What the post-debate debate on the debate teaches us

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.


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    The bought-and-paid-for corporate tools unanimously cheered on the bought-and-paid-for corporate tool.

    Purely on the respective merits, of course.

  2. jimmyfromchicago says

    (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 so.

    An interesting idea, but the Democratic and Republican presidential “debates” have little in common with the competitive debates that high school and college teams participate in.

  3. Chiroptera says

    The topic of the Democratic debates came up this morning with one of my Democratic voting friends this morning. The main thing she focused on is how Sanders, in her opinion, refused to adequately deal with the gun issue. She also stated that among some of her other friends, and guns are a very important political issue to them as well.

    This is one anecdote, not extensive statistical research, but going by what I hear my Democratic voting friends are saying, Clinton did do very well. But I think most if not all of them were leaning Clinton already. I didn’t watch the debates myself so all I know about it is what other people are saying, but it isn’t too surprising to me, from what I’m reading or what I’m hearing over all, that many consider Clinton to be the winner.

    Just reading around, if any single issue ends up being a major cause of Sanders not getting the nomination, I think the gun issue is going to be it.

  4. doublereed says

    Whether the media thinks Clinton or Sanders won is one story. What’s more shocking is the outright dismissal of Sanders as being any sort of viable candidate, and that the debate somehow confirmed their beliefs that it’s a one-horse race. This is when Sanders won the focus groups and polls, and is leading in scientific polls in Iowa and New Hampshire. But apparently so many of these pundits still treat Sanders as if he isn’t serious. The Young Turks video.

    What’s interesting is that the media, if anything, has incentive to promote Bernie Sanders because that makes the primary seem competitive and interesting. That’s a more interesting, sensational story. But instead they continue pushing this narrative that Clinton is our fated candidate no matter what.

  5. atheistblog says

    Policy, records are different from debates. Obama, who had records of nothing, and policy of nothing won the nomination against hillary by going after her. Bernie never gonna get the nomination by mollifying her. Actually hillary came after sanders just as the debate started.

    Here are the things bernie is not really good : He is still feeling guilty of his gun records, where as hillary openly admitted her iraq mistake while continuing advocating every wars since iraq, there is no way bernie gonna gain more support by telling everyone “stop shouting at each other”, he has to “evolve” on guns.
    One foreign policy, he has to go after hillary, instead of telling people syria is a quagmire, he has to tell the hard truth, it’s support of hillary’s iraq war, then libya war are the reason why we are here in syria now.
    Then he has to stop being hillary supporter on her email in-appropriation, let her defend herself.
    Bernie’s poll number won’t go up if he continues this. He has to go after hillary, that’s why Obama did. There is no mollifying in debates. Debates are mainly for lower denomination people, debates are entertainment, not discussion about wisdom.
    And since US is not a parliamentary system, these debates are like wrestling entertainment.
    If you don’t agree with me, just look at the polls, there is no change in poll numbers after the debate.
    And look at the 2008 debates b/w obama and hillary. You wanna look at the 60’s government economic policy and believe it worked for people, but you don’t wanna look at past debate of hillary don’t wanna see the reality ?
    Go after hillary or you gonna just stagnate in the polls and even elections Bernie.

  6. Chiroptera says

    atheistblog, #7: Then he has to stop being hillary supporter on her email in-appropriation, let her defend herself.

    Unless he truly feels that as an issue it isn’t important. Then he is correct to not engage it. It may very well be that he wants to win because his policy ideas are the best for the country and that the voters endorse those ideas; he may not view elections as “win by any means necessary.”

    The other important thing to remember is that regardless of what Sanders does, Clinton may still win the nomination. In that case, by bloodying her badly now, she will go into the general election as a weaker candidate against the Republican nominee. Also, if the nomination fight bets vicious, then we have the danger that regardless of who wins, the losers’ supporters may feel angry and disaffected and may be less enthusiastic about the general election; many might even not bother to vote on election day.

    I think Sanders’ refusal to engage on the emails was not only the ethical thing to do, but is also strategically the smart thing to do when one looks ahead to the general election.

  7. doublereed says

    I find it amazing that people think the email thing was bad for Sanders. The question was a chance for clinton to act serious, and Sanders one-upped her and stole her question.

    Further, now whenever people think about the emails, they’re going to remember “Enough with your damn emails!”

    Hell, Sanders is not very funny and if anything it humanized him.

  8. doublereed says

    Further, atheistblog, Sanders is doing better than Obama did at the same time by basically all conceivable metrics. I have no idea why you seem to think that his campaigning strategy is ineffective.

    People keep saying Bernie’s poll numbers ain’t gonna go up, and then they do. I really have to wonder how many times people have to be wrong before they reconsider their position.

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