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The Media Underestimated Hillary Clinton, But Overestimated Her Debate

Before last night’s debate, I suggested the media was likely to emerge with one of two narratives about the state of Hillary Clinton’s campaign: Either she was mounting a comeback, or she was in a downward spiral. “It may not take all that much,” I wrote, “for the media to choose one narrative over another and then find all sorts of ‘evidence’ to reinforce it.”

Indeed, I thought Clinton did reasonably well in Las Vegas, and so did my FiveThirtyEight colleagues. As with the Republican debate last month, I asked them to grade each candidate’s performance from A+ to F based on how much each candidate helped his or her chances of winning the nomination. On average among 15 ballots, Clinton’s grade was an A- (I gave her a B+), ahead of Bernie Sanders, who averaged a B for a solid second place. Martin O’Malley (C+), Jim Webb (D+) and Lincoln Chafee (D) were well behind.

Hillary Clinton A- A B
Bernie Sanders B A- C+
Martin O’Malley C+ A- D
Jim Webb D+ B F
Lincoln Chafee D C F

But Clinton was far from perfect. She gave ambiguous or evasive answers on several questions, such as on marijuana legalization and health care benefits for children of immigrants who entered the country illegally. On other questions, she gave answers that might have played well to liberal Democrats but which might not be received as favorably by general election voters (such as saying she’d “make the wealthy pay” for paid family leave and other welfare programs). Sanders gained more Twitter followers during the debate than Clinton, meanwhile, and got considerably more Google search traffic.

Put another way, Clinton gave about the performance that might reasonably have been expected from a frontrunner who gained a ton of experience as a debater during the 2008 Democratic primary: pretty good. Poised, polished and highly competent at appealing to various segments of the Democratic electorate. But also risk-averse and without all that many high notes.

The media judged Clinton’s night to be way better than “pretty good.” CNN’s Van Jones declared Clinton’s performance to be “flawless” and compared her to Beyoncé. Mark Halperin gave Clinton a perfect A. The New York Times, which has been very tough on Clinton, was full of praise for her.

So you can expect the “Clinton comeback” narrative to prevail over the “Clinton in disarray” narrative — at least for a few news cycles.

The difference between FiveThirtyEight’s view of the debate and Mark Halperin’s or The New York Times’ is that we’ve been skeptical of the “Clinton in disarray” narrative for a long time. While Clinton’s nomination isn’t “inevitable,” she has a lot of things going for her, with near-unanimous support from the Democratic establishment, high favorability ratings among Democrats (even as her ratings have fallen among independents), and a solid lead in national polls that appears to have stabilized recently. Nor are her opponents in much of a position to topple her. Sanders has won plenty of support from white liberal Democrats, but not very much from Hispanics, African-Americans or white moderates. Joe Biden isn’t running yet and would have lots of potential problems if he did, especially given his extremely late start to the race. Martin O’Malley is at 0.4 percent in the RealClearPolitics polling average.

From our vantage point, then, declaring a “Clinton comeback” is a bit like declaring Tom Brady or LeBron James to be the comeback player of the year. Clinton didn’t have anything to come back from; she was winning the nomination race before last night’s debate — by a lot.

Check out our live blog of the first Democratic debate for more.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.