Why Bernie Did Better Than the Pundits Thought

Clinton got the accolades, but it may be Sanders who gets the bounce in the polls.

John Locher / AP

It can be easy to forget in an era when conventional wisdom congeals faster than cold gravy, but primary debates are not actually winner-take-all affairs.

Yes, Hillary Clinton did very well on Tuesday night. She was sharp and quick on her feet, well-prepared, aggressive when she needed to be, and flashed humor that didn’t sound like it was pre-tested by a staff of consultants. Just about all the pundits—including a few from The Atlantic—said so.

But don’t be surprised if it’s Bernie Sanders who benefits just as much as Clinton from his performance at the Democratic debate—and possibly even more. For an insurgent like the Vermont senator, these initial contests are the first real chance to introduce himself to the country, and judging from the Democratic debate record of 15.3 million people who tuned in to CNN, there was a lot of interest in seeing Sanders take on Clinton. (It’s probably still a safe assumption that viewers weren’t all eager for a first look at Lincoln Chafee, Jim Webb, or even Martin O’Malley.) Sanders has been drawing enormous crowds on the campaign trail, but the multiplier of a prime-time television audience is incomparable. And viewers got to see a lot of Sanders: While Republican debaters have had to fight for a few minutes of airtime as they shared a stage with 10 other contenders, Sanders spoke for nearly a half hour on Tuesday, just a few minutes less than Clinton.

So did members of that audience like what they saw? It seems so. While pundits declared Clinton the winner, television focus groups and initial online polls went decisively for Sanders. Those are admittedly a wholly non-scientific pair of metrics, but the results got the attention of former advisers to President Obama, who said they saw the same dynamic play out during the debates eight years ago.

Sanders asked for donations during the debate, and viewers responded with an impressive $1.3 million, his campaign said. In tone and style, the candidate they saw on the debate stage was the same one who has drawn tens of thousands to campaign rallies—passionate, serious, and unbowed by political convention.

He wasn’t flawless. Clinton successfully ambushed Sanders early in the debate, and he lapsed into the language of a Beltway insider as he tried to defend his mixed record on guns.

Yet while Clinton has tacked to the left in the face of Sanders’s rise, the debate laid bare a fundamental difference in their candidacies: He is the change candidate, and she is not. Clinton embraced Obama’s record, promising to “build on” and “go beyond” his economic achievements. Yet as my colleague Peter Beinart noted, Sanders promised a “political revolution,” making a clean break with the status quo. If this is the year of the political outsider, one in which Donald Trump and Ben Carson are confounding the establishment with their strength in the polls, then it would make perfect sense for Sanders to similarly defy the conventional wisdom with a post-debate bounce.

The highlight of the night for Clinton came courtesy of Sanders, who in one exasperated plea—“The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails!”—served to absolve her of guilt in the eyes of the Democratic Party. But this wasn’t exactly the entirely selfless act of a kind rival. Sanders has made a concerted effort to distinguish himself from Clintonian politics, to rise above it by pledging that he won’t take corporate money or engage in personal attacks. And this moment afforded him an opportunity to show, in one small but concrete way, what he means by that. Clinton beamed and shook Sanders’s hand. Yes, she won on Tuesday night. But so did he.