There has been an intriguing post-debate debate on who ‘won’ the Democratic debate. I commented before that the professional pundits in the media seem to be overwhelmingly of the opinion that Hillary Clinton won while my opinion of it was that Bernie Sanders did much better. Of course, all these are just subjective opinions and colored by one’s own preferences. Since I am a Sanders supporter and a Clinton skeptic, my views have a high probability of being skewed.
But in skimming over the pro-Democratic side of the blogosphere, the general opinion seems to be that Sanders did much better. Furthermore, the instantaneous measures of public reaction as measured by online polls and focus groups seem to be overwhelmingly in favor of Sanders. Of course online polls are notoriously unreliable and are swayed a lot by the enthusiasm of each candidate’s supporters rather than their size. FtB’s own PZ Myers was for one extended period of time able to show how useless they are by urging his many readers to vote in online polls and swing the results considerably, a process that even acquired its own label of ‘Pharyngulating’. The focus groups, although small in size, are much better barometers of opinion but still not definitive and they seemed to definitely skew towards Sanders.
There were many people who did surveys of the various measures used following the debate, such as Hamilton Nolan, Robert Gibson, Adam Johnson, and H. A. Goodman and all concluded that the pundits seemed to have got it wrong, though the last pointed out that the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune were outliers among the pundits in that they seemed to think that Sanders did best.
John Cassidy is a political writer for the New Yorker who gave his own verdict in favor of Clinton but got such a barrage of criticism that he looked into why there may have been such a split between pundits and the rest. He noted that the one poll done by Gravis Marketing using orthodox polling methods and a sample of 760 registered Democrats did give Clinton an overwhelming win over Sanders 62%-30%. But this result came in later after the pundits had already weighed in.
Given that there was very little empirical support immediately following the debate for the idea that Clinton won, and also that many of the mainstream media pundit class are not even such fans of Clinton in the first place so that they were not likely to tilt the scale in her favor, what made them conclude that she had won?
I suspect that it is because they use a different measure of winning than the rest of us do, because they live in a different socio-economic world from the rest of us. For many of them, things like access to good health care, affordable college, Social Security, family and parental leave, are things that they take for granted because people in that world have easy and reliable access to them. So they can view the debates more abstractly, whereas someone who (say) is struggling to make ends meet may resonate strongly to Sanders’s message because it promises a real change in their conditions.
Another reason may be because the media have long treated Clinton as the overwhelming favorite in the Democratic race, treating her eventual nomination almost as a foregone conclusion. So in their minds, if Clinton did not clearly ‘lose’ the debate, then she has won, almost by default. ‘Losing’ in this case is to be challenged so hard that she becomes flustered and commits a gaffe of some kind. Since she did not do that, they treat her as having won. And the fact that Sanders refused to attack her on the email issue that the media is dwelling on so extensively as her biggest weakness, is further evidence in their eyes that she escaped unscathed and thus won. Sanders not using the emails as a cudgel is seem by them as him missing his greatest debating opportunity to ‘win’ the debate. Hence he lost and she won.
But this is not how ordinary Democrats seem to have reacted. For them, his rejection of the email weapon was seen as his finest moment because they simply can’t understand what the big deal is about the emails when there are so many major issues that much more immediately affect them and which Sanders addresses.
(Talking of different measures, NPR watched the debate with the nationally ranked debating team of the College of William and Mary, people who are actually used to scoring and being scored on debates and have specific criteria for doing do. At the first commercial, quite a few felt that Jim Webb was doing the best but he faded soon and by the end, the verdict was unanimous: Martin O’Malley won the debate.)
So if the debate demonstrated anything at all, it is not whether Clinton or Sanders won but the wide gulf between the media and the public about what is important.
Political debates have to be judged by political measures and the key one is how well it helps the candidate down the road in terms of improving their poll numbers and fund raising. And that key verdict is not yet in.