Neither candidate can be said to have chipped into the other’s core support as a result of the debate Thursday night. As before the debate, the real test of Sanders’ viability as a candidate rests not in a single victory backed by white liberals in New Hampshire, but whether or not Sanders can break into Clinton’s massive leads among African-Americans, Latinos, and moderate Democrats. The challenge for Sanders is immense because he literally has just days to accomplish what would be a political miracle.
Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse February 14, 2016
AP photo/Morry Gash
AMMAN — The recent Democratic debate in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was not one where either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders landed any knockout blows, and though Clinton seemed stronger than Sanders, he was not bad either; thus, this debate is very unlikely to change the terms of either’s support. In the context of the overall nomination contest, this is a clear win for Secretary Hillary Clinton over Senator Bernie Sanders, as she holds the high ground and it is Sanders who needs to gain at her expense, for several key reasons which will be discussed below.
For one thing, Bernie absolutely needs to grow his support to be competitive, and it is not likely that this debate helped him do that. Bernie’s support, as far as we can tell from Iowa and New Hampshire, comes mainly from white liberals.
The state with the highest proportion of white liberals is Sander’ home state of Vermont; the state with the second highest proportion of white liberals is New Hampshire, right next door to Vermont and where he crushed Hillary Clinton in a blowout victory on Tuesday. The states with the next highest proportions of white liberals in a #3 slot tie are Massachusetts and Iowa, the latter of which he lost to Hillary Clinton by the narrowest of margins. I think you’ll see where I am going here, especially if you’ve read my other pieces where I discuss this: it’s all fine and dandy for Bernie with his blowout win in New Hampshire, but he was not able to even win in one of the two states that are the most demographically favorable to him after his home state and only two other states, and he has already won one of these others, New Hampshire, suggesting a truly narrow appeal for his candidacy. So the mathematical certainty for Sanders is that unless his support grows beyond that white liberal core, New Hampshire will be either the only state he wins, or one of only a handful. And because New Hampshire is a small state that shares a long border with Vermont, voters in New Hampshire would have been more familiar with Bernie than anywhere else besides Vermont; this means that Iowa, where Sanders lost to the narrowest of margins, is likely much more telling for the prospects of his campaign. The coalition that won him New Hampshire and almost won him Iowa is far from sufficient to win the nomination, then.
Bernie’s best bet to broaden his support is with young Latinos and young African-Americans, as 84% and 83% of 18-29-year-olds voted for Bernie in Iowa and New Hampshire, respectively, but those electorates were almost entirely white; that, however, will just be the beginning, and he will need to win more moderate white and/or minority Democratic voters, as well, for him to even have a chance. As it stands, black political leaders overwhelmingly favor Clinton, who most notably received the “near unanimous” endorsement of the Congressional Black Caucus PAC, collectively the voice of the nation’s black federal legislators. And Clinton still holds quite sizable leads among Hispanic and African-American voters, with recent data showing her holding a clear majority of young African-Americans, and although it is possible that recent events may have shifted things a bit, this remains to be seen.
Thursday night’s debate was a chance for Bernie Sanders to attack Hillary Clinton on certain issues in order to weaken her support among minorities and possibly moderates, and to simultaneously court these same groups. While he did show a modest, decent effort to increase to his appeal to minority voters, it was not particularly strong and he was challenging a candidate with a very high lead in support from minority voters; as far as the debate was concerned, Hillary’s performance in the debate was more than enough to remind any minority or moderate voters who were considering Bernie why she is a better candidate as far as they are concerned. For minority voters, she was able to remind them that her experience and accomplishments made her by far the best candidate to ensure both that 1.) the progress made under Obama is not lost and 2.) building on Obama’s legacy, Democrats continue to make more progress, step by step, policy by policy, vote by vote, which is how African-Americans have always seen progress made in America. African-American voters, as African-American New York Times columnist Charles Blow pointed out, are justifiably cynical and wary of politicians who make grand promises, as the history of African-Americans since colonial times is one oppression and rampant inequality and discrimination. Even for all the progress since desegregation, even with a black man in the White House, unfairness, broken homes, shattered dreams, and having to see their relatively inferior socio-economic status as a group shoved in their face as a matter of daily existence is still the norm for black Americans.
Basically, Bernie had to try to convince black Americans that they should place their trust in him and his far loftier, far riskier, far vaguer goals that seek to replace the systems Obama worked to improve with new ones, rather than trust Hillary Clinton with her more down-to-earth, less risky, far more specific policies that build on the legacy of both Obama’s presidency and her husband’s. It’s not that Sanders does not offer an attractive message to African-Americans, it’s just a message that’s not tailored to their specific community and asks an extraordinary amount of trust in someone who is relatively brand new to them and whose presidential campaign is selling policies that far outsize anything Sanders has been involved with in his career.
In contrast, Hillary’s message to African-Americans is more tailored to them her and relationship with the African-American community is deep and goes back decades; she is not asking for an extraordinary level of trust the same way Bernie Sanders is because the types of incremental improvements she is selling are the types that have defined her career since the failure of her universal-coverage “Hillarycare” healthcare reform effort in 1994.
Sanders is coming late to courting African-American leaders’ and voters’ political support even though he was in Congress for decades. If he can make any but the youngest African-American voters abandon Clinton in significant numbers in a matter of weeks for a riskier and unproven advocate, that would something of a political miracle on his part, a historic collapse on the part of Clinton, or a mixture of the two. The same goes for the Latino vote, which clearly favors her, too, though it is not as pro-Clinton a demographic as black voters.
To its credit, the Sanders campaign had made public display of minority voters at Sanders’ rallies, the enlistment of minority surrogates, and the seeking out of prominent minority endorsements all priorities (while Dr. Cornell West was on board early, Sanders most notably just picked up the endorsements of former NAACP chief Ben Jealous and legend Harry Belafonte). These efforts have only been noticeable over the past days and weeks; previously, his rallies were lily-white, so he is moving in the right direction even if at the tenth-(perhaps the eleventh)-hour. Still, his most recent attempt to engage the black community at a black issues forum went less than smoothly when he insisted on addressing racial inequality through economic inequality rather than view is through its own prism, an approach that is objectively problematic and insufficient in addressing racial inequality.
The other big question is how Bernie can do with moderates. He did well with them in New Hampshire, but not in Iowa. I would submit that rather that represent any momentum with moderates, his success with them in New Hampshire was due more to New Hampshire’s peculiarities and proximity to Sanders’ home state of Vermont. We shall see is my gut is right in the near future. But I don’t think Sanders did anything to win over moderates during the debate; time and time again he articulated a narrow view and a narrow focus, the narrowness of which was only matched by the ambitious heights of his proposed solutions and the vagueness or impracticality of their specifics. Also, any moderates who were looking for insight into candidates’ foreign policy would have found that Sanders in general seemed reasonable—sounding a bit better than he has previously—but was lacking, as usual, in specifics. And when he tried to attack Hillary, he did so in ways that made him look ideological (something moderates aren’t really hoping to see too much of) and small: when he criticized Clinton for her 2002 vote on Iraq (something he has done pretty much every time he discusses foreign policy) by misleadingly characterizing it as a vote “for war,” Clinton’s response was brilliant: “I do not believe a vote in 2002 is a plan to defeat ISIS in 2016. It’s very important we focus on the threats we face today, and that we understand the complicated and dangerous world we are in;” when Sanders ducked a question about his foreign policy advisors to criticize Clinton for taking advice from Henry Kissinger, Clinton responded that, of course, hearing opinions from people with deep experience even if you don’t agree with them is smart, making Sanders look immature. Clinton also had her best response to Sanders’ attacks on her ties to corporate America, noting Obama’s donations from Bankers didn’t stop him from pushing for restrictions on them. Of course this will still be an issue for her, but at least in the debate she was effective in defending herself.
Undecideds might have noticed Sanders’ narrow focus and lack of depth on foreign policy, and Clinton’s comparative master of foreign policy. For voters who have concerns that might include but go beyond economic inequality, Sanders is not making much of a case by simply saying that almost everything rests on economic inequality and punishing the wealthy and corporations. Many African-American and Latino voters in less-than-stellar urban environments have a whole range of social justice and microeconomic issues that Sanders’ ideological, more big-picture agenda tackles less directly than Clinton’s more practical, nitty-gritty, down-to-earth approach. And more so than other debates, Clinton was relaxed and likable, seemed less angry when mixing it up with Sanders. In contrast, Sanders seemed more tense and uncomfortable than usual from a visual perspective, but he was still the more exciting performer, for those who prefer that (apparently, the youth vote). In any even, it is hard to see Clinton chipping into Bernie’s enormous lead with young people as a consequence of this debate.
Overall, Clinton did play an excellent prevent defense while scoring some modest but important points on offense, and seems likely to command the field in the next few contests barring any catastrophes.
Of the roughly eight-million who did tune in to the debate, it is hard to imagine that those supporting Sanders would have switched to Clinton or vice versa. The debate from Thursday night was only the fourth-highest rated Democratic debate, with about half the audience of the most-watched debate. Thus, it is questionable as to what kind of an impact it had, especially with no clear-knockout blow and with solid performances for both candidates, performances that their core supporters would appreciate. But since Sanders is the insurgent, and Clinton the favorite, this means Clinton basically held the high ground and still commands the field. If the media ends up pushing any kind of narrative of an imminent Clinton campaign collapse and a Sanders surge, it sure won’t have to do with the debate. I have already pointedly noted that Sanders’ “political revolution” is nonsense, pure delusional fantasy with absolutely no data to back it up; if Sanders is to secure the the nomination, it will have to be along much more traditional political methods. Perhaps the most important questions of the Democratic nomination contest between Clinton and Sanders will be answered by entry and exit polling on February 20th in Nevada and February 27th in South Carolina and, of course, in the final results of both contests, where far fewer liberals and far more moderates and minorities will be voting.
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