Who won the first #DemDebate? Well, it sort of depends on who you ask, and I think that is the most interesting thing to come out of last night. If you look at almost any mainstream media channel or webpage (CNN, MSNBC, ect.) then you’ll come away with a pretty clear indication that Clinton won and that it wasn’t particularly close. Sanders, most news outlets agree, had a nice showing but fell far short of Clinton’s “dominance”. And in any previous election that would be the end of the story. Clinton won running away, and barring some kind of major scandal this primary is over. The problem for Clinton is that this isn’t any previous election, and there is something of an unknown factor that overwhelmingly believes that Sanders won this debate. Sanders was the most Googled name during the debate, almost from start to finish. He gained 35k new Twitter followers, while the rest of the nominees combined gained just over 20k. The closest online poll has Sanders only winning with 68% of the vote, with that total reaching up to 85% in some polls. The real question is…does that actually matter?
It’s easy to dismiss “The Internet” out of hand, partially because it’s never really mattered before. There’s an argument to be made that The Internet is partially the reason that Obama got nominated over Clinton eight years ago, and I do think there is some merit to that, but for the most part Obama won through conventional, grass roots support. While The Internet was generally in favor of Obama, I don’t think it actually swung the election in any meaningful way. With Sanders, it’s different, but it’s easy to miss the distinction. Sanders has been garnering huge turnouts to his speeches, a lot like Obama did eight years ago. The difference is that when Obama was doing it his staffers were on the street, getting the word out. With Sanders, they have spent very little money on getting the word out, relying mostly on word of mouth. And by “word of mouth”, I really mean “The Internet”. And it’s clearly been working, gaining him audiences as large as 25k at a time.
Does having your name Googled and gaining Twitter followers translate to the polls? Recent events suggest that it might. After Carly Fiorina’s performance in the first Republican Kids Table Debate, she was the most Googled name of the night, and gained the most Twitter followers. Her poll numbers increased enough to get her moved to the real debate a few months later, although they had to change the rules to get her there. In this case, I think the power of The Internet had little to actually do with the change, but the correlation is interesting enough to note. If Sanders sees a five to ten percent increase in poll numbers we might have to pay closer attention to Google and Twitter trends, but I think his numbers are unlikely to change any more than three percent. And that’s because I believe traditional polls are becoming increasingly inaccurate.
In my opinion, the most important thing that any candidate said last night was when Sanders claimed that in order for any Democratic nominee to enact any of their policy changes, it would take a political revolution. Considering the number of Republicans in the House and Senate, he’s absolutely correct. That revolution needs to come from younger voters, a demographic that has, historically, very low voter turnout. But if you look at the crowds Sanders has been drawing, it’s been mostly younger voters. If you look at where he’s most popular, The Internet, you can start to understand why his polling numbers don’t match up to his seemingly fervent support. The most astounding thing I’ve learned all year is that traditional pollsters only call landline phones, never cell phones. In a day and age where more and more people, specifically younger people, are never even setting up a landline, this practice seems woefully outdated. If the people who are likely to say they’re willing to vote for Sanders are never being asked the question, it’s no surprise Sanders isn’t polling in a way that matches his apparent support.
There is one other major reason I believe the fact that Sanders name was Googled more than anyone else last night matters. If you look at the traditional polls, Sanders “Unfamiliarity” rating was around 40% prior to last night. Despite the crowds he’s been drawing, and despite The Internet being on his side, he’s almost never talked about on traditional news outlets, and he doesn’t spend much money on advertising. After last night, I fully expect that number to drop significantly. That may or may not translate to increased poll numbers for him, but it’s very unlikely to make them drop in any meaningful way. While I think that traditional polls are becoming less accurate, that doesn’t make them irrelevant or even unimportant, especially considering the impact of younger voters is a huge mystery.
Which brings me back to the question of who won the debate last night. Clinton had a good showing, and did everything her supporters wanted her to do, including the traditional media. She didn’t commit any major gaffe, and she attacked her opponents in areas where she had a clear advantage over them. She was smart, poised, and articulate in her points. It was clear that she had practiced and was ready for everything that came at her. Sanders, on the other hand, was passionate, genuine, and, in what most people are calling the moment of the night, willing to throw politics aside to defend a fellow candidate against what he perceives as an absurd assault. This defense of Clinton and her email scandal seems to generally be perceived as a sign of his integrity and interest in what’s right over what’s political. In a climate where people seem to be tired of “politics as usual” and are increasingly interested in a candidate who’s willing to speak from the heart, even if what they have to say isn’t popular, this is important.
Clinton did exactly what she walked onto that stage to do, but did she convince anyone who’s on the fence to vote for her over Sanders? I don’t believe she did. To be honest, I don’t believe there are a lot of people on the fence when it comes to Clinton, although I do believe that she may have convinced people that don’t like her that, if she does win the nomination, things won’t be as bleak as they thought it would be a week ago. In other words, I don’t think she helped herself in the primary, but I do think she helped herself in the general election, and that seems to be the reason the traditional news outlets believe she won the debate.
The problem is that Sanders also did exactly what he walked onto that stage to do. His two biggest limitations were people not knowing who he was and his problem with non-white voters, particularly black voters. Gaining almost twice as many Twitter followers as the other four candidates on stage combined as well as being the most Googled name of the night may have taken care of the first problem. And the fact that he was only one of two candidates to actually say the words #BlackLivesMatter (the other being O’Malley), and was the only candidate to not only bring up the example of Sandra Bland, but to actually #SayHerName, will likely help with the second problem. No matter what the traditional polls and media outlets say, Sanders seems to have likely helped himself both in the primary AND in the general election, and for that reason I give the edge to him over Clinton.
Mike Provencher is a writer and father living in Connecticut.