Sanders vs. Clinton: Who Won the First Democratic Debate?

By Victoria Venable

Elm Staff Writer

As the Washington College campus eagerly awaited Fall Break two weeks ago, five potential Presidents anxiously stood on a stage in Las Vegas to introduce their platforms to the electorate and debate with their competition. On Tuesday, Oct. 23, CNN hosted the first televised Democratic Debate of the 2016 race, where Anderson Cooper drilled five candidates about immigration, gun control, the environment, and the state of the national and global economy.

According to Politico, the Democratic Debate drew 15.3 million views, making it the most watched Democratic primary debate in history. With such a high viewership, it is not surprising that there was a lot said about the debate in the news, on social media, and probably at most workplace water coolers. So what is the consensus? Who won the debate?

Determining a winner of a televised debate such as this is a surprisingly difficult task, particularly because the final prize will not be revealed until the votes are cast and the nomination is determined. Unlike in competitive debates such as the ones those weirdos in high school spent all their time preparing for – I can make that joke because I was the president of debate club in high school – candidate debates do not have defined measures for determining actual winners. There are no stringently defined rules for objective judges to determine who scored more points, so political scientists must rely on the response of the viewers to make judgements.

In a highlight moment of the debate, Democratic candidate Senator Bernie Sanders defended former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from questions regarding the still controversial use of a personal email account during her time in office. It marks a surprising moment of comraderie between two candidates that are often at odds politically and ideologically.
In a highlight moment of the debate, Democratic candidate Senator Bernie Sanders defended former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from questions regarding the still controversial use of a personal email account during her time in office. It marks a surprising moment of comraderie between two candidates that are often at odds politically and ideologically.

How do you measure the response of viewers so soon and without bias? Some political scientists use online polls to reach the electorate, but by nature, this is a flawed study. People who are watching candidate debates that are so early in the race tend to be already intensely interested or invested in politics and often have already been exposed to the candidates, forming committed opinions. Likewise, people who participate in online polls do not accurately represent the electorate. Pollsters must account for the youth, tech-savvy, political elitist bias that comes with this system of measurement.

Still, political commentators and scientists rely just as heavily on public polls to determine the winner of a debate as they do on their own expert analysis of the performance. Immediately following the closing remarks, experts were declaring Hillary Clinton as the best performer, praising her for a  “poised, polished performance.” Politico wrote extensively about her confident demeanor. In a race that pins a party favorite with an already presidential name against a self declared “democratic socialist,” Clinton made the smart move to frame herself as “a progressive who can get things done” in response to claims that she is too moderate for the nomination. This might have been her best line of the night, and I’m sure her PR team was squealing with approval, but was that enough to seal the deal and win the debate?

While mainstream media largely says yes, many on social media are disagreeing. Though MSNBC and FOX may have Hillary’s remarks on a constant reel, people on the internet are rewarding Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders with approval and highly intensified interest. According to The Hill, Sanders’ commitment to discussing issues of wealth equality, the environment, and the risks of foreign perpetual wars earned him the spot of “most googled candidate” during the 24 hours after the debate. Why is this significant? Political commentators and scientists often use “hits” and “clicks” on online sources and social media to determine the winner of debates. This is significant because high numbers of “hits” and “clicks” on candidate-relevant posts indicate that the electorate is engaging in said candidate’s platform. Sanders is reaching the people and the people are listening.

While it is impossible and potentially useless to determine who won the debate, the reactions of the viewers indicate that this race could be just as exciting and unpredictable as the 2008 democratic race. Will we have a female democratic candidate? Will we see Hillary, the leading candidate, lose her seat to another upstart outsider? Will we feel some Maryland pride when former governor O’Malley, who left a mild impression on viewers on Tuesday, takes the bid? Who knows. One thing is for sure, with Jim Webb removing himself as a democratic candidate and hinting at an independent run and Lincoln Chafee dropping out of the race completely, I think it is safe to assume that neither of them were the winner.

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