Did Hillary Win the Debate or the Media Coverage?

Did Hillary Win the Debate or the Media Coverage?

Last night’s debate was a much-needed respite from the GOP clown car that has taken up too much of our bandwidth and time. Instead of talking about Carly Fiorina’s face or Donald Trump’s tweets, we heard the Democrats debate on foreign policy, social welfare, criminal justice reform, and other issues.

Some did better than others (Lincoln Chafee was “feeling the chafe”). But while Hillary Clinton reasserted her dominance, Bernie Sanders and even Martin O’Malley showed they will continue to share the stage.

For that reason, the immediate declarations from larger outlets that Clinton was the landslide “winner” seemed puzzling. Matt Yglesias of Vox wrote that the four other candidates “simply aren’t close.” Jonathan Chait of New York magazine predicted “The Hillary Clinton Panic May Have Just Ended.” And Slate proclaimed, “Hillary Clinton Won.”

Beltway wonkdom has often been accused of disconnect from regular voters. Last night was no different. Focus groups favored Sanders by large margins. He had strong support among younger voters in a Fusion focus group, won handily in another for CNN, and was called “strong” and “smart” by those in a Fox News group.

This is not to say Clinton didn’t perform exceptionally. She handled questions about her flip-flopping and her hawkish foreign-policy record with finesse and cheer. And she got a huge boost (barely containing her glee) when Sanders insisted that the debate move on from Clinton’s “damn emails.” For all the negative coverage of her in recent weeks, this debate certainly was “the best day for Clinton’s campaign,” as Maggie Haberman of The New York Times put it.

But journalists and analysts could perhaps just as easily say Sanders had his best day, too. For example, when asked whether voters would be willing to put a “socialist” in the White House, Sanders, refusing to identify as a capitalist, asserted, “I believe in a society where all people do well. Not just a handful of billionaires.” The answer earned generous applause, not the burning at the stake that pundits predicted.

O’Malley, Chafee, and Jim Webb also had their moments. For many voters, last night was probably the first time they had seen or even heard of them. O’Malley spoke crisply and succinctly (and even garnered new followers, if not for his policies, at least for his charm). For those three candidates (one of whom, Chafee, is running his campaign out of his personal sedan) CNN’s Tuesday Night Lights put them on the map.

This of course doesn’t mean those four candidates “won,” either. Chafee and Webb were crowded out of much of the discussion, and Webb was a bad sport about it. Sanders had to go on the defense about his gun-control record, and when asked about Russian intervention in Syria, looked like a deer in headlights. But pundits highlighted Clinton’s defensive moments as strengths. Yglesias claimed Clinton responded to the Glass-Steagall attacks with specific policies while Sanders didn’t, though one could just as easily argue that naming one bank to regulate and hurriedly referring to shadow banking is just as vague as saying we need to break up big banks.

But the media elite had already made up their minds. As Paul Waldman wrote on The Week, our opinions are inevitably shaped from the top down. Focus groups, though hardly scientific, can at least help inform media coverage. Ignoring that information made instant announcements of winners appear premature. Perhaps an entirely different debate aired for the punditocracy, or perhaps they are stuck in a feedback loop that reinforces the idea that Sanders is simply unelectable, no matter how the audience reacted.