Thoughts on the first Democratic debate

Who Did Well - I think Clinton, Sanders and O’Malley accomplished their missions last night. With a commanding performance, Clinton re-asserted herself in a campaign where she has been far too often been on the defensive. As many have noted, she did a great deal to calm nerves about her recent decline, and reminder all of us why she has been so admired for so long. Sanders had a strong performance, crossing a threshold of credibility for more skeptical insiders and the press. Post debate focus groups and social media tracking indicated he may have gained more ground than Clinton, but certainly reinforced that he a good night in his first national debate.

O’Malley did all he could do in a single debate – held his own with Clinton and Sanders. Will be interested to see if he can pick up a few points in the next few weeks. Assume he will need to do keep his campaign funded and alive. Not sure how Webb and Chafee stay in the race much longer, and will be interesting to see how the next round of debates set their criteria for participation. Far less qualified and accomplished GOPers like Christie and Huckabee have hung around for months long after it was clear they had no shot so who knows….

All in all Hillary had a big night with insiders, the media, her own supporters and staff. Given the breadth of her support even if she just shored up what she already had, and got her supporters and team fired up it will be a big accomplishment. Sanders seemed to do better with voters themselves but let’s see what the polls show in the coming weeks.

One additional thing both Sanders and Clinton did through their strong performances was make it harder for the Vice President to enter the race. I’ve been pretty vocal that I both hoped he would enter the race, and that if he did he needed to do so by this debate. We will see what happens in the next few weeks but it is possible the Vice President’s window has closed, as he will now have to beat both Clinton and a far stronger than imagined Sanders.

I also agree with the many who have opined that the serious discussion by serious people about serious things we all saw last year provided a powerful contrast with the nuttier GOP field, something that was good for all Democrats.  

What’s Next? Iowa - If Clinton can win Iowa, she has a significant chance to bring this race to an early end. Sanders is leading in New Hampshire and is competitive in Iowa. If he wins both early states he will become a formidable candidate in the next round no matter what happens in Nevada and South Carolina. And while he may not win he could end up extending this race till the late spring and anything can happen the longer we go. But if Clinton goes in and wins in Iowa, given her revitalized campaign and strength in the next set of states, she could functionally end this thing there. So look for a great deal of intensity now to shift to Iowa, a state where a candidate like Sanders could do very well. Lots of Iowa activity in the coming weeks – the all important Jefferson Jackson day dinner and the second Democratic debate. All going to be consequential.

The Debate Debate – While the audience for the debate last night was good – 15m – it was far less than either of the first two GOP debates each of which attracted over 23m people. Assuming these viewership numbers hold, the 11 GOP debates will be seen by about 260m people. The 6 Democratic debates will be seen by 92m. And given how many Democratic debates are on the weekends and that one is in Spanish, the number could be much lower. This gap is almost 200m debate views – simply an extraordinary and dangerous number for the Democrats. In a new piece I lay out some ideas on how the DNC can close the gap, both by improving the debate schedule and taking other steps.

But one thing Democrats have to stop saying, and believing, is this additional exposure a superior RNC debate schedule will provide their candidates is somehow good for Democrats. As of today, there isn’t a single recent poll showing Clinton or Sanders definitely ahead of a fringey GOP field after these last few months of dominant GOP media coverage. In fact one could argue there is more data showing these debates are helping the GOP field as intended - recent polls show the GOP field outperforming the overall GOP brand which remains far less popular than the Democrats. Which one would expect from the unbalanced coverage of the last few months. Press, attention, free media matters. Sort of a campaign 101.

And friends, if impressions didn’t matter, why would advertisers the world over pay millions of dollars to buy advertising to get these kind of impressions being offered to the Democrats for free? It is long past time for the DNC to take decisive action to close this dangerous free media gap.  And given how serious and thoughtful the debate was, creating more opportunities for the contrast with far more feckless GOP would seem be a strategic imperative now.  Particularly as this was the only Democratic debate of the entire primary season in prime time, during the week, in English with a modern media partner. 

The State of the GOP – The most interesting question about 2016 now may be can any of the top GOPers unite a fractured party next year? The struggle to replace Boehner mirrors the GOP Presidential dilemma– a deeply fractured party, without leaders strong enough to bring the factions together. It is hard for me to see how any of the top tier GOP Presidentials now will be strong enough to bring this party together next year. When I discuss this with others, people often site Rubio as the one most likely to be able to pull it off if he wins. But I just have a hard time believing after all the anti-immigrant and Hispanic rhetoric of the last few months this GOP will turn over the keys to a guy who may look and sound like “one of them.”

The deeply divided and weakly led GOP is becoming one of the most important early 2016 dynamics to watch.