February 11, 2016
Step right up, men, women, children of all ages, this is going to be a show. Hillary Clinton has yet to truly damage Bernie Sanders in any of the previous debates. You can argue she hasn’t even dented him.
It’s great to win debates, but when voters are already assuming you are the better debater, having your opponent survive in one piece is more of a draw or even maybe a loss. Though Hillary won the alpha moment of the last debate, most of it covered Wall Street. If that’s the lead topic, Bernie is on safer ground.
For weeks, undecided voters have fought between their pro-Bernie heart and pro-Hillary head. It’s beginning to look like the heart wins on primary day. However often Clinton talks about how she can actually make things happen, build on President Obama’s progress, any of her other talking points, it’s not inspiring.
Bernie is likeable. After people see him enough, they start finding him more plausible. Surviving the debates are a part of this. Ratings are lower than for the Republicans. Last week’s MSNBC contest pulled a modest 4.5 million viewers.
That’s still plenty of eyeballs, most of whom are motivated voters. More importantly, each debate provides a couple hours of video. As Marco Rubio is discovering, a bad couple of minutes can live on indefinitely.
Hillary would like to create a moment where Bernie looks unfit to win a general election and/or unfit to execute the office. Failing at that, her team is aiming to create doubt over his purity and authenticity. It appears there are three points of likely attack:
Guns: Hillary spent some time on this in the first few debates. She has the endorsements of the mothers of several high-profile police shootings. Some combination of Bernie’s less hardcore gun control positions and the impact of guns in inner cities is queued up.
Votes: Senators aren’t elected president very often. There are 100 at any one time, but only 3 (Harding, Kennedy, Obama) earned a direct upgrade to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue in the 20th or 21st century. Part of the problem is voting.
There are a lot of them and many have unsavory pieces. You can’t find a senator who hasn’t cast a couple of votes they have a hard time explaining. Bernie is no exception. Any vote that makes him look hypocritical or inconsistent is a target.
Donations: If Bernie ever took five dollars from any source of money tied to any PAC, bank or brokerage house, hedge fund, pharmaceutical company, etc., we’ll hear about it.
If most of the debate consists of Bernie explaining himself, Hillary might get her first clean victory. On the other hand, if he can keep the conversation on bigger issues and wider principles, he’s good to go.
With all the narrative over the past few days about African-American voters, voters of color, the contest moving to less white locations, etc., Bernie will have plenty of opportunity to link his agenda to the various groups who will be effected by his proposed change.
Bernie doesn’t pander. That’s part of what his supporters like. It also makes him a bit dependent on the questions and topics to give him opportunities to score points with voters who haven’t committed to him yet for reasons other than lack of exposure.
Hillary still leads in national polls. Sometimes by a little, sometimes by some. She leads in South Carolina, leads in many March 1 states. He needs to convert leaning Hillary to undecided, undecided to leaning Bernie, leaning Bernie to feeling the Bern.
We don’t know yet if extra doses of the Bern are enough to pull enough people across the spectrum in time to vote for him in their primary. If he needs to do particular, targeted convincing, this is the last debate until after March 1.
In sports like hockey, soccer, and football, winning teams normally spend more of the game on their opponent’s side of the field. Make them defend their goal or end zone while you attack it.
If the debate is primarily on Bernie-friendly topics and he gets questions that allow him to easily pivot to ways he can connect with non-white voters, female voters, or older voters, he’s a winner, even if observers think Hillary carried herself very well and gave good answers.
If Hillary is on the attack and Bernie spends the majority of the debate fending her off, that’s a win for her. He may make it through this one without making any mistakes, but the previous debate already showed she can really push him when she wants to.
Eventually, if she can stay on offense, he’ll make a mistake. We don’t yet know if Bernie has a Trump-like ability to overcome what would normally seem like misstatements. He’s stayed remarkably consistent and gaffe-free.
Even if he has a Trumpian immunity, he’s only up against one candidate. If 30-35% of GOP voters are with The Donald, right, wrong, or unsure, that’s more than enough in a several candidate field. Bernie needs at least 50%, likely more to overcome super delegates.
Let’s see which side of the field they play on.