Mike Blake/Reuters
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton greets a room of supporters following the first official Democratic candidates debate in Las Vegas on Tuesday.

Hillary Clinton won the 'after debate,' and that's what matters

The effect of political debates on actual voters is both limited and indirect. The media coverage afterward is in some ways more important. 

Hillary Clinton may – or may not – have won the first Democratic presidential debate. But she definitely won the immediate aftermath, and that’s probably more important.

What does that mean? It means this: Yes, Mrs. Clinton looked strong on stage in Las Vegas. She was relaxed, her answers were crisp, and she talked a lot about Social Security, family leave, and other issues important to key Democratic constituencies.

This led lots of pundits and electoral experts to declare her the night’s winner.

“Clinton went into the debate the frontrunner and she came out exactly the same – probably strengthened in that role,” judged University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato and the crew at his “Crystal Ball” newsletter, for instance.

But the notion of anointing debate “winners” and “losers” is odd, when you think about it. There aren’t important numbers involved, like votes. It’s all judgment. If the same thing applied to baseball, playoff series would be decided by a panel of CNN experts watching batting practice and anointing a winner based on style points.

The truth is that the effect of political debates on actual voters is both limited and indirect. In general, they confirm preexisting strong attachments. Bernie Sanders core voters think he did great. So do Clinton’s proponents.

And most voters don’t watch from start to finish, taking notes, as if debates were civics class. They experience the debates over a period of time following the actual event, via news clips, broadcasts, opinion columns, Facebook posts, and all other manner of stuff that makes up the modern media.

This rolling ball of pixels – the after-debate, if you will – is in many ways the most consequential aspect of the event. Sheer extent of media coverage, and media conventional wisdom, can shape electoral outcomes.

“Pundits and commentators take on the role of theater critic, and the consensus that forms can shape how voters respond,” write political scientists John Sides of George Washington University and Lynn Vavreck of the University of California at Los Angeles in their book on the 2012 election, “The Gamble."

(Yes, we quote that book a lot. It’s really good. You should read it.)

That may be happening now. Clinton was at a possible turning point in her campaign. If she’d faltered – fumbling an answer about her e-mail controversy, say – Democratic elites might have started to panic. Calls for Vice President Joe Biden to jump into the race could have increased.

That now seems unlikely. And a Biden-less race would indeed be a big short-term Clinton win. 

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