March 7, 2016
Bernie Sanders won the first 10 to 15 minutes of the debate. He responded well to the first group of questions from the audience. The format was favorable. Bernie tends to come off better in town hall forums than the official debate setting.
His default is to talk about Wall Street, not individuals. He prefers to bring everything back towards his favorite topics. Donald Trump does this too. It does work. If you spend all day every day listening to these guys, it’s tiresome, but it works because most of the public is too smart to waste their time this way.
If someone paying half attention to the contest can recite the major points of a candidate, that’s an important feature. Trump is leading his nomination battle. That means he gets to keep doing his thing and his opponents need to adjust.
Bernie is not winning. Hillary Clinton has a lead using whatever measure you might prefer. She entered the debate up about 20 points in Michigan, and leading in the crucial March 15 states.
The formula got him $42 million in donations for February, allowing him to stick around as long as he wants, but actual victory is not possible if he keeps doing exactly what allowed Hillary to get out to a lead. I grant you the odds are against him regardless, but failure to adjust guarantees it.
This is not a matter of voters just getting to know him better. The campaign likes saying voters respond when they become more familiar with him, but there’s little evidence this is true. He didn’t start doing better in Southern states the more time he spent there.
We managed to correctly predict his margin in Maine. The magic formula was adding together his percentages in the other three New England states to have voted and dividing by three.
He’s not moving. It’s great for predictions. Want to know how he’ll do in Mississippi tomorrow? Add the Louisiana, Alabama, and Tennessee margins and divide by three. You’ll get really close.
The Bernie of the first few questions was making progress. He got specific, showed he was interested in things like lead and got boisterous applause from the audience. Hillary was flat by comparison, hedging her answers.
I sat there wondering how CNN was going to handle the postgame coverage. Their pundit panel is heavily Hillary-tilted. They combine actual announced Hillary supporters, with officially neutral Democratic insiders with ties to her, and a sprinkling of establishment GOP types.
While Trump has his share of surrogates (the Dem debate postgame panel had one), Sanders doesn’t. He dominates social media, but consistently loses the cable network battle.
This helps his relatively high floor. His supporters aren’t making their decisions based on what a CNN or MSNBC commentator says. A loss in one place won’t keep him from doing well in a caucus a couple days later.
But for Hillary-leaners who do consume mainstream cable media, it’s a problem. This makes it tougher for Bernie to win them over without changing things up a bit. They’re spending plenty of time on delegate math, which doesn’t help him any.
Before I could spend more time figuring out how the panel might spin this, Bernie committed an unforced error. For the first several minutes, the candidates mostly ignored each other, focusing on answering the question, or at least steering the question to a talking point.
He thought he saw an opening, a way to remind the audience in the auditorium and at home that Hillary’s support for various trade policies contributed to the demise of Michigan manufacturing jobs.
Before the debate, I advocated Bernie go here. But not this way. I wanted him to use the questions to articulate a full Sanders Economic Policy, not use it to take shots at Hillary.
Hillary Clinton is very unpopular with Republicans. She’s mostly unpopular with Independents. The problem is most voters on Tuesday and March 15 are Democrats. They like her. Especially the African Americans Bernie needs to make progress with.
He needed everyone to think “we like you Hillary, we liked your husband. We know you’ve paid your dues, but we’re just feeling the Bern a little more.”
Once Bernie took his shot, she fired back. They then spent the remainder of the debate going back and forth. If they are just giving individual answers, he sounds better because he’s more fiery and more declarative. He had the chance to convince the audience he could do what others couldn’t or wouldn’t.
Hillary is a skilled debater and tactician. She was ready to take advantage of any opening, hitting him on voting against the auto bailout, getting him tied up on guns, and generally breaking his momentum.
Points for her. Bernie gave her an opening and she took it. Insurgencies usually fail. Not always. Trump is succeeding. He’s managed to move the conversation to his turf. He’s running a stronger, smarter race than his opponents.
While Sanders clearly has moved Clinton leftward, to the point where Trump has a real opening with some moderate Democrats, she’s still controlling the overall tempo of the contest.
She and her staff learned from 2008, are not taking things for granted and are completely prepared at every turn. Trump has shown the ability to change tactics as needed. It’s mostly Trumpian bluster, but every so often, he takes a different tone.
Bernie got real close to a winning formula for a few minutes, but ultimately he tripped. The big clip from the night is him telling her to let him finish, one that doesn’t show him in the best light. She baited him, he took it.
Trump doesn’t care if he sounds sexist. Sanders does. Trump can fire back about any number of embarrassing topics. Bernie won’t. He’s not going to talk about the damn emails, letting Hillary off the hook when she ditches a question on the topic.
If you are going to engage your opponent, you have to go all the way, as Trump would. If not, stick to the questions, engage the audience. Let Hillary look overly aggressive.
Now it probably doesn’t matter. I think this was his last chance. Unless something changes, Bernie swung and missed at his last hittable pitch.