How you view this week’s Democratic debate seems to hinge on how you already feel about the candidates, at least a little. While most pundits have declared Hillary Clinton to be the winner (I agree with them), if you look at online polls or talk to anyone who supports Bernie Sanders, you will get a completely different answer.
To be fair, Sanders was seen as winning the debate by many online polls and some focus groups so their assertion that he won has some merit. He certainly didn’t lose any support at the debate. While he may not have garnered any new supporters, the people who are already in his corner are unlikely to leave it anytime soon. He will have to lose the nomination for them to leave his side.
One thing that Sanders is doing really well is generate enthusiasm. His supporters have that in spades whereas Hillary’s remain subdued. While her performance at the debate quelled some of the panic that was emerging over her lagging poll numbers and the continued focus on her email server, if people “feel the Bern,” they really feel it. First you have the record breaking crowds he has been getting since just after he announced his candidacy. This is completely anecdotal but in the town where I live, you see support for him everywhere. His yard signs have been popping up all over town. You see his number stickers almost everywhere you go. People walk around wearing his shirts. I have yet to see any of that for Hillary.
On debate night, I went to two parties. One was for Hillary and the other for Sanders. The Hillary party had about 30 or 40 people (I am being generous here). They stopped counting at the Sanders party when they got to 250. These people stayed until the end of the debate and the entire evening included a ton of cheering and jumping up and down. These people were pumped.
As someone who has worked in politics most of my life, I have worked on five presidential cycles (I feel like I am older than dirt when I write things like that), I find it somewhat encouraging that so many people are so excited. On the flip side of that, as someone who has worked in this business as long as I have, I also know that we have moved into a new phase of the campaign but the election is still more than a year away. I also know that (and I hate this fact), young people don’t vote the way older people do. People keep telling me, “Hillary doesn’t have the millennial vote, Bernie does.” That may be true but she has the African-American and Latino vote (as of today). Right now she doesn’t need the support of a demographic whose strong suit is not turning up at the polls. Sorry, that’s not how I want things to be. I have spent most of my career trying to change that.
This will not win me any friends here but Hillary won the debate. Like it or not, she appeared tough and presidential on Tuesday night. In the interest of full disclosure, I will admit that I worked for the Clintons for a number of years. I did advance work for both of them for Clinton/Gore 1996 and for the White House. I worked on Hillary’s 2008 campaign. Having said that, I was happy to see someone else join the race (Sorry, Martin O’Malley, Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee but I really don’t think you count). In February 2014, I wrote that I thought a Joe Biden run would be a good thing.
I started this by saying that your view of who won the Democratic debate hinges on how you view the candidates and it would be easy to think my view is biased and based on my work experience with Hillary but it is not. She was tough, she was prepared (Sanders’ campaign has said he chose to not prepare, something that will not be repeated) and she looked ready to be president. I do myself no favors by admitting that I am not sure who I want to win the nomination. I feel better about Hillary after watching the debate but no tears will be shed at my house if Sanders gets it.
The bottom line? None of this enthusiasm means much right now. Hillary’s supporters may just be more subdued because they know we have 13 months to go. Howard Dean had a crap ton of enthusiasm on his side but it didn’t get him the nomination. Just sayin’.