1st Democratic Debate Analysis: Things (Mostly) Stay The Same

Democrats finally got their chance to showcase their five presidential candidates in front of the country on national TV last night, and one has to wonder after watching – why aren’t we doing this every week? In an incredibly clear contrast with the divisive and nasty circus that was the two prior Republican debates, the Democrats discussed policy in a mostly congenial way, respectfully disagreeing on a few topics and largely looked like a positive, forward-thinking party. And it was still entertaining!

But let’s get to the real question: who won? Most in the media are calling it for Hillary Clinton, and she did put in an incredible performance that’s becoming a hallmark of hers at big events. But I would actually give a slight edge to Bernie Sanders, in terms of appealing to primary-going Democrats. Clinton certainly won the narrative last night, but Sanders may have won over more hearts of voters.

Overall, there was no incredible break-out moment or huge disaster from any of the top three candidates, so the race will likely stay as it is now: Clinton on top with a healthy but tenuous lead; Sanders exciting the progressive wing that keeps him high in the polls; and O’Malley good enough that he still sticks around.

Here’s a look at each one:

Bernie Sanders

The night started out looking like it could be a very bad one for Sanders. Right out of the gate he was hit on electability concerns, his stance on guns and his “Democratic Socialist” label. Clinton and O’Malley piled on him with gun control, and he was clearly uncomfortable defending against attacks that threw him off his preferred income inequality message.

But Sanders performed exceptionally well down the stretch as the debate turned more and more to specific policy questions. His exchange over Hillary’s email server was one of the most memorable of the night (and I think you could see how his “damn emails” line could have also hinted that voters were sick of the distractions a Clinton candidacy could cause as well). He was energetic and forceful on taking on Wall Street and free college tuition.

As he always does at his rallies, Sanders said a lot of things the Democratic base is hungry for, and did so with the loud gusto that gives him the fun outsider personality. Despite his rise in the polls and excitement in the party, he actually still hasn’t gotten a lot of national press. Most have come to Sanders through social media and word-of-mouth, so seeing the progressive champion on national TV may actually bring some new people to Sanders’ cause.

Hillary Clinton

I say Sanders achieved more with Democratic voters in this debate, and, perhaps with me, it’s an expectations thing. Others seemed to watch Clinton and come away amazed that she didn’t implode like the national media narrative claims she is. I guess they weren’t watching her debates in 2008 or haven’t seen her campaigning at big events this year. Clinton comes to play at these things.

And she still accomplished a lot. She campaigned like she was ten points down, and the feistiness paid off. She went after Sanders early and hard on guns, jumped in on questions she could have let sail pass and took every opportunity she got to turn a question into a chance to loudly denounce Republicans. It was a great embrace of her toughness and made her look like the fighter who can take the Democrats to victory next November.

There were a few off-key moments too. She was pressed a lot on changing positions, and some of her responses didn’t hit home. Sanders and O’Malley beat her up a bit on financial regulations, and she gave an awkward “I represented Wall Street” soundbite that could be clipped out for ads.

Martin O’Malley

He was good, but not great, and O’Malley needed something special to boost his profile and polling numbers. At times he came off too serious, again in a setting that favors punchy lines and more interaction. He pressed Sanders on guns and Clinton on Wall Street, but didn’t get into too many back-and-forths. O’Malley’s closing comments became oddly symbolic of his campaign thus far: he delivered a powerful and crowd-pleasing contrast between the Democrats’ serious, policy-centered debate and the circus atmosphere of the Republican ones. It was a great closing, but I don’t know if it did him any favors – it made people appreciate Democrats more, but did it get anyone to vote for him?

Fortunately, Webb and Chafee were terrible, so O’Malley stood out as the legitimate alternative to Clinton and Sanders. And just being on the stage in front of a national audience should attract some new interest in the former Maryland Governor. Even just a small jump in the polls will be appreciate for O’Malley, which he should get, and carry him to the next debate, where perhaps he’ll try a different approach.

Jim Webb

Webb didn’t really do anything to justify his being on a nationally-televised debate stage, especially considering he does practically no real campaigning. His arguing over debate time and conservative-leaning views on a host of issues likely didn’t pick him up any new support. It’s too bad, actually, as I think it would be interesting to have a more moderate/right-leaning Democrat in the conversation. People don’t have to support him, but it’s always helpful to have more ideas in the party being debated.

He did mention how he killed a guy, so that was cool. Top that, Republicans!

Lincoln Chafee

Drop out now, Lincoln. Or please, future debate moderators, please do not invite this sad man to the next debate. I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen a candidate in last place become such a punching bag in a debate, but Chafee more than earned it with his weak, pathetic performance. His “it was my first day” excuse for a vote on Glass-Steagal ranks as one of the most bizarre debate answers I’ve ever seen. Go home already.

Joe Biden

The Vice President sadly did not parachute in at the last moment, and his absence highlighted how much he’s missing out by waiting so long to decide. Clinton quieted some of her critics with a solid debate, Sanders won over liberals and O’Malley emerged as a credible alternative if you don’t like those first two. Don’t expect many people to clamor for Biden to swoop in and save the party now.


by Pat Rynard
Posted 10/14/15

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