January 18, 2016
Sometimes you know who won and/or lost while the debate is happening. Often, it sinks in quickly once it’s over.
Had to sleep on this one. Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders did pretty well. As usual, Martin O’Malley wasn’t a factor. He reminds us that looking decent on paper is no substitute for having a brand.
Speaking of brands, both Hillary and Bernie reinforced theirs in a mostly positive way, making it difficult to declare a winner.
If you are anti-Hillary, she did nothing last night to win you over. You’ve seen and heard this act before. It’s often hard to picture another 4 to 8 years of this.
But she only needs to win over a slight majority of Iowa Democratic caucus voters to effectively end the nomination contest. It’s very easy to see how 52% of them would sign up.
As usual, she exhibited a command of policy detail and as many of her fans appreciate, did not back down. Hillary verbally hugged President Obama in a manner that would have shocked anyone who witnessed their 2008 contest, but it probably worked.
Obama is the only politician who has the technical skill to get himself elected to a virtual third term. Hillary should give careful thought to this tact in the long run. It’s not likely she can make it work in a general election.
Before the debate, I cautioned against this, as many of the undecided voters in Iowa may have preferred linkage to Bill Clinton instead. I still think that’s the case, and when she was directly asked about his influence, she answered well.
However, speaking before a heavily African-American audience in South Carolina on the eve of MLK Day meant the direct link was especially well received. Her applause was clearly heard by everyone at home.
If nothing else, it helped secure her Palmetto State firewall should it become necessary. My guess is Team Clinton went to bed feeling pretty well about how things turned out.
Bernie’s team is probably feeling ok too. He did not get a clear win. As usual, the folks at places like CNN thought Hillary won. If you apply the boxing standard that a challenger isn’t going to win a decision so you need to knock out the champ, he failed.
His critique on accepting speaking fees from Goldman Sachs was strong, but that only balanced out the hits Bernie took on gun control, as Hillary’s attack simulated one of the weapons she would seek to restrict.
The question is if the burden is truly on the challenger. If it is, he lost, missed his final opportunity before Iowa votes to really draw blood and make Hillary slight leaners question their judgment.
Democratic primary cycles usually favor the fresher candidate. Bernie might be 74, but to most of the audience, he’s new. So is his brand of democratic socialism to anyone under a certain age.
When Bernie was a boy in Brooklyn, you could hear similar views on any street corner. To the ears of a college student in Ames, Iowa in 2016, it’s new and fresh.
It’s even a new angle for someone in suburban Des Moines who came of age during the Reagan years. Whether the relative novelty is responsible, the latest Des Moines Register poll showed 43% of Iowa Democrats consider themselves democratic socialists.
If this many potential caucusers are buying in to Bernie’s basic ideology, perhaps the burden is actually on Hillary to prove Sanders is unqualified to lead.
If he’s a credible candidate, and close to half of the voters are on board with him, it only takes a few more who want change or just like him better.
By this measure, she failed. Bernie came out of the debate at least as much of a credible, serious candidate as he entered it. Where does this leave us?
Probably not too far from where we were when the debate began. While Hillary may have moved a few more undecideds and leaners into her column, she didn’t lock them all down.
Meanwhile, Bernie helped ensure a good turnout from the younger and less consistent caucusers he’s counting on.
He didn’t successfully pivot to issues that will help him with minority voters in a way that makes South Carolina suddenly in play, but he did do enough to give himself a shot to win Iowa and build momentum.
Let’s call this one a draw. For now, the ultimate Iowa result is still up in the air.