December 20, 2015
The Democrats ended their third debate round without any major fireworks. Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders did well, while Martin O’Malley continued his struggle to become relevant.
Hillary is good at this format. She had a ton of practice in 2007-08 and debating every 4-6 weeks is keeping her fresh. Expecting her to make the kind of mistake to re-frame the race is a mistake itself.
Presented with the opportunity to do so yesterday, Hillary wisely passed, removing the data controversy as an issue for the debate so she could continue focusing on Donald Trump and the GOP.
Perhaps most importantly, she was in general election mode, willing to sound more hawkish than President Obama or Sanders. This was wise. Not only is it the truth, but her main pitch to wavering voters is electability and capability.
Though she certainly has exploitable weaknesses in a general election, the average Hillary leaner isn’t moving away from her based on yesterday’s performance. Nothing to see here.
O’Malley isn’t cut out for presidential-level politics. There’s no shame in this. Scott Walker and Bobby Jindal are already casualties on the Republican side. Each of them got out before they did too much damage to themselves.
However, both Jindal and Walker have faint hopes of trying again later and Walker has most of a term left in Wisconsin. This is it for O’Malley. He’s not particularly popular at home and is not a VP prospect.
Trying to run to Hillary’s left while providing a more conventional option than Bernie is a very limited place to hang out. It partially explains his feeble polling. It would take an outstanding communicator to make this work. He’s not that.
Bernie had a strong, if not game-changing night. He handled the data scandal questions well, being gracious and responsible enough without backing down.
Though he’s clearly not comfortable attacking fellow Democrats, he was very willing to draw foreign policy contacts with Clinron. Unlike the last debate, Sanders didn’t duck opportunities to discuss ISIS. He did draw a very appropriate link between the domestic economy and fighting them.
If you were already a Berner, particularly an engaged volunteer, you came away proud of your guy and ready to put in some work. If you were leaning Bernie, you still are. If you are strongly for him, but haven’t voted before, you still want to get to the polls.
Though Hillary is still a strong favorite, took no hits last night, and is perceived as having taken one more step to her inevitable coronation, Bernie made varying amounts of progress on his three projects to win enough votes to pull a crucial Iowa upset.
First, he gave his people something to work with to boost turnout. Bernie will need to follow up on this and take a small page from Trump, making sure to do the maximum amount of media over the next few weeks, but he fired up the troops.
Second, O’Malley didn’t make a dent and by drawing a distinction with Hillary, the odds of the few O’Malley people going to Bernie when Democratic Iowa caucus rules (you need 15% at an individual location to keep your caucusers) force them to find a new home.
Third, while Hillary certainly retained the vast majority of her supporters, Bernie took a micro step to peeling away Clinton leaners who would prefer a less interventionist foreign policy.
Most people didn’t watch this. Media coverage and pundit recaps will help Hillary. Bernie still has a ton of work to do and really needs a good media strategy for the next 2-4 weeks.
But he did take a small step. A giant leap forward with an Iowa caucus win is still possible.