saturday, Nov. 14, 2015, in Des Moines, Iowa.

Democrats vying to become president sparred during Saturday’s debate in Iowa over a range of issues and in toned-down exchanges that stand in contrast to the more raucous contests seen among the GOP field.

Many polls and media outlets saw Hillary Clinton as the clear winner, although she didn’t necessarily capture the same robust praise she was given after the first debate.

Even as the international community mourned those lost in the attacks on Paris, the former first lady, senator, and secretary of state gained favor among surveyed Democrats for her international experience and ability to deal with the unsettled problems of the world. But those viewpoints weren’t resolute according to a smattering of polls. 

A smaller contingent of opinions showed Sen. Bernie Sanders as the debate’s victor, pointing to his voting record against the Iraq war and labeling his talking points on big banks, healthcare, education, and the inequities between rich and poor as better representing the average voter.

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley had a vocal performance Saturday called "confident and confrontational" by Politico, but polling seems to suggest that he failed to muster enough momentum to gain a lead.

So why the discrepancy between the two leading candidates?

Sanders has held leads over Clinton in key primary battleground states, polling suggests, but Clinton has made up significant ground since the first debate. 

National polls have shown Clinton rising ahead of Sanders since the two first clashed in an October debate, with three more debates planned through February.

Clinton’s national security experience could be tipping the balance her way, and the unfolding events in Paris, where hundreds were wounded or killed, may have helped turn the political tides of the contest.

Democratic primary voters surveyed by Public Policy Polling said Clinton further secured her standing as front-runner, with 67 percent stating that she won the debate.

On national security issues, 75 percent of those surveyed said they have more confidence in Clinton. Sanders took 17 percent on the issue and 20 percent overall but performed well on domestic issues.

In another CBS News Knowledge Panel poll, half of Democrats said Clinton won the debate while 28 percent said Sanders did, a split that potentially mirrors national polling on the primary race.

Yet in another Wall Street Journal poll, 44 percent of those surveyed said Sanders won the debate and better understood problems facing Americans, while 32 percent said Clinton took it. Several other polls showed Sanders winning the debate by wider margins.

But focus groups only capture a subset of voters, not the gamut of reactions, particularly in the hours following a debate.

The Washington Post said turning to Twitter could form a fuller picture because it captures a wider swath of voter responses.

“While tweets are also not fully representative of the population, they do give us a window into the real-time thoughts and feelings of many who are actively following American politics.”

Some posit that because Clinton didn't have major slip-ups she will be able to hold on to her lead in the polls or add to it.

The weeks and months ahead will shed more light on the future Democratic candidate, but according to the FiveThirtyEight blog run by polling guru Nate Silver, a greater indication may be Clinton’s successes gaining endorsements prior to the primaries.

“Barring something unforeseen, Clinton’s going to be the Democratic nominee,” one writer predicted. 

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