A Debate Reveals the Dilemma Facing Democratic Voters

When the presidential candidates met for the third time on Saturday, their distinct approaches were on full display.

Jim Cole / AP

To understand the state of the Democratic presidential race, look no further than an exchange midway through Saturday night’s debate about American policy in Syria.

The differences between Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O’Malley are fairly simple. Clinton wants to create a no-fly zone in Syria, and she believes that it’s important to keep working to remove President Bashar al-Assad from power. Sanders thinks the focus on regime change is misguided, and contends that Middle Eastern countries ought to be leading the fight against ISIS on the ground. O’Malley, too, is wary of regime change and foreign involvement. But as the conversation progressed, Clinton simply ran circles around her opponents, offering far more detail and demonstrating how much more she knows about foreign policy—both in general and in the specific case of Syria.

Thus the major dilemma for Democratic voters in 2016: Do they support Sanders, a guy whose positions are in line with the party’s mainstream, but who obviously has a fairly superficial, ideologically rigid engagement with foreign policy? Or do they support Clinton, who has a more powerful, detailed, and nuanced command of the issues than any other candidate, but is also far more hawkish than most Democrats?

So far, a majority of them have chosen to support Clinton—though Sanders leads in New Hampshire, where the debate was held. (O’Malley is in the low single digits both nationwide and in the Granite State.) But issue after issue in Saturday’s debate revealed the same dynamic. Clinton simply offers a far more commanding presence—able to dive into the details of almost any policy at a moment’s notice. Yet in many cases, it’s Sanders’s dour, more Manichean views that resonate more with many Democratic primary voters like, his desire to aggressively combat income inequality, provide better benefits, and clamp down on big banks. In several places, the contrast between the two couldn’t have been more clear, as when Sanders demanded to know why the U.S. doesn’t guarantee health care as a basic right, or when Clinton pledged not to raise taxes on the “middle class”—defining it as every household earning less than an astronomical $250,000.

One reason Clinton retains a commanding lead is that—despite what you may have heard after the 2008 election—she’s a pretty talented politician. Clinton is ready with a smile, a quip, a raised eyebrow, or whatever the moment calls for. On several occasions, Clinton was left smiling with equanimity as her two rivals heatedly shouted on either side of her. It positions her well.

Headed into the debate, there was an expectation (leavened with much dread) that there would be extensive conversation about the Sanders campaign accessing Clinton campaign information from a shared database, and the Sanders campaign’s subsequent brawl with the Democratic National Committee. Instead, blessedly, the matter was dismissed quickly. The first question of the night went to Sanders about the breach, and he apologized both to Clinton and to his supporters. She accepted just as quickly, adding: "Now that we’ve resolved your data, we’ve agreed on an independent inquiry, we should move on. I don’t think the American people are all that interested in this." In that way, she closely echoed Sanders’s own comments in the first debate, when he dismissed questions about her emails. One good turn on a cyber-security scandal, it seems, deserved another.

There was much more extensive discussion about domestic terrorism. Democratic candidates are in a bind: There’s only so much they can do to distance themselves from the Obama administration, and anyway, they don’t believe the hardline policies that Republicans are pushing would work. Yet they also have to show that they’re concerned and have a plan to soothe an anxious electorate. Bernie Sanders gave perhaps the most interesting answer of the night, responding to Donald Trump’s call to bar Muslim immigrants. Trump’s decision to exploit anxiety about terrorism is all a big diversion, Sanders said, designed to distract from anxieties about the economy. In short, Sanders was invoking the old Marxist idea of false consciousness. It’s easy to mock as a classic Sanders move, pivoting as quickly as possible from security to the economy. But it’s an insightful analysis of Trump’s campaign, in which a billionaire elitist has managed to marshal the support of working-class voters behind an ultimately vague and shifting platform papered over with xenophobic fear-mongering.

Martin O’Malley needed a turning point; his campaign is running low on followers and cash. It’s hard to believe the debate provided him with such a moment. The former Maryland governor delivered a feisty performance, jumping in to try to make himself relevant. In some cases, that ought to be have been relatively easy; he was, for instance, calling for compassion for refugees long before his rivals. But O’Malley often came across mostly as shouty and angry. His attempt to spotlight his youth—“May I offer a different generation's perspective on this?"—drew boos from the hall. (Besides, he’s older than Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.) Yet when O’Malley attacked Sanders and Clinton over their records on gun control, they effectively pushed him aside like a small child. "Let's tell the truth here, Martin," Clinton said. "Let's calm down a little bit,” Sanders said. When the proudly cranky Sanders tells you it’s time to calm down ...

Clinton’s weaknesses as a candidate haven’t gone away. She offered several shaky answers Saturday night. She got tripped up by a question over whether the Affordable Care Act was working and how she’d improve it. Her answers about how she’d stop domestic terror were vague at best. Defining the middle class as those making up to $250,000 seems out of touch with the leftward-shifting Democratic Party. But this debate seems likely to just reinforce the status quo, which means it was a good night for Hillary Clinton.

Failing that, the debate took place on the Saturday night before Christmas, so who will notice anyway?

David Graham

10:55 pm: Say what you will about Hillary's tendency to pander, which is totally egregious, she does have a sense for what people want to hear. —Molly Ball

10:52 pm: Clinton: "Thank you, good night, and may the force be with you” —Molly Ball

10:51 pm: Clinton: If the next president is a Republican, women's rights, voters’ rights, gay rights, and workers’ rights will be at risk; also social security, the VA, and Planned Parenthood. "The differences are so stark. This is a watershed election," she says. In the wake of Sanders vs. DNC, she touts the need for "a Democrat" in the White House. "I want to make sure every child has a chance." —Molly Ball

10:50 pm: In addressing women's rights, voter rights, Planned Parenthood, and other issues, Clinton's closing remarks aren't focused on what sets her apart as a candidate. They're about what she thinks separates the Democratic Party from the Republican Party.— Nora Kelly

10:49 pm: O'Malley: "Here in New Hampshire, the individual matters." This has been a healthy exchange of ideas about making people's lives better. He also goes after the Republicans for stoking anger and fear. He touts comprehensive immigration reform, infrastructure investment, and addressing climate change. "Join this campaign for the future," he says. —Molly Ball

10:46 pm: Sanders seeks an optimistic note: We can all agree the Republicans are wrong; I am a human whose parents had dreams. "I know something about economic anxiety," he says, throwing in a reference as well to "political revolution." —Molly Ball

10:45 pm: Closing statements time. Bernie doubles down on his core message—he’s for people, not billionaires. —Yoni Appelbaum

10:57 pm: Thanks to KFI's radio broadcast, I managed to catch the candidates' exchange on Syria while in transit between holiday parties, and was struck by the similarities with the Republican field. In both primaries there is a "Washington establishment consensus" faction (Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Hillary Clinton) that believes the United States ought to fight ISIS and seek regime change in Syria simultaneously, even though it means conflict with Russia. And there is a dissident, "outsider" faction (Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Bernie Sanders) that believes the U.S. should forget regime change and focus on destroying ISIS in cooperation with Russia. It may seem strange that Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump/Ted Cruz have more in common with one another on a defining issue than they do with fellow partisans, but on foreign policy, the Washington establishment is both powerful and incompetent enough that more and more Americans are ready to depose it. —Conor Friedersdorf

10:40 pm: In another awkward interlude, ABC’s anchors point out that Donald Trump isn’t live tweeting tonight’s debate. They sound wistful; it makes me wonder if part of the plan for these interludes was to let them read Trump tweets aloud. But whoever’s staffing Hillary’s account is doing a superb job of live tweeting:

Yoni Appelbaum

10:38 pm: The moderators clearly wanted to ask Hillary what Bill Clinton's role in her administration would be, but they did it really clumsily. To defuse criticism they're now putting the spouse question to the male candidates, too—and it's the least interesting thing ever. —Molly Ball

10:38 pm: “We’ll be back for much more from New Hampshire,” David Muir threatens the hundreds still watching. —Yoni Appelbaum

10:35 pm: Sanders gets a version of the same question, in a ham-handed effort at equity. He uses it to praise Hillary’s redefinition of the role of First Lady, and to deliver a touching tribute to his own wife. —Yoni Appelbaum

10:35 pm: But as far as picking the flowers and china for state dinners, that’ll probably still fall to Hillary, she says. —Priscilla Alvarez

10:35 pm: Clinton, who's answered a million questions on this topic, seems flustered, just taken aback by what a bizarre question it is. —David Graham

10:33 pm: We're wrapping things up here, per Raddatz. And taking a "very sharp turn" away from foreign policy in Libya to the role of a president's spouse.—Nora Kelly

10:29 pm: This bugs me. Bill Clinton pioneered the, "Here's a random person I met and learned from” approach, but no one pulls it off like he does; instead it often comes off as "I am a robot stiffly trying to relate to humanity.” —Molly Ball

10:28 pm: That's a good observation, Priscilla. But as The Washington Post's Alexandra Petri jokes on Twitter, it frames the people he's met (and in the case of his family, loved) as mere anecdotes. He might want to tone down the personalization:

10:27 pm: O’Malley talks about a friend who struggled with addiction when fielding the question on drugs. It’s been a regular strategy of O’Malley’s during this debate to personalize his responses and invoke relationships he’s had that are relevant to the issue. —Priscilla Alvarez

10:25 pm: Clinton's people point to the heroin epidemic as an example of the effectiveness of her "listening tour" approach over the summer, which some critiqued as sheltering her from the campaign for too long—but which put the issue on her radar. It's a testament to the power of the early states to elevate local issues—even the Republican candidates are talking about the opiate epidemic—and makes one wonder what issues are happening in other states, out of view of the candidates. —Molly Ball

10:23 pm: The question on the heroin crisis underlines something we’ve reported before—that heroin is being treated as a public-health crisis, and not a criminal-justice crisis. It’s hard not to wonder if the demographics of heroin addicts don’t play a large role in that; it’s not just an inner-city problem, it affects even heavily rural, white states like New Hampshire and Vermont. —Yoni Appelbaum

10:22 pm: This is the first time that I recall drugs coming up during a debate. In this case, heroin as a result of the crisis occurring in New Hampshire. —Priscilla Alvarez

10:22 pm: Sanders addresses community-police tensions with a pro-diversity message, and a dash of his economic policy:"We need to make police departments look like the communities they serve. ... We need basically to pledge that we're going to invest in jobs and education, not jails and incarceration." —Nora Kelly

10:18 pm: Not wholly convinced that Martin O’Malley’s effort to hold up Baltimore as a national model for effective, honest policing is going to win over many listeners. —Yoni Appelbaum

10:17 pm: Sanders emphasized his support of paid family leave in that tax exchange—an echo of his lobbying last month for Clinton to support a Senate paid family leave bill. It left Clinton trying to break through the crowd applause to say she supports it, too. —Nora Kelly

10:09 pm: In many ways, the last exchange was the most illuminating on domestic issues. Hillary’s defense of the middle-class is built around a pledge not to raise taxes on those earning $250,000 or less. That’s both a fairly elastic definition of “middle class,” and one which assumes that the best way to help them is not to tax them. But Sanders offers a strikingly different approach, arguing—in essence—that taxes can be used to pay for things that are worth a great deal more than they cost. That’s a fairly fundamental difference, and explains their contrasting positions on a host of issues. —Yoni Appelbaum

10:06 pm: Bernie invokes FDR’s Social Security, LBJ’s Medicare, and current proposals for paid family and medical leave to make the point that modest tax increases, including those that hit the middle class, are sometimes worth it. —Yoni Appelbaum

10:04 pm: Bernie on the upcoming tax questions: “Now this is getting to be fun." —Priscilla Alvarez

10:03 pm: Hillary condescendingly praises Sanders’s “commitment to really changing the systems—free college, single-payer healthcare” but then slams him on the cost, which she puts at $18-20 trillion. Her heavy emphasis on cost, though, leaves the implicit suggestion that Sanders would be right on these policies if we could afford them. And that may not be a winning message to a primary electorate. —Yoni Appelbaum

10:00 pm: Ah, the domestic policy section of the Democratic debates: the most boring time. The candidates all agree on the ultimate direction; they just disagree on the degree. (In this way, it's like asking the Republicans about Obama's Middle East policy: Whatever else they disagree about, they all know they hate it.) All three candidates want better health care, higher taxes, and cheaper higher education. —David Graham

9:58 pm:

Atlantic Contributing writer Norm Ornstein points out that talking about rising health-care costs doesn't make a whole lot of sense without discussing the relative rate of the increase. —Yoni Appelbaum

9:52 pm: Sanders reiterated his line that he doesn’t have a super PAC. And, so far, it hasn’t kept him from garnering support—including some super PACs which, over his protests, are supporting him. But as my colleague Clare Foran pointed out earlier this week, this may eventually pose as a challenge as he keeps to that pledge and attempts to win the Democratic nomination. —Priscilla Alvarez

9:51 pm: This is where Sanders thrives. Hillary offers a nuanced defense of her approach to financial services regulation, and criticizes some of Sanders’s votes. But it’s just not plausible, and not consistent with her other attacks, to imply that Sanders isn’t interested in regulating commodities futures trading. “I helped lead the effort…against Alan Greenspan, against a guy named Bill Clinton—maybe ya know him, maybe ya don’t—against the Republican leadership...” he thunders back. Big cheers. —Yoni Appelbaum

9:49 pm: Brutal split screen: Hillary Clinton is laughing merrily, while O'Malley looks ready to pop a vein in his neck. Clinton may have likability problems, but she's much better at this than either of her rivals on stage. —David Graham

9:48 pm: It was, of course, cute when Hillary said "everybody should" love her, and a good line when Bernie said about whether corporate America would like his presidency, "No, I think they won't." But it speaks to a basic philosophical difference between these candidates. Hillary believes it's possible for a rising tide to lift all boats, for compromises to benefit everyone, and for all sides to get along. Bernie fundamentally believes in class warfare—a zero-sum game in which, for the lives of the poor to improve, the lives of the rich must be diminished. —Molly Ball

9:44 pm: Sanders fields the same question from Muir. His response: “They ain’t gonna like me.”Priscilla Alvarez

9:44pm: Muir: "Should corporate America love Hillary Clinton?" Clinton: "Everybody should!" —David Graham

9:43 pm: Clinton's press secretary Brian Fallon, who's never afraid to tweet his displeasure, doesn't seem annoyed at the empty-podium optics. He noted on Twitter minutes ago that his boss "knows how to make an entrance." —Nora Kelly

9:42 pm: Just did the math and Bernie Sanders's plan to spend $1 trillion to create 13 million jobs = $77,000 per job. —Molly Ball

9:41 pm: Hillary throws in a reference to the remarkable saga of Market Basket—in which employees took sides in an internecine struggle for control between Arthur T. and Arthur S. Demoulas, and kept the New England grocery chain as a business built on the welfare of its employees, and not maximizing profits alone. —Yoni Appelbaum

9:40 pm: The first question after the break is on raising incomes for middle-class families. This is where Sanders is most comfortable. The Vermont senator has built a campaign focused on income inequality and it showed in his impassioned response. —Priscilla Alvarez

9:38 pm: Among the demands made by the Republican candidates during their short-lived debate revolt was that networks promise not to “show an empty podium after a break (describe how far away the bathrooms are).” One suspects the Clinton campaign would like to make the same request. —Yoni Appelbaum

9:37 pm: Hillary makes a belated return to the stage. Just a one-word statement on her absence: "Sorry."

9:34 pm: I would have loved it if they had Chris Berman out doing highlights from Tuesday's debate during the intermission, though. "Donald Trump could go all... the... way!!!!" —David Graham

9:32 pm: Give ABC credit for innovation. In addition to starting almost half an hour after the announced time, they also give us two minutes of meaningless banter between commentators, in the style of a halftime show. But if viewers wanted that, they could change the channel and watch a bowl game, instead. —Yoni Appelbaum

9:28 pm: O'Malley interjects into the war conversation with a question that drew loud murmurs from the crowd: "May I offer a different generation's perspective on this?" He's obviously the youngest candidate on the stage, but it reads as disrespectful. —Nora Kelly

9:28 pm: Watching this exchange between Sanders and Clinton, you can see the real dilemma facing Democratic voters. Do you vote for a guy with an obviously shallow understanding of foreign policy? Or do you vote for a woman with a powerful command of the issues who nonetheless is far more hawkish than most Democrats? —David Graham

9:27 pm: Assad has killed 250,000 Syrians, says Hillary. He’s the reason for the mess we’re in. “When we look at these complex problems, I wish it could be either/or,” she says. Her mastery of the intricacies of the conflict is on clear display tonight, as Sanders repeatedly falls back on general principles. —Yoni Appelbaum

9:24 pm: Well, Sanders’s earlier support for a coalition with Russia becomes a little clearer as he says that he wants to focus on destroying ISIS even if that means leaving Assad in power for now, with a transition through democratic elections somewhere off in the hazy future. —Yoni Appelbaum

9:24 pm: Bernie Sanders on the questionable virtues of regime change sounds very much like Rand Paul in the last GOP debate. —Molly Ball

9:22 pm: The exchange between Clinton and Raddatz was very illuminating. Raddatz pressed Clinton on a question asked of Republican candidates this week: Would you shoot down a Russian plane in the no-fly zone? Clinton said she wasn't sure. Raddatz asked whether she ought to know. Clinton then launched into a detailed answer about why she thought a no-fly zone both wouldn't cause tension with the Russians, and why proposing it put pressure on the Russians. I'm not sure it's an entirely credible case, but it is one of the most elaborate, agile, and nuanced foreign-policy arguments we've heard in any debate so far. —David Graham

9:21 pm: Really smart and aggressive questioning by Martha Raddatz here. What's the point of a no-fly zone if your enemies don't have aircraft? —Molly Ball

9:20 pm: That’s true, David! In the run-up to the Iraq War, Bernie Sanders joined with Dennis Kucinich (remember him?) to rally in support of a federal Department of Peace. Sanders keeps touting his opposition to the Iraq War tonight, but somehow, he hasn’t yet mentioned that. —Yoni Appelbaum

9:19 pm: O'Malley's proposal to raise the head of USAID to Cabinet level is the new Department of Peace. —David Graham

9:18 pm: O’Malley’s response to ISIS includes making the USAID administrator into a cabinet member. That’s quite a contrast to the GOP debates, in which candidates want to eliminate so many cabinet agencies they can’t even remember them all. —Yoni Appelbaum

9:14 pm: Sanders' invocation of the need for "Muslim" troops to fight ISIS—rather than local or Arab troops—strikes me as a very strange choice of words. Is the point that ISIS, as messianic Muslims, can only be defeated by other Muslims? Or is it just awkward word choice on foreign policy, never Sanders' forte? —David Graham

9:12 pm: When Sanders says that he wants an international coalition including Russia to intervene in Syria, he seems not to acknowledge that Putin’s goal—propping up Assad—and America’s stated aims—ousting Assad and destroying ISIS—are not actually compatible. —Yoni Appelbaum

9:10 pm: Martin O'Malley has been talking about how the U.S. should welcome more refugees since before it was a topic in the campaign. He still can't get much traction, even as the other candidates move his way. That seems telling about his campaign's struggles with timing and attention.—David Graham

9:09 pm: This is a good question, though, because it forces Clinton to reckon with the position of New Hampshire Governor Maggie Hassan, one of the few Democrats to say she didn't want Syrian refugees in her state. —David Graham

9:08 pm: Clinton doesn't seem to think we need more vetting for refugees, but she can't say that for political reasons, so she's delivering a long soliloquy about how the vetting has to be good. —David Graham

9:07 pm: O'Malley comes close to quoting Benjamin Franklin while answering a question about drawing the line between national security and personal security: "I believe that we never should give up our freedoms in exchange for a promise of security." (Worth noting that the Franklin quote doesn't quite mean what O’Malley uses it to mean here.)

9:06 pm: Clinton is presenting a kinder, gentler framing of the argument that tech companies need to cooperate more with law enforcement. —David Graham

9:04 pm: Bernie’s answer on Trump—that his supporters are right to be upset, but have been misled about what’s really to blame for their troubles—nicely illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of his message. He offers his own roster of villains, and a message many find compelling. But he’s also stuck telling a great many Americans that they’re dupes who don’t understand the world. —Yoni Appelbaum

9:02 pm: Amazing Sanders pivot: Given a question about national security, he's talking about income inequality within about five sentences, switching from anxiety about terror to anxiety about economics. Basically, Sanders is saying that discussions of immigration are a way of cultivating false consciousness in the working class and distracting from the rich getting richer. —David Graham

9:01 pm: Bernie, meanwhile, gets a trickier question on racial profiling. He casts it aside, and goes after Trump instead, answering the question he clearly wishes he’d received. —Yoni Appelbaum

9:01 pm: Muir asks Clinton if voters who want to ban Muslim immigrants are wrong. She says they're understandably upset, and she explains why she disagrees. But why won't she say, straightforwardly, that they are wrong? —David Graham

9:01 pm: Clinton doesn't outright criticize or condemn Trump's supporters: "I think a lot of people are understandably reacting out of fear and anxiety." Trump provides "easy answers to complex questions." —Nora Kelly

9:00 pm: After having failed to enforce the rules and shut down O’Malley’s attack, the moderators serve up a softball to Clinton. How does she feel about Trump’s attacks on Muslims? She takes full advantage. In sports, that’d be a make-up call. —Yoni Appelbaum

8:59 pm: During the last debate, Sanders and O’Malley hit Clinton on her record. But so far tonight, it appears the tables have turned and it’s Clinton and Sanders defending against O’Malley. —Priscilla Alvarez

8:58 pm: I can't imagine that Clinton is upset to be standing calmly on stage while O'Malley and Sanders hoot and holler furiously on either side of her. —David Graham

8:57 pm: Amazing moment: O'Malley criticizes both of his rivals. They slam back. Sanders: "Let's calm down a little bit, Martin." Clinton: "Let's tell the truth here, Martin." —David Graham

8:55 pm: Martha Raddatz has done her homework. She asks O’Malley whether he’d support confiscating the millions of assault weapons already out there, and if not, how much difference an assault-weapons ban would make. He points to the purchase before the San Bernardino attack, but clarifies he doesn’t support confiscation. —Yoni Appelbaum

8:54 pm: First big moderator-candidate rumble: O'Malley streamrolls David Muir to get a chance to swipe at both rivals for changing their positions on gun control. —David Graham

8:53 pm: First mention of Donald Trump tonight comes from Clinton, who says the "rhetoric coming from Republicans…fans the flames of radicalization." —Priscilla Alvarez

8:52 pm: ... And you can tell it's a good question because Clinton is entirely declining to answer it. —David Graham

8:52 pm: Hillary tries doggedly to dodge the question. As I noted before, she's well aligned with the Democratic primary electorate on gun control—but not with New Hampshire Democrats, and not with the electorate at large. She keeps talking about radicalization, instead. —Yoni Appelbaum

8:50 pm: Great question from Martha Raddatz, who points out that while all three Democratic candidates favor stricter gun laws, many Americans now believe that more guns create more safety. —David Graham

8:49 pm: Clinton and Sanders air their responses to ISIS, and it’s hard to find much difference between them—other than the different backgrounds they bring. —Yoni Appelbaum

8:45 pm: But then Bernie apologizes to Hillary—sort of like with the emails, he never seems to want to take the attack all the way home. —Molly Ball

8:44 pm: O’Malley jumps on the “bickering” over the data breach, which, according to him, has distracted from issues like terrorism and economic issues. —Priscilla Alvarez

8:44 pm: I see this data issue largely as an opportunity for the Sanders campaign: It had sort of fallen off the radar thanks to Clinton's increasing air of inevitability, but now, by loudly crying that he's been screwed by the DNC, he's able to reanimate his anti-establishment message. —Molly Ball

8:42 pm: In the first debate, Sanders passed up the chance to go after Clinton over her emails, stressing that there were more important issues to discuss. Hillary, given the opportunity to criticize his campaign over the data breach, she returned the favor. (And Bernie, a moment later, draws the parallel himself.) —Yoni Appelbaum

8:40 pm: Bernie “Yes, I apologize…Not only do I apologize to Secretary Clinton…I want to apologize to my supporters. This is not the type of campaign that we run. And if I find anyone else involved in this, they will also be fired.” —Yoni Appelbaum

8:40 pm: Sanders blamed the vendor for letting down the firewall, but acknowledged that "our staff did the wrong thing." He called the DNC shutting off his campaign's access to data "an egregious act.” —Nora Kelly

8:39 pm: That didn’t take long. The very first question goes to Sanders, and it’s about the NGP VAN data breach. —Yoni Appelbaum

8:38 pm: This debate was billed as being about national security, but true to form, Sanders' opening statement stays focused on his core economic issues: inequality, wages, climate change, campaign finance. —David Graham

8:37 pm: Tonight I feel as though I represent the demographic the DNC had in mind when it scheduled this debate: I am a swing voter with family obligations to attend not one but two Christmas parties, rendering me unable to tune into the debate. Since this marks the second time the Democrats have debated on a Saturday evening, there can be little doubt that aiming for minimal viewership is deliberate. This may or may not be an effective political strategy. Either way, I find it civically objectionable. Hillary Clinton has an enormous advantage due to her name recognition and ability to raise funds. To contest the nomination Bernie Sanders must leverage the few shared civic moments of voter deliberation to great effect. The DNC's scheduling robs him of those moments, and its effect is fairly described as anti-Democratic. I'd go into more detail, persuading you all to punish the DNC for this behavior, but I see that the supply of shrimp on the tray across the room is waning, and my mom is giving me dirty looks for being on my phone, so it looks like their strategy is going to work. You got me this time, DNC. —Conor Friedersdorf

8:36 pm: Hillary Clinton says she looks forward to discussion of "real issues" during the debate. Does that mean no first strike on NGP VAN? Or no engagement on it all? —David Graham

8:35 pm: O’Malley says that it’s a different debate tonight “because tonight is different because of this reason.” He’s trying to talk about the aftermath of terrorist attacks in San Bernardino and Paris, but it takes him a while to get going. —Yoni Appelbaum

8:32 pm: Martin O’Malley has been struggling in the polls, far behind Clinton and Sanders. And ABC’s intro for the debate was a clear show of that for anyone that hasn’t taken notice. O’Malley barely made an appearance; it framed the debate as a fight between Clinton and Sanders. —Priscilla Alvarez

8:28 pm: One challenge facing Clinton tonight is how very different Democratic voters in New Hampshire are from those in the rest of the country. I noted, below, that it’s a remarkably white electorate. But it also differs in other ways. Hillary has successfully attacked Bernie Sanders on gun control in the past; he’s out of step with his party’s primary voters on that issue. But it’s different in New Hampshire, where a CNN/WMUR poll recently found 43 percent side with Sanders, and just 34 percent with Hillary. So she’ll have to thread the needle tonight, speaking to the millions of voters who are tuning in, without alienating the Granite State voters she’s trying to win over. —Yoni Appelbaum

8:15 pm: Polls consistently show plummeting trust in the media. Announcing an 8 p.m. debate, and then using the first 15 minutes to have talking heads grab viewers’ attention surely doesn’t help. —Yoni Appelbaum

8:06 pm: As Yoni noted in his intro, the caper of the Sanders database bust is expected to be a major topic of discussion tonight. This is a pretty arcane dispute, at base; the best explanation I've read is from ​The Washington Monthly. As the candidates tangle, think about what the chances are that any of the candidates on stage could describe the actual mechanics of the breach in any kind of accurate detail. My guess: Very low. —David Graham

8:01 pm: The Sanders camp charges that the Democratic National Committee and its chair, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, set up the debate schedule to protect Clinton’s frontrunner status. Compared to the GOP field, the Democrats have fewer meetings, and those they have are scheduled for times when viewership is likely to be lower. But the Sanders campaign’s breach of Clinton data files has put Sanders back into the headlines on the eve of the debate—greatly aided by the DNC’s harsh response, from which it subsequently backed away. If Wasserman Schultz was trying, in both instances, to help Clinton—as the Sanders campaign charges—than her efforts seem to have worked at cross-purposes here. If viewership is up, as expected, then Jeff Weaver should send her a particularly nice thank-you note. —Yoni Appelbaum

Hillary Clinton, Martin O’Malley, and Bernie Sanders square off for the third time at 8 p.m. on Saturday night, at St. Anselm College. Their only New Hampshire debate this cycle will focus on national security and foreign policy. And if you’re wondering why three Democratic candidates are debating late on a Saturday night in the middle of college football’s bowl season, you’re not alone.

The Sanders campaign emailed its supporters on Friday to claim that its success had led “the Democratic National Committee to place its thumb on the scales” to support Hillary Clinton. “You see that fact evidenced in their decision to bury the Democratic debates on weekends during nationally televised football games. It's more or less an open secret.”

That charge resonated with Bernie’s legions of supporters and donors. It helped the campaign haul in another $1 million in the next day, punctuating the most dramatic stretch the Democratic campaign has yet seen.

It started with four Sanders staffers, who found a flaw in the NGP VAN voter database that the Democratic National Committee rents to campaigns, and used it to run two dozen searches of the Clinton campaign’s data. The Sanders campaign quickly fired Josh Uretsky, the leading staffer involved, but provided shifting explanations of what had occurred. The DNC, in response, shut off the Sanders camp’s access to NGP VAN, which is vital to the campaign’s operation.

The campaign quickly struck back, calling a press conference to accuse the DNC of holding “data hostage” in an effort to “attack the heart and soul of our grassroots campaign.” It also filed a lawsuit. Late on Friday night, the DNC restored its access, leading the Sanders camp to crow that it had “capitulated.” The incident left Clinton staffers charging foul play, Sanders supporters feeling aggrieved, and the DNC looking singularly inept.

It seems unlikely, though, that it will do much to alter the broad arc of the race. Clinton still sports a commanding lead in national polls; a Public Policy Polling survey released on Thursday showed her with 56 percent support, with Sanders at 28 and O’Malley at 9.

But national polls are of limited relevance at this stage; there’s no national primary. Candidates have to prevail in a series of state-level contests, and New Hampshire voters have made a habit of going their own way in their first-in-the-nation primary. Sanders leads Clinton, 48 to 46, in the most recent poll, with O’Malley scarcely registering at 2 percent.

The independent senator from Vermont enjoys a number of advantages in the neighboring Granite State. Proximity has given him a strong understanding of local issues, helped him build a ground-level organization, and made voters more comfortable with his candidacy. A recent CNN/WMUR poll in the state found 60 percent rated Sanders “most likeable,” and 68 percent “most progressive.” He has struggled elsewhere to connect with black and Hispanic voters, but in 2008, 95 percent of New Hampshire Democratic primary voters were white.

One big challenge, for Sanders, is that scarcely a quarter thought he had the “right experience to be president,” and a scant 17 percent gave him the best chance to prevail in the general election.

Clinton faces her own challenges, though. That same poll found 46 percent rated Hillary Clinton as “least honest;” just 3 percent chose Sanders. Voters trusted Clinton to tackle ISIS, but Sanders to take on big banks and address income inequality. The resurgence of national-security concerns may help Clinton, but tonight, she’ll also be trying to persuade local voters that she understands, and can address, their economic anxieties.

O’Malley, meanwhile, is fast running out of time, and perhaps just as crucially, cash. The former Maryland governor has failed to break through thus far, and the timing of this debate is unlikely to help him.

You can find out more about the candidates by using our 2016 Cheat Sheet, track their ups and downs with our interactive look at the frequency of their media mentions, and see how viewers are responding with our real-time emoji tracker.  And if you’re not watching the end of the Camellia Bowl, join us as we liveblog tonight’s debate.  —Yoni Appelbaum