February 3, 2016
You wouldn’t know this from watching the post-game show, but Bernie got his first clear victory in a debate or town hall event. Way back in October, he was capable of speaking to his base, but wasn’t ready to start convincing undecided voters. Hillary was sharp. Confident.
Things have changed. Bernie has improved. He’s also better in a town hall format than a debate. He does well speaking directly to questions from the crowd, likes pacing around a little bit, and most importantly doesn’t face a time limit. It’s not like speaking to a rally of a few thousand people, but good enough.
Challenging questions from voters and a follow-up push from moderator Anderson Cooper were to his benefit. Bernie faces definite skepticism of his ability to execute any of his plans. He still trails noticeably among voters of color. Voters over 50 aren’t on board yet.
Direct questions about racial issues brought up his experience with CORE in the 1960s and his participation in the effort to desegregate housing at the University of Chicago. He didn’t manage to mention his participation in MLK’s March on Washington. Why he resists going there is beyond me.
More than in any previous event, Sanders seemed like he had seriously thought through the steps of what he wanted to accomplish. He did mention the need for a revolution a good 2 or 7 times, but was also able to tick of a list of reforms to help with policing issues. In other words, he didn’t spend the hour in the clouds.
Plus, he’s damn likeable in this format. He hasn’t shifted from if I’m elected to when I’m elected yet, but you can sense he now thinks there’s at least a slight, if marginal chance he could become the nominee.
Near as I can tell, more Bernie is a good thing for potential voters. It may take a couple more weeks or months to move enough of them to his column, but the crucial March 15 winner-take-all states aren’t up yet. If nothing else, he avoided ruining his chances of winning New Hampshire by a decent margin.
Then there was Hillary. You don’t have to like her to respect when she puts in a good appearance and acts presidential. The previous town hall in Iowa was one of those. Each of the debates are examples. This wasn’t.
She wasn’t bad. I seriously doubt she lost scads of voters, or would have if ratings were higher. Nobody who was strongly favoring her in New Hampshire got off the train because of anything she said or didn’t say.
At the same time, Hillary appeared more rattled this time. She rambled a few times when asked a slightly more difficult question, in particular when the subject was getting young women to vote for her. None of this is apparent in the sound bites. She had a good one about fighting for young people whether they vote for her or not.
If you didn’t see the show and only watch commentary or clips, you’ll think she did just fine. Here’s the problem. She won Iowa. Maybe not by much, but she won. Nobody said a thing about emails. Not any of the voters with their pre-screened questions, not Anderson Cooper. Bernie didn’t bring up the damn emails.
Flash forward a couple of weeks. Pretend there are new revelations, or at least new stories about her email. Humor me and imagine Bernie wins Nevada. Let’s further assume she’s in a debate and somebody asks her a question she doesn’t want to hear.
A key thing keeping her ahead is presidential bearing. She’s been in the public eye for a quarter century. He’s Larry David. Really. He said so tonight. People started picturing President Clinton 2.0 years ago. Only a few Millennials can safely imagine Hail to the Bern playing as Sanders shuffles down the stairs of Air Force One.
She can’t afford to sound even slightly shaky as he becomes almost, kind of, a little bit, vaguely semi-plausible. Donald Trump is a show. Bernie Sanders is authentic. It’s fun having him around, enjoyable having him in the race.
He’s not there yet. It might not happen in time. The deck is stacked in her favor. Hillary doesn’t have to convince the whole country, or even half of it just yet. She only needs to sell half-plus-one of the people who are going to show up for Democratic primaries and caucuses.
But on the day where the campaigns and DNC agreed to add 4 additional debates to the schedule, pushing the reserved events out until May in California, Bernie notched his first clear win. Hillary can no longer count on these as a televised ad for her march to the presidency.
The old socialist is learning a few new tricks.