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Updated 8:30 PM |

What Went Down At The Fourth Democratic Debate

Filed under 2016 Election


We’ll be responding to questions all night — @FiveThirtyEight, or leave a comment.

Harry Enten 12:40 AM Clinton And Sanders Stick To Their Game Plans

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.

Hillary Clinton B+ A B
Bernie Sanders B+ A B-
Martin O’Malley C C+ C

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.

Nate Silver 11:06 PM

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.

Nate Silver 10:48 PM

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.

micahscohen 10:46 PM

Farai Chideya 10:45 PM

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.

Micah Cohen 10:44 PM

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?

Farai Chideya 10:38 PM

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.

Clare Malone 10:37 PM

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.

Nate Silver 10:35 PM

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.

Nate Silver 10:33 PM

My top moment is Bernie Sanders side-eye:

meghanag538 10:31 PM

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.

Harry Enten 10:31 PM

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.

Micah Cohen 10:30 PM

Any standout moments so far?

Clare Malone 10:26 PM

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.

Harry Enten 10:25 PM

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.

micahscohen 10:24 PM

Nate Silver 10:19 PM

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.

micahscohen 10:18 PM

micahscohen 10:13 PM

micahscohen 10:12 PM

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.

Clare Malone 10:12 PM

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?

Harry Enten 10:10 PM

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.

Micah Cohen 10:10 PM

This is the last debate before Iowa and New Hampshire vote; is this O’Malley’s last chance?

Ritchie King 10:10 PM

America’s mix of energy sources, throughout its entire history:

Nate Silver 10:08 PM

According to, 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.

Farai Chideya 10:03 PM

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.

Harry Enten 9:58 PM

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.

Nate Silver 9:57 PM

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.

micahscohen 9:50 PM

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.


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