2016 Democrats, Debates, State of the Race, Strategy, Uncategorized

Univision/CNN Democratic Debate Preview: This Matters After All

March 9, 2016

What a difference a single primary result makes. Had Bernie Sanders lost by the 21 points the poll averages indicated, the 16 points we expected, or even a relatively narrow margin, the debate this evening wouldn’t matter much.

I was debating whether it made sense to discontinue debate previews and recaps for the Democratic side of the race. Bernie’s last, best hope to make an impact was in the Sunday debate in Michigan.

The consensus, which I heartily agreed with, was that he lost that round. I still think he lost the debate, but either I’m wrong, or it just didn’t matter. Perhaps if he’d had a great performance, Bernie wins Michigan by 5 or 10 instead of 2.

Welcome to uncharted territory.

Exit polls indicate Bernie struck electoral gold with his stance on trade and contrast with the overall Clinton record of supporting major agreements. Hillary tied him up a little during the debate, the part where observers figured she won on points.

It’s another reminder that political observers and actual voters view debates (official or just over the airwaves through ads and other stuff) differently. Hillary is a Clinton. We forget this once in a while, as she’s separated herself from Bill more than anyone could have imagined in the 90s.

You could have easily made a bet they’d be divorced in 2016, but what were the odds they would remain married while she busily repudiated wide swaths of their political legacy?

Instead of sticking up for Clinton era legislation, she points out the pieces Sanders voted for. Instead of defending NAFTA, she says she voted against CAFTA in the Senate and is now against TPP.

The Clinton brand is internationalist. Bill actively engaged Pacific Rim countries, pushed hard for NAFTA. He was best buds with UK Prime Minister Tony Blair. On his watch, the economy soared.

You can debate who was responsible. John Kasich takes credit for this too, saying his budgetary measures were a key contributor.

You can debate the long-range effects. Both Trump and Sanders draw a line from some of these decisions to present imbalances with China and Mexico among other nations who manufacture things for American companies that were previously produced in America.

Hillary is trying to have it both ways. She wants to claim credit for the Clinton Administration economic growth record. You can’t blame her. She was there at the time and the numbers were really good.

Who wouldn’t want to tie themselves to rising real incomes for the majority of demographic groups, 23 million new jobs and a balanced budget?

But it’s really hard to claim credit while disavowing the methods. Hillary can pick at details, can talk about a gun control bill Bernie didn’t vote for, an auto bailout vote he didn’t cast. She can say he voted for the crime bill he’s currently running against.

They can go back and forth on Wall Street regulation. He says he was opposed to ending Glass-Steagall. She says he voted to deregulate hedge funds. Bernie has resided in Congress for a quarter century. Hillary can find a vote that will make him look bad on any subject she wants.

Voters may not care. We know Hillary is better at details. We know she’s a better technical debater. Sometimes she starts off aggressive and tries to throw him off. Other times she holds back and waits for him to go a little off the rails.

At the margins, this matters. Perhaps he would have won Iowa instead of tying, won Nevada instead of losing narrowly. Same in Massachusetts. The difference in their debate skill might be all that is keeping Hillary from having no wins outside the old Confederacy.

Her three wins outside the South, combined with her edge in earned and super delegates gives the impression she’s winning the race.

If you have more delegates, have won more individual states, have more individual votes, are leading national polls, betting markets have you as a huge favorite, and the entire establishment is behind you, you’re winning. Right?

Maybe not.

She’s a Clinton. The party outside of the South is actively repudiating Clintonism. For some time, the assumption was Hillary had moved far enough left to secure the nomination and would then shift a bit back towards the center for November. It’s what’s usually done.

In doing so, she conceded the argument to her opponent. They aren’t debating the merits of free trade. She’s arguing their positions are more similar than voters think.

They aren’t debating the merits of the crime bill. She’s arguing he voted for it too. They aren’t debating the merits of providing mostly free college education, she’s saying Donald Trump’s kids should pay.

They aren’t debating universal health care or paid family leave, just how to attain it. If you’re fighting on your opponent’s turf, it’s a problem. If you’re running away from your own husband’s record, it’s a problem.

Her safety net was President Obama. His clothes aren’t as close to him as she is these days. He is widely popular with Democrats. But are his policies and results? Can you win on the Obama platform without Obama?

Hillary argues she’s a better bet in the fall. Perhaps she is. The polls say otherwise and have for a few months now. Pseudo-matchup polls taken months ahead of elections are notoriously sketchy. Still, they favor him.

Tying oneself to the first black president means something different outside the South. Being a Clinton means something different among white Democrats outside the South. We still don’t know exactly how Latinos and Asians will respond.

In Nevada, Bernie did relatively well with Hispanic voters. In Texas, not so much. In New York and California, we’ll see.

Hillary will probably win tonight’s debate on points. She usually does. It’s helped maintain her advantage.

But if Iowa had a straw poll caucus like the GOP does, he might well have won. A few more votes in Nevada and Massachusetts are all that has her on the right side of the narrative. If Bernie actually wins a debate, if he has a crushing sound byte, if a moderator follows up on an email question instead of letting her off the hook…..

Hillary Clinton is still the favorite. She’s still the better debater. She still has an important mathematical edge. When CNN does the postgame show, her surrogates will outnumber his. Unless she bombs, they’ll say she won.

But she’s on the precipice and could fall off at any time. President Ford fought off Ronald Reagan’s insurgent effort in 1976. He didn’t do this by agreeing with most of Reagan’s positions and saying he was a more credible way to implement them.

They actually contested the right way forward for the GOP. Obama didn’t beat Hillary in 2008 by saying she was mostly right, but he’d do better against McCain. Unless she can make a clear argument against Bernie’s goals, not just his way to get there, she’s got a problem.

Hillary better hope Bernie doesn’t learn how to beat her in a debate.

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