A Debate Over the Debate: Did Clinton “Win”?

Bernie Sanders & Hillary Clinton at Democratic Presidential Debate

Image courtesy of CNN

A Debate Over the Debate:

Did Clinton “Win”?

| published October 15, 2015 |

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor


Almost everyone has an axe to grind when it comes to the outcome and judgment of political debates. The solid consensus among the mainstream media and among the political talking heads is that Hillary Clinton “won” this week’s debate, the first major forum in the five top-ranked Democrats faced-off on the same stage—in this case in Las Vegas at a debate hosted by CNN and Facebook.

Clinton was smooth, polished, and her answers reflected an understanding of the issues. She also kept her composure and remained agreeable, despite a past penchant for sometimes getting angry or flippant at certain types of questions. Her poise seemed in sharp contrast to the other candidates on stage: Bernie Sanders, who seemed at times to bumble and tumble chaotically through his responses; Martin O’Malley, who remained generally poised, but grew visibly angry when easily baited on certain sensitive subjects; Lincoln Chafee, who seemed to struggle on numerous occasions to explain his past positions and a couple of his key votes in the Senate; and James Webb, the centrist, who seemed at times detached, and at other times faced the basic reality that he was often sharply at odds with the majority of Democrats.

Chafee and Webb could be most easily scored as the losers of the night, despite their game and noble efforts to remain relevant. Neither man seemed particularly Presidential.

On the whole, most media analysts and political experts scored Clinton the winner—on style, on substance, on message. No surprises, really.

But several polls and focus groups have revealed that it was Sanders, not Clinton, who won the hearts of many Democrats who watched the three-hour debate Tuesday night. (See Keith H. Roberts' recap of the debate; "Clinton Wins Debate, But Loses on Facts"; Thursday Review)

A well-known Republican pollster, Frank Luntz, conducted a real-time focus group during the debate, and his research revealed that Clinton may have won on style, but that among those he surveyed, deeper analysis showed that Sanders still retained the most penetrative outreach to those who identify as Democrats. This finding seems at odds with the majority of experts who scored Clinton the winner, at least on points.

Some Democratic pollsters have also noticed the trend, counter-intuitive as it seems. And polls conducted by Fusion and CNN have also revealed that among those who watched the debate in its entirety, Sanders captured the most interest—especially among those who identify as Democrats. The CNN survey also revealed that Sanders scored the highest on measurements of likeability and passion.

Why did so many Democrats think that Sanders won their support based on a debate in which Clinton was clearly the most agile and poised? Political analysts on both sides of the party divide point to the first and most important reality: expectations.

Clinton, after all, is known to be a good debater. In the long debate season of 2007 and 2008, when Clinton faced a large field of opponents—among them skilled debaters John Edwards, Bill Richardson, Chris Dodd and Joe Biden—Clinton performed exceptionally well. Also among them was Barack Obama, who—by almost every expert’s measure—was not a particularly skilled debater. In the early debates that year, Obama was unsteady, unsure of his feet, and often unable to pivot comfortably from one subject to the next. He was also thoughtful to the point of over-caution, choosing his words slowly—a habit which deeply frustrated the increasingly fast-paced debate format coming into vogue with the TV networks. By contrast, Clinton was calm, in command of the facts, and steady, albeit many viewers thought her demeanor artificial and even plastic.

Despite the standard judgment that Clinton had won several of those crucial debates, it was Obama who was winning the hearts and minds of Democrats. The phenomenon was so counter-intuitive that it took Clinton and her strategists months to adapt to the reality that among Democrats, the perception was that it was Obama who was winning those highly-watched debates, not Hillary Clinton.

Some political analysts—Republican and Democratic alike—see the rising popularity of Sanders, as a foil to Clinton, as a similarly counter-intuitive process.

Another factor is likeability and negative numbers. Hillary Clinton has always struggled with the problem of being perceived as untrustworthy or unlikeable by some voters, even among some segments of Democrats. The controversies regarding her emails and the use of a homebrew server have made this factor worse for her, plaguing her campaign almost from the start of the year, and distracting reporters and the media from her core message for months. Despite a recent attempt to take control of the issue and play offense, many voters still feel that the problem of her email is an unexploded time bomb.

On this critical front, Clinton has had some good fortune in the last ten days, starting with a blunt and unscripted acknowledgment by U.S. Representative Kevin McCarthy that the GOP’s Benghazi investigations in Congress have had the intended effect—damaging Clinton politically in the polls and injuring her reputation. Democrats, and Clinton campaign spokespersons, seized upon McCarthy’s comments as evidence that those Senate and House investigations into the Benghazi tragedy are little more than televised political hit squads intent on battering Clinton in an election year.

Also working to her advantage to diffuse the issue of the emails: Sanders’ remarks during Tuesday debate, when he said that people are sick and tired of hearing about the email controversy and prefer instead to talk about the real issues.

“Enough with the damned emails,” Sanders told the audience. The Vermont Senator’s comment was arguably the most famous of the night’s talking points, and drew wild applause from the audience. Widely interpreted in the minutes after the remark as a missed opportunity by Sanders to hit Clinton on her weakest point, and generally viewed as handing her a Get-Out-of-Jail-Free card, Sanders told reporters after the debate that he improvised the comment, on the fly as it were. In fact, Sanders and his campaign people had already carefully considered just such a tack in a debate in which the matter of Clinton’s emails was certain to come up.

Though he may have handed Clinton a gift by saying that the conversation should move past the email controversy, he in fact scored the biggest positive spin of the night—raking in hundreds of thousands of “likes” on Facebook, and generating a massive wave of positive chatter on Twitter. His comment was not only popular in the auditorium, but generated lots of goodwill for his campaign, still flush with cash, and reportedly hitting its best week of fundraising since he first announced his candidacy. (Sanders reported raising almost as much money in the previous quarter as Clinton, but it is Clinton who is spending the cash faster). Sanders’ moment of magnanimity will still work more to his advantage than to Clinton’s.

Focus groups interviewed by CNN, Frank Luntz and others also produced another problem, albeit possibly minor, for Clinton. Questions about her so-called flip-flops on some issues may have struck a chord with some Democrats, especially those already predisposed toward the view that Clinton will say and do anything to win. Her evolving stance on issues ranging from gun control to the minimum wage to college tuition to trade prompted CNN moderator Anderson Cooper to ask precisely that question.

Among those issues, Clinton cited the so-called Pacific Nation Trade Agreement—a deal she once described as “the gold standard”—as something she could no longer support based on its specific language. During the debate she was forced to explain her once enthusiastic embrace of the trade deal, a position which caused her substantial grief in her nip-and-tuck battles with Bernie Sanders in Iowa and New Hampshire.

“It was just finally negotiated last week,” Clinton explained during the debate, “and in looking at it, it didn’t meet my standards…my standards for new, good American jobs.” But the exact language of the agreement has not been made public, nor has it been circulated within major government circles. Only the website WikiLeaks has claimed to have had any access to the material included in the agreement, and the WikiLeaks excerpts have not been verified or confirmed.

This led the White House to politely wonder during a press conference how Clinton had any knowledge of what the trade deal in fact included. The Pacific Nation Trade Agreement has support from some Republicans in Congress, but many Washington Democrats are concerned that it will do nothing to prevent more skilled, technological and industrial jobs from moving overseas.

Though those watching the debate could not have known that Clinton did not have access to the deal’s wording, the incident caused confusion at the White House and sent Clinton’s campaign spokespersons in search of explanation for the sidestep. It also gave her opponents another reason to claim she is pandering to voters.

In the meantime, Clinton and her campaign team are savoring what they feel is a rightful victory in this week’s debate, as well as a fundamental game-changer for the campaign narrative. Clinton’s top strategists sense that momentum may finally be on their side. If Clinton survive the wrath of the Republican-led hearings on Benghazi, which begin next week, she may be able to channel the upswing created by her debate performance into her most important task—regaining the momentum which has been flowing toward Bernie Sanders for months.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Clinton Wins Debate, But May Lose on Facts; Keith H. Roberts; Thursday Review; October 14, 2015.

Pro-Biden PAC Moving Ahead With Operations; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; September 25, 2015.