By Madison Friend
To the question of who won the Democratic debate last Tuesday night, there is no clear answer. Or, actually, an answer at all. In a contest with no metrics or points, it’s impossible to choose a winner.
That didn’t stop a lot of people – pundits, personalities, average joes – from trying, and the results were mixed. A series of voluntary online polls conducted by major media outlets during and after the debate showed Sanders victorious; he beat Hillary Clinton by at least an 18-point margin in every instance. He outpaced Clinton in social media measures and internet trends as well, adding more Facebook and Twitter followers than all the other candidates combined while remaining the most-searched candidate on Google for the duration of the debate.
In the meantime, many in the establishment media were declaring a different winner – Hillary Clinton, and by a landslide. This confused those who had participated in and viewed the results of the voluntary online polls, many of whom felt that Sanders had outperformed the former First Lady.
A veritable flame war ensued. After the “Hillary killed it!” narrative swept through the Internet, alternative media outlets published a slew of stories about the outrage caused by the way establishment media outlets had assessed and covered the debate. Some individuals even floated conspiratorial theories that Time Warner, parent company of CNN (the network that hosted the debate) and offerer of frequent financial support to Clinton, had manipulated debate coverage because they have a vested interest in seeing Hillary take the White House. That observation generated a lot of attention, anger, and support on social media sites like Reddit and Twitter, which prompted another flurry of articles that didn’t cast Sanders’ supporters in the friendliest light.
The media’s initial unskilled response proved the fatal misstep that compelled Sanders’ fervent crowd of supporters to aggressively push back against the pro-Hillary narrative. When questions about a potential bias for Hillary Clinton arose the morning after the debate, many of the accused were quick to point to the unscientific (read: unreliable) nature of the voluntary online polls that Sanders supporters were touting as proof their assertions had merit – ignoring, of course, the entirely unscientific nature of their own methods of assessment. It would have been far more savvy for the pundits to double down on their claims, shouting “We’re right!” to their challengers, instead of “You’re wrong!”, because the evidence presented by both parties (internet polls, web data, personal opinions, formal polling) remains an inscrutable mix of seemingly credible and completely non-objective information.
Both candidates left Las Vegas looking better than they did going in. Clinton received an undeniable boost from her confident performance and the media’s glowing coverage – since, she has pulled into a statistical tie with Sanders in New Hampshire, a state he’s dominated in the polls for the past several weeks. But Sanders was able to introduce himself to millions of new voters for the first time, and since the debate has continued to ride the momentous wave of progressivism building within the Democratic party, pulling in 4 million in small-dollar donations since it aired last Tuesday.
Both candidates must have learned a few things as well. Sanders, who reportedly didn’t spend much time preparing for this debate, should rethink his strategy the next time around. He was unprepared for questions about gun control and electability he should have seen coming a mile away, and his unwillingness to appear “on the attack” caused him to miss key opportunities to nail Clinton for her inconsistent record and apparent political expediency. Hillary, on the other hand, has by now realized that the enthusiasm gap between her candidacy and Sanders’ is going to be a bigger problem come the first primary contests in Iowa and New Hampshire than she thought; the impassioned performances she’s been churning out recently probably have a lot to do with this new understanding.
The debate cleared up a few things for the rest of us, as well. Now we know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Martin O’Malley, Lincoln Chafee, and Jim Webb should exit the race, and that Joe Biden has no reason to enter. If the Democratic party wants a “real” contest, it’s got one between Sanders and Clinton – it’s time to separate the wheat from the chaff and get down to the nitty-gritty style and policy differences between the two frontrunners. The next debate will work best as a clash of those two titans, sans the distractions of the nomination’s weaker contenders.