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Sunday night’s Democratic debate in South Carolina was certainly a vigorous one between Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley, but was there a clear winner? It didn’t seem so to me or the FiveThirtyEight staff. As we do with every debate, our live blog team graded the candidates’ performances on an A to F scale, based on how well each improved (or hurt) their chances of winning the nomination. The result: Clinton and Sanders both averaged a B+, while O’Malley was well back with a C.
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Clinton and Sanders seemed to be playing to their respective bases, and they did so, in large part, successfully. Clinton made numerous appeals to black Democrats. She opened up the debate mentioning Martin Luther King Jr. (the debate was held on MLK Day weekend) and positioned herself as the defender and champion of President Obama’s legacy. Clinton notched a 57-percentage-point lead among black Democrats according to the latest YouGov poll, and Clinton wants to keep it that way. (She also probably knows that 93 percent of all definite Democratic caucus-goers in Iowa have a favorable view of Obama, according to the latest Des Moines Register poll).
Sanders, on the other hand, didn’t stray far from the economic populism that got him here, working inequality into every answer he could. It’s a message that has earned him a 32-percentage-point lead among Democrats under 45 years old in Iowa, according to the Register poll. Sanders’ theme also plays well with independent voters who are sick of the status quo and favored him by 41 percentage points in the same poll.
Nothing in tonight’s debate is likely to change any of these numbers much, and it didn’t seem like the candidates were that interested in changing them. Sanders knows his message has narrowed Clinton’s massive leads in both Iowa and New Hampshire, and he’s perhaps hoping that winning those states will reset the race. Clinton is hoping she can hold on in Iowa thanks to Obama’s popularity in the state, and, if all else fails in New Hampshire, can count on black support in South Carolina, where African-Americans made up 55 percent of the Democratic electorate in the 2008 primary.
I’m not quite sure what to think about that debate. I keep looking for signs that Sanders is interested in expanding his coalition between his predominantly white, liberal base, and I’m not really seeing them. At the same time, Sanders got a lot of screen time tonight — and tonight’s debate is likely to get much better ratings than the previous two editions held on Saturdays — and greater exposure is usually a good thing for the trailing candidate.
Another thing I’m unsure about: Sanders was feistier and angrier than we’ve seen him in the past. How will that play to the home audience? Do voters like Angry Bernie or the more lovable, absent-minded-professor, Larry David version of him? That too could be a question that divides Sanders’s base voters from the broader audience he’ll need to be competitive in states like South Carolina.
I, for one, am not terribly sympathetic to O’Malley’s pleas for more speaking time. It’s not just his unlikelihood of winning the nomination. It’s also that he isn’t bringing much to the table from a policy standpoint, trying to position himself to Clinton’s left when (i) Sanders is doing a much better job of that and (ii) O’Malley doesn’t really have the track record to tout his lefty credentials.
Interesting question. I’d argue that politicians of both parties have often run as if their primary opponent was the concept of government-as-it-is (and sometimes all government, period). But tonight feels like the first time the Democrats have really taken the gloves off. Maybe somewhat daintily, one finger at a time, but not so much mutual agreement and congratulations.
Farai, your point about Clinton running as the incumbent and Sanders running as opposition is really interesting. Can you win as the opposition when your party holds the White House?
What stands out to me is that because of statements about Wall Street and the Affordable Care Act, Clinton seems to be running more with the Obama legacy, and Sanders running in opposition.
Nate, I’m betting it will play pretty well — I think people like a little fight in their debate (it’s TV, after all!), but it hasn’t gotten anywhere near as nasty as Thursday’s GOP debate did.
More seriously — I agree with Harry that the candidates have been speaking mostly to their respective bases on the substance. So I’m wondering whether Sanders’s feistier demeanor tonight will play positively or negatively with the home audience.
My top moment is Bernie Sanders side-eye:
I would say the place where it’s gotten most voluble and pointed was when the subject of the big banks, of Dodd-Frank, etc., came up. Economics is where Clinton and Sanders most sharply contrast, and to me, it was where they each got the most riled with each other.
Not really. What I do see, though, is Clinton clearly knows where her base is. She knows she needs black voters in her corner. That’s why she is wrapping herself in the Obama cloth. A lot of people think the Democratic base is exclusively white liberals; it’s not. It’s black Democrats. Unless Sanders can gain support among that group, this primary is over.
Any standout moments so far?
None of the Democrats on stage right now wants to put boots on the ground — a term that O’Malley has just expressed distaste for — in Syria, but Clinton, perhaps to no one’s surprise since she served as secretary of state for four years, has probably the most detailed plan outlined for defeating the Islamic State. In fact, as Tim Fernholz over at Quartz points out, it’s a 24-step one.
You see the Democrats defending the Iran nuclear deal. That definitely lines up with the polls. Although support for the deal was at a low point nationwide in September, Democrats were 13 percentage points more likely to support the deal than not, per the Pew Research Center.
A somewhat more technical answer on O’Malley: The reason that he’s so low in our Iowa and New Hampshire forecasts — under 1 percent to win either state — is not just because he’s polling in the single digits. Some candidates have come back from the single digits to win primaries before, in fact. His problem, instead, is that there are not one but two really popular candidates ahead of him. For the most part, any losses that Clinton has from here on out will be Sanders’s gains, and vice versa. That makes it not just difficult but almost impossible for O’Malley to jump ahead of them both.
Climate change was brought up in a presidential debate. Democrats will be happy about that. According to a 2015 Pew Research Center survey, 68 percent of Democrats believe that global climate change is a very serious problem. Only 41 percent of independents and 20 percent of Republicans feel the same way.
Gosh, I think his chance flew the coop a long while ago. It seems to me that he’s just sticking around so people generally remember who he is on the national stage — maybe it’s his investment strategy for the future? He’s socking away that political capital (if we can call it that) on the national stage for maybe another run someday?
O’Malley pretty much lost his last chance when Clinton decided to enter the race. Sure, he could be the nominee. And sure, the Buffalo Bills might win a Super Bowl next year. I’d bet heavily against it.
This is the last debate before Iowa and New Hampshire vote; is this O’Malley’s last chance?
America’s mix of energy sources, throughout its entire history:
According to OpenSecrets.org, Clinton has received $5.7 million from contributors in the financial services industry so far this cycle, compared with just $270,000 for Sanders. However, although no individual Republican candidate has out-raised Clinton in the industry — Jeb Bush, at $4.5 million, is closest — in the aggregate, Republican presidential candidates have raised about twice as much as Democrats, with $12.7 million in contributions, compared with $6.3 million for Clinton and other Democrats combined.
The three Democratic candidates, when asked to name their top priorities, touched on issues including infrastructure, new investment in cities, and equal pay for women, in addition to health care and jobs. Polls ranking Americans’ top political priorities consistently rank terrorism and the economy someplace in the top three, with health care, immigration and gun laws among the other issues that rank high. None of the Democratic candidates listed terrorism as one of their top priorities.
A:Nathan, I don’t feel comfortable answering that question until voting actually happens. Many pollsters can make assumptions about who is going to show up — they can even ask — but I would want to wait for votes to be cast to know for sure.
I mentioned before how popular both Clinton and Sanders are with Iowa Democrats. But guess who’s even more popular? Barack Obama, who has a 91 percent favorable rating among likely Democratic caucus-goers. That’s why Clinton has pretty blatantly been trying to portray herself as Obama 2.0 tonight.
Sanders just said that political polarization is caused, in part, by our campaign finance system. Sanders is likely wrong. Most of the political science, including a recent book by Ray La Raja and Brian Schaffner, has found that states that try to limit campaign contributions have, in fact, encountered more extreme legislators.
With lots of high-volume argumentation between Clinton and Sanders tonight, it would be easy to forget that most Democrats really like both candidates. Ann Selzer’s recent poll for the Des Moines Register had Clinton with an 86 percent favorable rating among Iowa caucus-goers, while Sanders was at 89 percent.
The health care debate is an interesting window into a problem for Clinton right now. She recognizes that after the 2009-10 health care debate, there is very little chance that Congress will ever pass single-payer health care. Yet, Sanders’s very liberal positions are not going to be disliked on the left. An amazingly high 43 percent of Iowa caucus-goers identified as socialist in the latest Des Moines Register poll.
This health care flare-up between Clinton and Sanders is going to be interesting to see play out among Democratic primary voters. Clinton’s play here in the debate is to say that Sanders’s new plan (released tonight, just a couple of hours before the debate) is going to tear up Obamacare. “It’s one of the greatest accomplishments of President Obama, the Democratic party, and our country,” she said. The fight to pass the Affordable Care Act was huge for the Democrats — and quite painful. The idea of going through another struggle like that with Congress could prove unpalatable to a lot of voters — Sanders’s team is hoping that they continue to feel the Bern, and that this doesn’t morph into an … unpleasant Bern-ing sensation that derails the campaign’s momentum.
Clinton could spend all night — and probably will — revealing the depth of her knowledge of every issue brought up by the questioners. (Narcan, opioids, etc.) She campaigns as she has led her professional life — wanting to master every detail of a situation to make the best informed decisions. But this is a political season of emotion and outright anger, and many people seem to prefer the passion of Sanders to Clinton’s professionalism. All Sanders has to do is talk about the need for mental health coverage, or his “Medicare for all” proposal, and many people stop listening to her litany of details of why the country should stick with the complexity of the Affordable Care Act. It explains why her campaign, which is shaped around her background and experience, was so surprised that someone like Sanders could attract such support.
The other thing to remember about Sanders’s electability is that he’s not being attacked very much. Yes, the Clinton campaign has turned up the heat on him lately — and Clinton’s certainly going after him in this debate. But the media is mostly ignoring Sanders, as are the Republican candidates, whereas Clinton is taking incoming fire from all sides.
If you follow the hashtag #DemDebate on Twitter, you’ll find a series of approving or neutral remarks about how many black people are at the audience for this Congressional Black Caucus Institute co-sponsored debate (with NBC and YouTube). It also includes some tweets with highly racialized content. I’ve gotten a chance to report on every presidential race starting in 1996, and the level of vitriol around race, ethnicity, immigration and refugee status is the strongest I’ve observed since I started covering politics. Part of it is our moment in time, with disruptive innovation and globalization shaking up the economy and provoking anxiety and perhaps a nativist discourse. And part of it, I think, is the ease with which social media allows people to remain semi-anonymous in their most aggressive critiques or attacks.
In some ways, Sanders and Trump both speak to a country with deep economic anxiety more directly and with claims that outsider status will provide fresh leadership. I think following the racialized #DemDebate feed is one important way to keep track of the range of perspectives — including on the fringe — that are influencing the center.
The Clintons still have equity with black voters. Despite a growing recognition that the Clinton era brought about changes that swelled the prison system, primarily with blacks and Latinos, the Bill Clinton presidency was a time of relative prosperity for black America. But as black voters demonstrated in 2008, with South Carolina as a tipping point, Hillary Clinton will not be judged as black America’s default candidate. At the same time, I think Bernie Sanders may be seen as too risky of a bet by black voters.
Farai, do you buy this argument that black Democrats just aren’t familiar with Sanders and that’s why they don’t support him?
As Sanders talks about general election polling, it should be remembered that it is highly un-predictive. Sure, Sanders may end up beating Donald Trump, but the polling right now shouldn’t be used to support that argument. The average error for general election polling at this point is over 10 percentage points.
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Sanders has recently been making an electability argument against Clinton (mostly by citing polling) — is his argument persuasive?
Q:I hear a lot of comparisons between Sanders and Obama vs. Clinton. What would the 538 models have said about Obama in Iowa and NH at this stage in that election? — commenter Benjamin Jones
A:At this point in 2008, our “polls-plus” model would have had Clinton and Obama almost exactly tied in Iowa, with John Edwards not far behind. It would have had Clinton slightly ahead of Obama in New Hampshire.
It’s not clear how much of this is Martin O’Malley’s doing, but Maryland has some of the most restrictive gun laws in the country, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which seeks to pass more stringent gun laws. Maryland is one of six states to get an A-minus from the organization (no state gets a straight A). Clinton’s New York also gets an A-minus, while Sanders’s Vermont gets an F.
Obviously given the timing of this debate on MLK weekend, there was a lot of talk about Dr. King in the intro — Hillary Clinton brought up going to hear him speak, and it’s hard not to recall Bill Clinton’s appellation as “the first black president” right now.
But Bernie Sanders’s politics probably line up closest of any of the candidates on the stage to King’s. He was, of course, best known for his work on trying to bring about equality between the races, but King was also a labor activist — he was killed in Memphis while speaking to striking sanitation workers, after all, and during his lifetime called for Americans to “move toward a democratic socialism.”
Bernie Sanders is being asked about his gun record right off the bat in this debate. There’s a reason why Hillary Clinton is attacking him on it. According to an October Des Moines Register poll, 60 percent of Iowa caucus voters said they would be “less supportive” of Sanders based on his gun record. The poll found that no other candidate position found a majority of voters who said they would be “less supportive” of a candidate.
A:Lala, I wonder if the governor thing isn’t a bit of a myth. Of the past nine major party nominees — Obama, Romney, McCain, Kerry, Bush 43, Gore, (Bill) Clinton, Dole, Bush 41 — only three formerly served as governors.
Right out of the gate, Hillary Clinton mentions Martin Luther King Jr., potentially because she recognizes her base. While Bernie Sanders has a higher net favorability rating among white Democrats nationwide per Gallup, Clinton holds a +77 percentage point net favorability rating among black Democrats. Sanders holds only a +29 percentage point net favorability rating among black Democrats. That’s up only 8 percentage points from November. If Sanders wants to win this election, he’ll have to do better than that among black Democrats.
There’s every reason to be cynical about the scheduling of the Democratic debates this cycle. First of all, there have been only four of them, compared with six for the GOP. And the previous two Democratic debates were scheduled for a Saturday night.
And now this one’s scheduled for a Sunday — at 9 p.m.?
Actually, that’s a pretty reasonable time to get viewership for a debate. Sunday night is the top night for prime time TV in the United States. And while 9 p.m. might seem late, it’s the busiest hour for TV viewership among Americans ages 15 or older. (And remember — it’s still only 6 p.m. in California.)
Certainly, you can nitpick the Democratic National Committee’s choice. For instance, tomorrow is a federal holiday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day (although it’s not clear how much that would affect TV viewership). Nonetheless, it doesn’t make sense to put a Sunday debate in the same category as one on Saturday, which really is a dead night for TV.
CHARLESTON, SC — The lawn out front of the Gaillard Center in Charleston, S.C., where tonight’s debate is being held, was densely packed with campaign signs today. As far as I could tell, the “Bernie” signs and “Hillary” signs were about equal in number, but there wasn’t a single Martin O’Malley sign. In fact, I spent the entire day walking around Charleston without seeing the name “O’Malley” once. It’s no secret that O’Malley isn’t much of a contender in this race — and he’s been polling at 5 percent or less in South Carolina — but I was still a little shocked to see no evidence of support here whatsoever. That’s gotta sting.
The New Hampshire Democratic primary remains too close to call. Bernie Sanders has led in most recent surveys in the state and is forecast to win 71 percent of the time, according to the FiveThirtyEight polls-only forecast. A Sanders victory wouldn’t be surprising given that he is from next-door Vermont.
Hillary Clinton, however, has a 57 percent chance of winning in the FiveThirtyEight polls-plus forecast. Her slight advantage here is because of her many endorsements, as well as a projected bump for her in the state if she can hold on to her current lead in Iowa. The polls-plus forecast has been more accurate historically, though not overwhelmingly so.
Overall, the New Hampshire primary could go either way. A strong performance in tonight’s debate could put either candidate over the top.
Heading into tonight’s debate, Hillary Clinton maintains a small but not insurmountable advantage over Bernie Sanders in the race to win the Iowa caucuses. According to the FiveThirtyEight polls-only forecast, which looks only at state polls, Clinton has a 65 percent chance of winning. Sanders has a 35 percent chance. But Clinton’s projected margin of victory, 5.1 percentage points, is less secure than you might think because it is smaller than the 7.0 percent that Martin O’Malley is forecast to win. That’s important because many of O’Malley’s voters will be forced to choose between Clinton and Sanders because of caucus rules, and there are some signs that they may be likely to choose Sanders.
Clinton does better in the FiveThirtyEight polls-plus forecast, which takes into account endorsements and national polls. She is expected to win 81 percent of the time in this forecast, thanks to the record amount of endorsements from governors and members of Congress she has piled up. Even in this projection, though, Sanders has a 19 percent chance of winning.
On some of our long car trips in Iowa last week, the FiveThirtyEight team got into disagreements about the status of the Democratic race. On the one hand, Bernie Sanders had gotten a series of strong-looking polls, in Iowa and nationally, including some surveys that showed Hillary Clinton’s lead in the national race down to single digits. On the other hand, there hadn’t been any major news events precipitating the Sanders surge, which is sometimes a reason to be skeptical of an apparent poll shift. We weren’t quite sure what to make of it.
Subsequent polling data makes it less clear just how much the race has tightened nationally. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, released this morning, has Clinton up by 25 percentage points nationally (actually a slight increase from her 19-point lead in December). We aren’t publishing a FiveThirtyEight national polling average yet, but calculating one using the same method that we use for our state polling averages would show Clinton up by 22 points.
This all makes a bit more sense. There’s probably been a bit of tightening nationally, if not quite as much as the headlines imply. But there’s not yet a lot of evidence that Sanders is expanding his support into groups — Hispanics, African-Americans, and moderate Democrats — that he’d been struggling with before.
Those groups aren’t very plentiful in Iowa and New Hampshire, however, making them great targets for Sanders, and his strong ground game in the early states (although note: Clinton’s ground game is really good too) may be helping to move some persuadable voters into his column.
In addition to the Iowa and New Hampshire polls, Bernie Sanders has gotten some fuel from the endorsement of liberal advocacy group MoveOn last week. With 340,000 members voting, MoveOn endorsed Sanders after he received a record 78.6 percent of the group’s votes. (Members endorsed Barack Obama after he won 70 percent of their votes in 2008.) This doesn’t change the endorsement primary or other factors in the race, but it shows what may be a weakness on the left of the Democratic base for Hillary Clinton. MoveOn said it would seek to mobilize its 43,000 members in Iowa and 30,000 members in New Hampshire to vote for Sanders.
Perhaps the two most memorable moments from the previous Democratic debates were Bernie Sanders letting Hillary Clinton off the hook for using a private email account as secretary of state and Clinton returning the favor after the Sanders campaign improperly accessed Clinton’s voter data.
But don’t be surprised if the candidates are feeling a bit less generous during tonight’s debate, hosted by NBC: The Democratic presidential campaign is getting interesting.
Bernie Sanders has narrowed Hillary Clinton’s advantage in Iowa, and the polls show him leading in New Hampshire. Not coincidentally, the race — mostly civil so far, almost sedate — has acquired an edge, with Clinton going after Sanders on guns, and Sanders hitting Clinton for taking money from Wall Street.
Sometimes candidates leave the dirty work to their campaigns and surrogates and play nice when face to face during debates, but I’d still expect a few more barbs then we saw in the first three Democratic debates. Also, Martin O’Malley will be there. So, enjoy all of tonight’s festivities here with us; if you have a question or comment, leave it here or tweet us @FiveThirtyEight.