Shortly after the first Democratic primary debate ended, I took to the pages of Slate to share what I saw on the CNN stage: Hillary Clinton had won. “Instead of turning in the safe and solid performance she needed,” I wrote, “Clinton was closer to spectacular on Tuesday night.”
It didn’t take long for the dissenting opinions to come pouring into my inbox. Several were nuanced and well reasoned; others … less so. “Hey dumbass,” began the first, “You should be ashamed of yourself you hack!!!” The next was only slightly more measured with its criticism: “How much money were you paid … you either got big bucks to do this article or you have an intellectual issue,” it read. “Are you blind or just bought? Grow a pair and admit the truth,” read another. One industrious reader, meanwhile, sent eight different emails, most of which included graphic photos and all of which came with the prose that matched the tenor of the distinctly un-PC subject line they shared. I could go on, but you get the point.
General tone aside, though, several of the messages did pose a question worth addressing: How was it possible that I could declare Hillary Clinton the winner of the debate at nearly the same time so many Slate readers were casting their votes in our online poll for Bernie Sanders?
As of late Wednesday, 75 percent of the roughly 95,000 responses to our “Who won the Democratic presidential debate?” instapoll selected the self-styled democratic socialist as the answer. Hillary, meanwhile, wasn’t even in Bernie’s ballpark. She received only 17 percent of the vote—just 13 points more than Jim Webb, a man whose most memorable moments on Tuesday were complaining to the moderator that he was being ignored and telling the story of the time he killed a man in Vietnam. (Maybe if he had led with the latter, Anderson Cooper would have given him more time.) The results weren’t just unique to Slate: Bernie topped countless other online polls, including those at two other national outlets that had also called the fight for Clinton on their home pages that night—as this semi-viral image illustrated:
So, what gives? Were my fellow journalists and I watching a different debate than everyone else?
Let me start with the polls. As I explained after the first GOP debate when there was a similar difference in opinion between the chattering class and online respondents, instant online polls are informal and unscientific. The results rely on a self-selecting group of respondents with no regard to political affiliation, age, country, or even whether the person doing the responding actually watched the debate. Respondents, meanwhile, don’t have even the slightest motivation to be objective; it’s hard to imagine a Hillary supporter casting an online vote for Bernie or vice versa, regardless of what he or she saw onstage. Like tracking new Twitter followers or Google searches, the online surveys provide an interesting snapshot of the mood of a particular slice of the Internet, but they’re mostly for entertainment (for the reader) and traffic (for the outlet). No one should mistake them for the scientific surveys done by professional pollsters.
They also tend to favor those candidates with active and impassioned fans—something that Bernie’s fundraising numbers and campaign crowds suggest he clearly has in spades. When Slate and a number of other established media outlets declared Hillary the winner, we gave that same fan base—which has long felt, not unjustifiably, that their man’s not getting a fair shake in the media—one more reason to reload the page and vote again. In online polls, like elections, it’s all about turnout. In online polls, unlike elections, you can vote as many times as you want.
Which brings us to what I saw on Tuesday: As I wrote then and still believe now, Hillary was confident, poised, and unexpectedly aggressive. That, I concede, is a subjective opinion—as is any that calls a “winner” in a contest where there is no agreed-on metric to actually score the participants. But it’s also an informed one. She entered the night up nearly 20 points on Sanders when pollsters included Joe Biden in the race, and by even more when they didn’t. In other words, she didn’t need to win converts, only to preach to her choir—and from where I was sitting, she did just that. If absolutely nothing else, her email scandal was effectively eliminated as a primary issue thanks to Bernie’s benevolence—a massive pickup given the topic has been by far Clinton’s single biggest vulnerability this year.
That’s not to say Bernie didn’t fare well himself. He stumbled to explain his gun record, but, as my colleague Michelle Goldberg notes, Sanders didn’t come out empty-handed: He was the one who set the terms for the debate, putting capitalism on the defensive during an event being held by one of the country’s two major political parties in Las Vegas—something that few could have imagined before he jumped into the race. For a man calling for a “political revolution,” it doesn’t get much better than that.
It’s also possible that Sanders will be the long-term beneficiary of the debate, given it was the first time many Democrats got a good, long look at his progressive worldview. Based solely on what I saw on the debate stage Tuesday night, though, Hillary gave the stronger performance. If you disagree with me, well, you have my email address.