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.