clock menu more-arrow no yes

DC insiders think Bernie Sanders lost the debate. Here's why they might be wrong.

The consensus of political commentators is clear: Hillary Clinton won the first Democratic debate. Her polished performance utterly outclassed her rivals, including Bernie Sanders, and reaffirmed her status as the obvious nominee.

Yet focus groups, search data, and social media information all tell a different story — one in which many viewers loved what Bernie Sanders had to say, or were, at the very least, quite interested in him.

I agree that Clinton turned in a strong performance. And that matters, as it could help her win back the confidence of party insiders worried about her recently declining numbers, and help deter Vice President Biden from entering the race.

But the debate wasn't just about party insiders or the views of pundits. And there are reasons to believe actual voters watching might come to very different conclusions than the professionals did. Consider the following.

1) After the first Republican debate in August, Marco Rubio was generally acclaimed as the winner. Practically no one in the media thought Ben Carson had won, because his performance seemed so stylistically unimpressive. Yet it was Carson who suddenly surged in the polls, up to second place, where he currently remains. DC insiders totally missed it.

2) Big majorities of post-debate focus groups conducted by CNN, Fox News, and Fusion all judged Bernie Sanders to be the winner. Now, focus groups are hardly scientific — the Fox News one after the first GOP debate thought Donald Trump had collapsed, yet he actually went up in the polls afterward. Still, it's interesting that all three came to the same conclusion.

3) Sanders has risen to second place in primary polls by repeating a few basic themes: He wants to challenge the power of the wealthy, to take on Wall Street and corporations, and to make America more like the social democratic Nordic countries. He hit those themes hard, and clearly, throughout the debate — in political parlance, he was "on message."

4) Political commentators like me have been covering Sanders for months, and his message is old hat to us at this point. So we give him no credit for repeating those basic themes that have made him so popular on the left, and focus instead on moments where something "new" happens, like his awkward handling of the gun issue.

5) But many voters haven't been following the race so closely. Beforehand, a third of Democrats said they didn't yet know enough about Sanders to have an opinion on him. Even many of those who did know about him likely hadn't been exposed to him all that much. So when Sanders makes the case at length for why he's a democratic socialist, many of these voters might not have heard that before — and might like it.

6) One of Sanders's most important moments in the debate — his defense of Clinton and criticism of the media over the email issue — was generally scored by pundits as a victory for Clinton. My colleague Ezra Klein, for instance, suggested it showed Sanders didn't have the instinct for the jugular that will be necessary to take down the frontrunner.

7) But to Democratic voters, it could also speak to Sanders's character, and mark him as a different kind of politician, who's not interested in negative campaigning. Indeed, Fox News's focus group wildly praised Sanders for this — it was their favorite moment in the entire debate.

8) Sanders won the most new Facebook followers, according to data from Crowdtangle. He added more than 35,000, increasing his following by 2 percent, to 1.69 million. Clinton added about 18,000, increasing her following by 1 percent, to 1.54 million.

9) Sanders also dominated in Google search traffic of the candidates who were onstage. Political scientist John Sides wisely cautions that we have no idea why people were searching for Sanders, and what they might have thought of the results. Still, one of the biggest challenges for a non-frontrunner is to capture the interest of the public — and Sanders clearly did that.

10) Overall, we won't know how or whether the debate moved the polls for some time. But over fifteen million people watched it — enough to make it easily the most-watched Democratic debate in history. And it's worth remembering that those millions of people might be impressed by very different things than DC insiders.