Assessing Tuesday's Debate Through Viewers' Eyes
On Tuesday, five Democratic presidential candidates – former Secretary of State and ex-New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, Independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb and former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee – will face off in the first 2016 Democratic presidential primary debate in Las Vegas. Right now, most reporters are (rightly) focused on who will be on camera – the candidates and CNN moderator Anderson Cooper — while keeping Vice President Joe Biden, who hasn't decided if he'll enter the race, in the back of their minds.
In the run-up to a debate, it can be just as instructive to look at who will be watching. Specifically, examining each candidate’s standing with the party elite, the media and voters shows that this debate provides Hillary Clinton with a good opportunity to boost her poll numbers and gives Joe Biden another data point as he calculates whether to enter the race, but probably does not do much to change the long-term dynamics of the primary contest.
Party Elite – Clinton’s Stable Support
If you follow political data journalism, you’ve probably heard the phrase “the party decides” thrown around – it’s the title of an influential (and very good) book on presidential primaries that tries to explain why some candidates win the nomination and others don’t. The theory is that party actors (everyone from the volunteer door knockers in Iowa all the way up to senators and governors) attempt to come to an informal consensus about which candidate to support before the rank-and-file voters go to the polls. These party actors then use their money, manpower and influence to help propel their preferred candidate to the nomination. The theory doesn’t have a perfect record (it would have predicted a Clinton win in the 2008 Democratic primary and a McCain loss in that year’s Republican primary) but its core is pretty straightforward – party elites often get their way in presidential primaries.
The Democratic invisible primary is basically over, and, measured by who scored the most endorsements from elected officials, Clinton won by a huge margin. So when party elites watch this debate, they won’t be shopping for a candidate. They’ll be checking in on their investment – making sure she still seems like a good enough politician to get to the White House and a reliable enough Democrat to implement their policies once there.
But the debate is also a data point for Biden and party elites who might be a little skittish about Clinton’s email scandal or her chances in November 2016. Biden is, like any good politician, weighing his odds and is much less likely to run (and thus waste some of his remaining time as vice president) if he thinks he's unable to win. And if Clinton seems especially weak or strong in this debate, that will be one of a (truly enormous) number of factors that influence Biden and his potential establishment backers.
The Media – Hillary’s Chance for a Short-Term Boost
Clinton may have won over the Democratic Party elite, but she has been pounded in the media for most of the summer and early fall. As Dave Weigel and Nate Silver observed last month, Clinton is stuck in a sort of negative feedback loop where three types of stories – her email issues, her falling poll numbers and a potential challenge from Biden – dominate coverage of her. These stories are all negative for Clinton, and their constant flow is part of the reason she has lost roughly a third of her support since July.
But (as Silver notes) Clinton has an opportunity to break that cycle on Tuesday by performing well and giving the media material for a new, positive “Clinton comeback” storyline. I don’t think anyone knows precisely what she would have to do to perform well enough to generate positive media coverage. Assessing her performance is a complex and ultimately subjective process that basically all political media outlets participate in. But if we see positive headlines about Clinton on Wednesday morning, we’ll know there’s a chance she’ll get some relief from the negative press and possibly an increase in her poll numbers. This relief would likely be temporary – other newsworthy events will happen in the days and weeks after the debate, and attention will move away from Clinton’s performance. But a “W” is a “W,” and that’s what Clinton will be chasing on Tuesday.
This debate is one of the first times since their announcement speeches that the Democratic presidential hopefuls will have the chance to speak directly to voters en masse. It’s hard to parse exactly how much that will matter to voters.
Maybe the debate won’t change anything – Clinton still might lead in the polls, Sanders could keep his consolidated bloc of white liberals, and the other three candidates may not bag breakout performances. In the 2012 Republican primary, debates generally didn’t move the polls – and that contest was much more chaotic than this year’s Democratic race has been so far.
But even if polls do move directly after the debate, it’s hard to separate the effect of media coverage from the effect of ordinary voters actually watching the exchanges. The media will begin analyzing the debate the second it ends, and that coverage shapes the public’s perceptions of what happened.