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Did The Democratic Debate Change The Odds?

The first Democratic debate is in the books, so we surveyed the state of the Democratic primary in this week’s 2016 election Slack chat. As always, the transcript below has been lightly edited.


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micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): We’re going to play our traditional post-debate game, where we buy/sell/hold the conventional wisdom — as represented by the candidates’ chances of winning the nomination on PredictWise.

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Before we get to the game though, what was your favorite moment from the debate Tuesday night?

faraic (Farai Chideya, senior writer): What I call the “bro hug” — in this case gender-neutral — between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. (Really more of a “bro/sis shake/hug.”) Remember there was a Donald Trump-Jeb Bush bro hug at the GOP debate.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): Probably when I saw this, then remembered Lincoln Chafee had once been elected governor of an entire state.

hjenten (Harry Enten, senior political writer): DAMN! That was mine.

faraic: That was a lot of over-emoting.

hjenten: No one has explained to me what the heck Lincoln Chafee is doing on that stage. If I’m a Larry Lessig fan, I gotta be going bonkers that Chafee was up there and not Lessig. The fact that he was let on that debate stage should be a scandal of some sort.

natesilver: But honestly my favorite part was afterward, when all these news outlets who had pushed the “Clinton in disarray!” meme were tripping over themselves to praise her performance.

micah: That brings us to Hillary Clinton; PredictWise has her chances of winning the Democratic nomination at 77 percent — buy/sell/hold?

natesilver: I know what Harry is going to say.

hjenten: I’m selling! Just kidding. I’m buying. I’m buying hard. I’ll even buy Nate a few shares at that price.

faraic: Buy.

natesilver: I’d buy too, although she’s gone up quite a bit at Predictwise over the last 24 hours.

hjenten: Yes, I think she was at 69 or 70 percent not too long ago. I have no clue what those bettors were thinking, but there you have it.

natesilver: I think she was somewhat undervalued before the debate. The fundamental reason being that, if Clinton doesn’t win the Democratic nomination, someone else has to, and it’s not quite clear who that person might be. I’m not convinced that Tuesday night changed much about the reality of the race, however. Clinton was winning before. She’s still winning.

hjenten: The only thing the debate may have changed in my mind is that I’m more confident Joe Biden won’t get in the race (I really have no clue though).

faraic: Clinton’s winning much more publicly now. And apparently, without too much fuss from her competition. It seemed a lot of vying for the veepstakes.

micah: That’s interesting: The debate forced the media more in line with the fundamentals of the race (which show Clinton as the clear favorite)? Basically, the media narrative is now right but for the wrong reasons?

natesilver: Micah, I’m not sure if the “narrative is now right but for the wrong reasons” so much as that it was wronger before and had to overcorrect to get back on course. A lot of the political science view of debates is that they bring the race more in line with “fundamentals,” which favor Clinton.

faraic: Remember when then-Senator Obama said, “You’re likable enough, Hillary” in a debate during the 2008 campaign? In the debate, Clinton did not run on likability. She did not act forced. She acted powerful and she acted like she didn’t give a crap about being too likable. Not that she was un-likable, but she just didn’t focus on all the narratives that her campaign has been pushing about her mother and her early years.

natesilver: Farai makes an important point, which is that the Clinton campaign has been reasonably good about not overreacting to the media narrative, at least as far as I can tell. They’re not trying to “win the morning”, so to speak, which is a trap a lot of campaigns fall into.

hjenten: Playing the long-game, as well they should be.

micah: There is some short game importance attached to the debate though.

hjenten: The short-game matters with Biden, if you think Clinton’s performance will dissuade him from running. But the fact that he didn’t show up Tuesday night speaks volumes to me about what he’s thinking.

micah: And you all think Clinton’s strong performance influences Biden?

faraic: It should. It’s awfully hard to ride in to save the day when the day doesn’t seem to need saving.

micah: Yeah, that about perfectly captures the problem with all the Biden talk

faraic: The lovefest/party unity between Sanders and Clinton is also a marked difference from the GOP race. The GOP race is like MMA and last night’s debate was more like badminton.

hjenten: Croquet I’d say.

natesilver: Yeah, the debate did real damage to another bullshit meme, which is linking the Democratic and Republican races together under the same narrative umbrella. The Democrats are quite … arrayed right now. The Republicans aren’t.

hjenten: Can I note that the harshest attack of the night came from Clinton? It was on guns against Sanders. That, to me, suggests Sanders isn’t going to go after Clinton in the way he would need to in order to win.

faraic: Yes, Sanders’ gun retorts didn’t come across as sufficient to the tragedies of the day. If he was going to offer a rationale for his position, it needed more of a perspective than just that he represents rural voters.

micah: So let’s officially turn to Sanders. PredictWise has him with a 13 percent chance of winning the nomination — buy/sell/hold?

faraic: Buy. I know that sounds contradictory but I think he will continue to influence the race in large ways, particularly on messaging. If we are talking about Sanders actually winning, no. But shaping the race, yes.

hjenten: I have zero doubt that Sanders has and will continue to shape the Democratic race — dragging it to the left. But I’m selling at 13 percent.

natesilver: I’m selling. Which, you probably have to do if you’re buying on Clinton. Still, it wouldn’t shock me if Sanders gains in the polls after the debate. But I think that’s more likely to come from Biden and undecided, rather than Clinton.

faraic: I’m a “buy” on Clinton’s chances of winning; a “sell” on Sanders’ chances of winning; a strong buy on how Sanders will shape the agenda of the party.

micah: Before Tuesday’s debate, Harry, you wrote that it was a good opportunity for him to fix his lack of appeal with nonwhite voters. Do we think he made progress on that front?

hjenten: He did a nice job on “black lives matter,” but that gun answer was flat out awful.

natesilver: The gun answer was WTF bad.

faraic: Co-sign on both points.

natesilver: One thing to keep in mind, though, is that Sanders still had less than 100 percent name recognition, especially among black and Hispanic Democrats. He might have a little bit more room to grow based on increased exposure alone. Probably more in national polls than in Iowa and New Hampshire.

hjenten: Sure.Don’t be shocked if he doubles his support among black voters from 5-10 percent to 10-20 percent.

micah: How did you all view Sanders coming to Clinton’s defense on the email controversy?

natesilver: My very rough guess: Possibly helpful to him in the short term. Lots of Democrats are, in fact, sick and tired of hearing about her email scandal. So what he said was popular.

But probably not helpful to him in the long term. One of the more plausible ways that Sanders wins if Biden enters, creates a holy mess, and he emerges with the plurality.

If Democrats and the media are getting tired of the email story, that gives Biden less of a justification to enter and indirectly hurts Bernie.

faraic: Agreed. Going negative in political ads and rhetoric has more of an impact on races than positive talk. So while Sanders’ statements were refreshing to a lot of people, and not just Clinton supporters, I also think it makes him seem less in direct contention with Clinton. And if he is not her adversary, then is he in the race mainly to raise issues? It brings back to that question of intent.

hjenten: There are two ways Sanders wins: 1. Biden enters, or 2. Sanders goes after Clinton if Biden doesn’t enter. Sanders needs to pull some of Clinton’s support in the second scenario, as she is pulling a clear majority in polls that don’t include Biden (for the most part). Being kind to Clinton on emails does not help Sanders in either of these.

natesilver: 3. REVOLUTION!

micah: Would FiveThirtyEight survive the Sanders revolution? Harry definitely would not.

natesilver: OK, there probably won’t be a revolution. But there’s more of a precedent for someone like Sanders being nominated than someone like Trump. I’m not saying the chance is high. I’m selling at 13 percent. But you’ve seen candidates like George McGovern and Barry Goldwater emerge when the party establishment failed to nominate acceptable choices. Obviously that doesn’t work so long as Clinton remains strong. But if she were to drop out tomorrow, I’m not sure Biden beats Sanders.

micah: Speaking of: Biden — 9 percent — buy/sell/hold?

faraic: Sell.

hjenten: I’d buy at 4 percent, but I’m selling at 9 percent on Biden.

natesilver: I’m probably a sell, although 9 percent is not a ridiculous price. If you’d read the mainstream media coverage of the race before Tuesday night, you’d think Biden’s chances were 40 percent instead. So I’m a strong sell relative to the conventional wisdom, but sort of indifferent relative to Predictwise.

micah: So everyone else listed by PredictWise is at 0 percent, which i know technically means everyone would buy everyone, but let’s pretend they’re at 1 percent

Martin O’Malley — 0 percent (pretend 1 percent) — buy/sell/hold?

faraic: Sell. As a Baltimorean can I just say that O’Malley did not do well with the questions about the city, my hometown. But I digress.

natesilver: I’d hold and maybe buy at 1 percent. Seriously. Look, if Biden doesn’t run, the media is going to get really, really desperate to make the race seem competitive. Desperate enough that you’ll see some O’Malley hot takes.

hjenten: O’Malley is a 1 or 2 percent in my mind

micah: Jim Webb — 0 percent (1 percent in our game) — buy/sell/hold?

natesilver: Sell. He’s not in it to win it. However, there’s an outside chance he could have an influence on the race. If he gains enough traction to pull in, say, 20 percent of moderate and conservative white Democrats, that could hurt Clinton around the margin.

faraic: Buy on Webb precisely because some more conservative Democrats may vote for him, more as a protest if he remains far behind

micah: Lincoln Chafee — 0 percent (1 percent in our game) — buy/sell/hold?

hjenten: Who?

natesilver:Lessig is more plausible tbh.

micah: Wolf Blitzer was so mean to Chafee on CNN today.

hjenten: The man is worth millions. I’m not exactly feeling bad for him.

faraic: Sell. He is really going to regret that answer. Debate coaches will play it as what not to do.

natesilver: One quick closing thought, in the perception-could-be-reality department. Is there a change in how the media is liable to cover the email scandal going forward? If Clinton succeeds in pressing the theme — thanks to an assist from Kevin McCarthy — that it’s a partisan investigation, the media may default toward “he said, she said” mode when covering the story.

Still, as Jonathan Bernstein reminds us, the media has extremely strong incentives to make the Democratic race seem competitive. So if Clinton seems “inevitable” again, especially if Biden doesn’t run, it will judge Clinton’s subsequent debate performances more harshly.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Harry Enten is a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

Farai Chideya is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Micah Cohen is the politics editor.

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