You might think little has changed in the state affairs of the Democratic primary race if you watched the post-debate coverage on CNN. The news agency, which hosted the debate in conjunction with Facebook at the Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas, largely portrayed the night as a successful one for Hillary Clinton, reaffirming her status as the clear—although waning— frontrunner on the left.
This is not an altogether inaccurate summary of the debate. Secretary Clinton certainly appeared cool and confident despite not having appeared on such a stage since the 2008 election season. She positioned herself especially well with her strong defense of Planned Parenthood, contributing the only mention of the organization in the entirety of the debate’s two-and-a-half hours.
However, the line of the night undoubtedly went to Bernie Sanders. In reference to the former Secretary of State’s ongoing scandal, the Vermont senator exclaimed, “the American people are sick and tired of hearing about [her] damn emails!” Sanders continued to criticize the media for not talking about “the real issues facing America,” and was thereupon met with a handshake and exuberant “thank you, Bernie!” from Clinton, standing on his left.
The immediate reaction to the moment—the most discussed of the night on social media—was that Sanders had conferred a great boon to Clinton. Indeed, considering the apparent worsening of the Secretary’s email debacle in the past few days, Sanders’ impassioned words certainly prevented some further damage to his opponent’s part and, in the view of some, helped her win the night.
Yet what many commentators failed to recognize was that the senator’s “damn emails!” remark was actually an exhibition of his incredible political savvy. Instead of going for a low blow, Sanders made a topic of constant media frenzy a nonissue, positioning himself as a figure of integrity and someone devoted to addressing what voters care about. His campaign quickly capitalized on the line, reaching out to supporters for donations via email. But, more importantly, Sanders bagged himself the sound bite that will be played over and over in the days and weeks to come.
Truly, the debate as a whole was much more successful for the Sanders campaign than most commentators might suggest. Opinions aside, the Vermont senator appears to have won the debate on a variety of different metrics. Bernie Sanders was the most searched candidate on Google and most mentioned candidate online throughout the debate. He also gained the greatest number of followers on Twitter. Excitement for Bernie was so great that he could hardly even leave the building after the debate had ended. If Bernie Sanders didn’t win the debate in rhetoric, without question he at least made his name known.
None of this is to say that the road ahead is easy for the senator. Tuesday’s debate certainly pointed out some weaknesses Sanders faces. He will have to find a way to assuage mountain concerns about his position on guns while simultaneously reaching out to moderates who may not take favorably to his self-described label of “democratic-socialist.” Nonetheless, unlike Clinton, as his name continues to reach the ears of voters, Sanders’ poll numbers and chance of winning the nomination can only improve.
Image Source: HPR/Mattea Mrkusic