Who Will Win the Post-Debate Spin?

The media say Hillary Clinton won; the voters say Bernie Sanders. Neither will persuade the other, but the debate still might be Clinton’s turning point.

Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

The first debate I ever watched (and in person no less) Hillary Clinton take part in happened in Buffalo in September 2000. She was running for the U.S. Senate against Rick Lazio. Toward the end of the debate, while hectoring Clinton about agreeing not to accept some certain kind of campaign contribution that seemed dirty then but would undoubtedly seem quaint today, Lazio left his podium, walked over to hers, produced a little piece of paper from his jacket pocket, and challenged her to sign his pledge.

She said no.

That night in the filing room, the consensus among the journalists I spoke with was that Lazio had shamed Clinton and gained the high ground. That was the immediate post-debate conventional wisdom. Then, state news stations kept replaying the clip, and columnists started writing about it. In 48 or so hours, that conventional wisdom flipped completely. Lazio had “invaded Clinton’s space.” He was a bully. It was as if the first-take news stories giving Lazio the edge had never been written. Clinton got a bump in the polls, and what had been a tight race never really was again.

I bring this up to remind us that often, debates aren’t “won” while they happen but in the next day or two, as the media chew over this or that little set piece. We’re just entering that phase now. So how might things change?

The media conventional wisdom immediately post-debate was that Clinton crushed it. On point, relaxed. She was in command of the substance, which was no surprise. But more surprisingly, she gave a good performance—and let’s face it, these debates are more performance than substance.

At the same time, though, there’s reason to think that people watching at home didn’t agree with the overwhelming media verdict. The obligatory Frank Luntz focus group, this time with voters in Florida, had Bernie Sanders winning. A dozen 18- to 34-year-olds brought together by also gave it to Sanders by 8-3-1.

Sanders might yet win the post-debate debate. It will depend on what clips get shown and which story line dominates. The most ubiquitous clip has been and will be the one of Sanders saying “enough with the damn emails.” Clinton was clever there, forcing Sanders into that handshake that he looked not entirely thrilled to be participating in, but once she stuck her hand out there he had no choice. But in the hearts and minds of Democrats, both of them will benefit from this exchange, maybe Sanders more so, because he was able to show passion and look magnanimous at the same time.

Beyond that? The gun-control exchange was still getting a lot of play Wednesday morning, and that one is going to work to Clinton’s benefit. It’s hard for any Sanders partisan to deny that it’s strange that this candidate who wants to give no quarter to the political opposition on everything else suddenly wants to sit down and reason together on the subject of guns. That exchange will help Clinton.

There was no direct exchange between the two of them that plays obviously to Sanders’s benefit. But there were a couple of occasions when Sanders took the easy position from the point of view of Democratic primary voters and Clinton the tougher one. It’s a lot easier to say “free college!” as Sanders does and a little tougher to explain as Clinton had to “well, not exactly free, but close” (start with this article and follow the links for more detail). And I was pretty surprised by Clinton’s line on Edward Snowden—he broke laws and he should come back and face the music. That’s probably not a position many Democratic primary voters hold, but it may not be one that is decisive for many people (and by the way, the fact that it’s probably unpopular means she should get some credit for saying it). But Clinton made no big unforced errors for Sanders to exploit in the coming days.

So, if those two little focus groups are representative, and Democrats more broadly think that Sanders won the debate, we have a situation where the media and the voters came to different conclusions. The question is: Which one will persuade the other that it was wrong?

The answer is probably neither, and the rough status quo will hold for a while. Nevertheless, the debate marks what may work out to be a key turning point for Clinton. I mean—positive press, for Hillary Clinton! And piles of it. While the House Benghazi panel is becoming a laughingstock. If she can do as well as she did Tuesday night in her appearance before that committee next Thursday, we may finally get to that point where the Clinton story line flips, as it did 15 years ago in Buffalo.