October 14, 2015
Giving out post-debate grades is a time-honored exercise in irrelevance. The true grades come from voters who are polled over the next week or two. Beyond that, successful campaigns will leverage a bounce or minimize a shaky performance, making it hard to determine how much of the longer-term trend was debate related.
Mind you, that’s still not going to prevent me from passing out grades. The criteria du jour is how well a candidate moved themselves forward, without doing anything to make their ultimate chances impossible.
The media consensus is Hillary crushed it. Did she?
Hillary Clinton (A-)
Hillary Clinton is not a very good presidential candidate. In a number of ways she’s shockingly bad at it. Debates are not one of those weaknesses. If in fact the DNC and Debbie Wasserman Schultz created the truncated debate schedule to protect her, they goofed.
Hillary is not seen as particularly trustworthy (even by many who would consider voting for her). She certainly isn’t consistent on key issues. If we take her current platform at face value, 70% of Americans are to the right of what she’s currently selling.
But, there are plenty of voters who will look the other way on her known weaknesses when she appears smart, tough, and capable. Her biggest detractors would acknowledge that version of Hillary was on stage last night.
For some, the email scandal is a trust thing, but most of those voters weren’t going to support Hillary anyway. Where it really hurts her is intelligence and competency. How was she dumb enough to do it and why is she handling it so poorly?
Debate performances like this put many of those fears at ease. If you are a fan, you feel much better this morning. If you aren’t sure but had a soft spot for her somewhere, you’re re-engaged. If you support someone else, you remember Hillary won’t go away easily.
Yes, Hillary has moved far to the left over the course of the early campaign. No, she’s not where most Americans are. No, it won’t be easy to tack back toward the center later. But odds are better than 50/50 Republicans will nominate a candidate to the right of most Americans.
With one candidate to the left and another to the right, it becomes a battle of communication, and Hillary reminded us there are versions of communicating she’s good at. She’s nowhere near a favorite next fall yet, and didn’t wrap up the nomination in one evening, but did all anyone could have reasonably expected.
Bernie Sanders (B)
Bernie’s supporters will object to this grade. A post-debate CNN (non-scientific) poll had 74% of viewers choosing him as the winner. Focus groups of younger voters loved him.
If you were the kind of voter Sanders was already appealing to, he knocked it out of the park. There was an awkward section in the beginning where he was on defense on gun control and a couple other things, but he acquitted himself well.
The quirky charisma came through. You can’t doubt Bernie really means what he says. It’s obvious he’s upset about income inequality and wants to tax the top 1% to do something about it.
So, if you are his type of voter, but weren’t paying that much attention yet, he won you over. He also attempted to reach out to African-American voters, mentioning the black youth unemployment rate and incarceration excesses on multiple occasions.
It’s a start, but I don’t think he did enough to convince older, mainstream Democrats he’d be a strong alternative to Hillary. If they get scared later, they’d still prefer Biden.
Reaching out to black voters made sense, but he’ll have to go much further to pull large amounts of African-Americans away from Clinton and Biden. He’s also did little to connect with Latino voters.
Keeping in mind this was also Bernie’s debut on the presidential debate stage, he did well, but it appears he consolidated his base instead of raising his ceiling.
Jim Webb (B)
If anyone was wondering if there is still a place in the Democratic Party for people like Jim Webb, yesterday should have settled it. The lack of applause after many of his answers was striking. It wasn’t just the sometimes shaky delivery.
Given the increasingly populist tenor of the GOP campaign, you had to wonder if he ran in the wrong contest. For non-liberal viewers, Webb was a welcome life line.
The Democratic caucus rules in Iowa force a candidate to get 15% support in the room to have their votes count. This guarantees a dismal performance. In a less crowded year, you could see Webb actually doing pretty well with independents in New Hampshire.
There was never much room in the contest, but Webb made a case to at least get to stay on stage as a contrast. He’s had a long and sometimes distinguished career and has different views from his peers. He also gets to build his brand for future literary pursuits.
Martin O’Malley (B)
In order to succeed in the race, O’Malley needs Hillary to stumble further while Biden stays out. We still don’t know about Biden’s ultimate decision, but Hillary definitely didn’t stumble in the debate.
Absent those events out of his control, there’s little he can do. O’Malley said nothing a liberal or mainstream Democrat would object to. He sounded both properly progressive and like a sober, serious executive at the same time.
By any reasonable standard, he did well, especially considering this was his first presidential debate. Unfortunately, he also didn’t say anything people will remember next week or even tomorrow.
As a perfectly suitable (he deflected questions about his tenure in Baltimore pretty well) Democratic candidate, he’s still overshadowed by Hillary and Bernie when sharing the stage with them.
Lincoln Chafee (C)
Chafee’s task was simple. Provide a compelling reason why he should exist in the contest and participate in future debates.
He failed. Lindsey Graham is similarly buried on the GOP side, but at least he brings something to the show. He has a key issue (putting boots on the ground against ISIL/ISIS) and brings up things other candidates won’t.
While Chafee didn’t sound horrible, unprofessional, or uniquely unqualified to stand on the debate stage, he was the political version of empty calories. There’s no reason to listen to him instead of one of the others.
On balance, the group did fairly well. Democrats are bragging about how they spent more time on issues than Republicans did. It’s very true, though if you threw Donald Trump and another 4 or 5 candidates on this stage, the same relative chaos would ensue.
The absence of rancor and shortage of candidates allowed Democratic candidates to communicate their message with little intrusion. That’s great for partisans who probably feel really good today. Whether more ideologically moderate voters agree is another matter. Republicans offered a wider range of positions.
As time goes by we’ll find out if coherence or variety is more important. Variety may appeal to swing voters, but coherence gets your base out to vote. Will be interesting to see what works.