The first Democratic Debate-Who won? Is there a devil in the details? Sanders’ real goals? Biden?
Who “won”–by no means the most important bit of information to come out of the debate–is relatively easy to assess. What would a panel of unbiased debate judges say? Hillary clearly “won”. Sanders wasn’t particularly good in terms of going beyond the straight jacket that his reputation has created. Nonetheless, I don’t think he did anything to lose his core supporters–or to woo supporters away from Hillary. Those are the headlines. But the potential catch is in the details of the story.
Those going into the debate as marginal candidates–Chafee, Webb and O’Malley–came out pretty much as marginal candidates. Should any drop out, they likely would be Chafee and Webb, who had very small niche support and did nothing, in my mind, to change that. O’Malley might stay in as the “loyal oppositions,” on the chance of gaining some of Hillary’s marginal support should the upcoming Benghazi hearings critically wound her. Could O’Malley otherwise pick up a few points in the polls? Possibly, as an alternative to the top two, but nothing of significance. Perhaps he is trying to gain national recognition in order to position himself as a Vice-Presidential hopeful. If that is the case, he will have to overcome the objections that with any of the three leading Democratic front-runners, his name on the ticket would mean an all-east coast ticket, and his state–Maryland–is likely to fall into the Democratic column with or without O’Malley on the ticket. Biden, the non-candidate, whose shadow, nevertheless, was clearly seen on the metaphoric stage, has to weigh whether he waited too long to enter the race, allowing Hillary’s campaign to move too close to the amount of support needed to sew up the nomination. Detailed polling will have to determine that from the git-go he could count on pulling in some of those voters from the Hillary column. Ordinarily Biden could count on union support, but Hillary has already received commitments from a number of key unions. Although he was the personally selected running mate for the first African-American President, Clinton probably has most of the African-American support already lined up. Biden’s main hope for a realistic chance of winning the nomination, with a late entry, may ride on how Clinton’s Benghazi testimony fares.
Appearances: Hillary appeared more relaxed and smiled and laughed, and they appeared to be genuine reactions. That’s a plus given some of the poses we’ve seen from the media, and her sometimes stiff and fierce style. Sanders looked and sounded like an “old lefty” and that’s a wash since that was his pre-debate image–though his appeal to many young people should be noted. Despite the committed nature of Sanders’ followers, he is a realist and must know that by being a proud and oft declared socialist, even a Democratic Socialist, he has always been an extremely long-shot to win the nomination, and certainly could not win a general election. Bernie’s wife, Dr. Jane has indicated that his race was primarily to enjoin the issues that are important to him. He probably would be satisfied if his candidacy resulted in many of those positions are adopted by the Democratic Convention.
The key question going into the debate was how would Hillary handle the Benghazi and e-mail questions.
Benghazi seemed to get lost in the debate–though she touched on it by talking briefly about the numbers of diplomats we had and that the job description comes with risks. Her exact words were: “…unless you believe the United States should not send diplomats to any place that is dangerous, which I do not, then when we send them forth, there is always the potential for danger and risk.” That was a good common-sense response, but I’m not sure what kind of dent it will make in terms of independents for whom Benghazi contributes to their low trust perception of Hillary. Republicans who have been hostile to Hillary were never likely to be swayable. (Did I just coin a word?)
There wasn’t much of substance to her answers about the e-mail controversy. She repeated her mea culpa, noting, “Well, I’ve taken responsibility for it. I did say it was a mistake. What I did was allowed by the State Department, but it wasn’t the best choice.” That should satisfy her supporters, but it remains to be seen whether it was enough for the independents noted above. The peak point in the debate was Bernie Sanders’ shouting, “Enough of the e-mails. Let’s talk about the real issues facing America.” I suspect that the clip of that moment will be shown over and over again in much of the media, but I am not sure how many voters, who are not Democrats, that will resonate with. You’d think that there would have to be some independents for whom it would–but we’ll have to wait for the national polls to tell us. The hard-nosed analytical observation would have to be that she didn’t stumble over the question and was obviously pleased with Sanders’ comment. At the same time, the moment is likely to pale in significance with her upcoming Benghazi Committee testimony before national television–and with very hostile Republican congressmen questioning her. Led by South Carolina Republican Trey Gowdy, who has been at the forefront of the almost non-stop attacks on Hillary, the Republicans on the committee no doubt will attempt to critically taint her with such sobriquets as “subject to a criminal investigation.” This, and last night’s “enough already” exasperation will be competing for the favors of the independents, whose votes will likely determine the election’s victor. I expect a television blitz of competing advertisements to influence perceptions of Hillary’s testimony.
The debate was also noteworthy for Hillary’s strong and clear denunciation of the N.R.A. This was popular with the base, but it could possibly come at a cost of a few percentage points among the independents and Second Amendment Democrats. I suspect that most of those are already in the Republican column as far as polls go. “Most” however, is not “all,” and most presidential election victors are separated from losers by only a few percentage points–or less. If Hillary is the Democratic Party nominee, as she now appears to be, a goodly part of her advertising budget will have to go for ads that can woo an offsetting number of independents to the notion of “responsible gun laws.” The N.R.A.–with its huge advertising budget–though not 100 percent successful, has proved to be a tough opponent to take on. After last night’s debate, there is no way the challenge can be avoided and it no longer can be a tepid one.
In summary, Bernie Sanders probably didn’t cost himself any of his core supporters, but he was unlikely to have expanded that base–and he entered the debate far behind. Hillary had a good debate, in debate terms. She may have raised the passionate support level of some of her supporters. She also enjoined issues that will no doubt define her campaigning strategy. Most “next day pundits” will say that the real loser of the debate was Joe Biden, who was not on the stage last night. That might be so–or he might still wait to see how the Benghazi testimony affects Hillary’s poll match-ups against the leading Republican hopefuls. But did he wait a debate too long? There is a self-fulfilling effect from media reports of a debate’s “winner.” Hillary should benefit from that phenomenon, if it applies here, as I expect most talking-head analysts to applaud her performance (with the possible exception of Fox, whom I expect to focus on Sanders’ socialism comment and try to paint Hillary and the whole Democratic Party with that brush). She’ll need media help to reach the all-important undecided voter, since only around half of the size of the Republican debate’s viewers are expected to have tuned in.