The media loves a winner, and after the Democratic debate, pundits leaped over each other to declare their choices for who “won” the debate. Most, unsurprisingly, chose Clinton, because that’s what everyone expected.
But I say no one won.
Debates aren’t elections. They’re not sporting events. In some ways, the candidates aren’t competing against each other but instead are using the debate to promote themselves in a forum that allows voters to compare.
You “win” the debate by outperforming expectations. You “lose” by making mistakes or coming across as unlikable and untrustworthy.
I still remember Gerald Ford in a debate with Jimmy Carter claiming that there was no Soviet presence in Poland. (Hint: there was.) The press and the Democrats pounded on him for being ill-informed and he just sunk lower in the polls. George Bush looked at his watch during a debate with Bill Clinton, as if to say he was bored and this wasn’t really important to him, and that allowed the press to label him as aloof and uncaring. Al Gore’s sighs during his debate with George W. Bush made him look arrogant instead of making Bush look stupid and that didn’t help his campaign (even though he was right about Bush saying idiotic things that deserved sighs).
No one made those kinds of errors last night, although there were some comments that didn’t stand up to scrutiny when fact-checked (although nothing like the kind of lying and outright dishonesty we have seen during the Republican debates).
Hillary “won” yesterday’s debate in that she answered the questions, seemed knowledgeable, and didn’t make any mistakes. But the bar was low for her — she is a good debater, she’s been doing it for years, and she’s always well prepared. We knew what to expect from her, and she met expectations, so pundits claimed her the winner.
Bernie Sanders, however, had everything to gain. Most people knew very little about him. He didn’t make any mistakes, and he pounded his issue concerning income equality, which is a winning topic that any Democrat should push. At the same time, he gave the GOP a lot of clips they can use against him in a general election to portray him as a crazy socialist who hates capitalism, so that doesn’t really help (although in this election year, being “anti-capitalism” may help bring in more young voters).
Lincoln Chafee, Martin O’Malley, and Jim Webb merely had to show to their supporters that they were viable candidates, and of the three, O’Malley came out the best. Webb just seemed angry and many of his positions are just too moderate for the kind of Democratic activists who get involved in elections this early. Chafee had lame excuses for much of his previous votes, and really doesn’t have a chance. These three are probably just jockeying for a Vice Presidential nod.
Based on most unscientific polling, voters said Bernie Sanders won, and if you look at the fact that he took in another $2 million in donations within 24 hours of the debate, I’d say that makes it easier to say he “won” by the standards I set. He outperformed expectations. Again.