Bernie Bits: Did Sanders Really Lose the Democratic Debate? | Off Message

Bernie Sanders
Bernie Bits: Did Sanders Really Lose the Democratic Debate?


When I woke up this morning, I was surprised to learn that Hillary Clinton had wiped the floor with Bernie Sanders at last night's Democratic presidential debate. 

"Hillary Clinton won — by a landslide," Politico's Katie Glueck wrote, summing up a survey of early-state insiders. 

"Her performance at the first Democratic presidential debate was so commanding that even her greatest vulnerability — the lingering controversy over her private email practices as secretary of state — ended up redounding to her benefit," the New York Times' Patrick Healy gushed

"Instead of turning in the safe and solid performance she needed," Slate's Josh Voorhees wrote, "Clinton was closer to spectacular on Tuesday night."

Weird. I thought I watched the same debate, but I walked away with a different conclusion. 

Sure, the former secretary of state delivered a strong performance in Las Vegas. And, as I wrote last night, Sanders continued to look flummoxed by his gun record and out of his depth on foreign policy.

But Sanders shined, at times, too — deftly condensing his hourlong stump speech into a two-minute opening statement, disarming questions about his democratic socialism and his Vietnam War-era conscientious-objector application and proving he knows how to say, "Black lives matter." Not only did he defy expectations that he'd lash out at his chief rival, Sanders appeared generous and substantive — and landed the line of the night — when he dismissed a question about Clinton's "damn emails."

Clinton's highest praise appeared to emanate from Democratic insiders who've always seen her as the heir apparent — and from Acela corridor reporters so obsessed with her campaign's purported death spiral that they were overwhelmed to find she had a pulse. In their race to set expectations, the latter seemed to forget that Clinton is a master debater who went toe-to-toe with President Obama more than two dozen times during the 2008 campaign season — and that Sanders' experience amounts to debating Peter Diamondstone

Vermont's junior senator wasn't talking to political reporters last night. He was introducing himself to the many Americans just tuning in to the race — who don't follow politics closely and may well have never heard of the guy. There were an awful lot of them: According to Nielsen, more than 15 million people watched the debate, making it the highest-rated Democratic debate in history.

Those viewers seemed to want to learn more. Data collected by Google Trends shows that Sanders' name was the one most searched throughout the debate. According to Vox, Crowdtangle found that he gained 35,000 Facebook followers during the debate, compared to the 18,000 Clinton racked up. Twitter said he scored the top moment of the event with his email quip. Notably, three focus groups — conducted by Fox News, CNN and Fusion — agreed that Sanders prevailed.

Sanders' campaign was quick to highlight its own metrics. Some 100,000 people turned out to 4,000 house parties to watch the debate, according to spokesman Michael Briggs. In the hours after it began, he said, the campaign picked up $1.3 million through 37,600 contributions. At one point, 10.25 donations were coming in every second. 

We won't know for a few more days whether Vegas had any measurable impact on public opinion polls. But we do know that a whole lot of people turned on the tube and liked what they saw from the democratic socialist from Vermont. That, to me, sure seems like a win.