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Eye On Candidates
December 21, 2015

Democratic Debates Becoming a Non-Factor

The Democrats held their third debate presidential nomination debate on Saturday night, featuring former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. The general view seems to be that nobody did much of anything to change the race. Here’s Politico’s Glenn Thrush:

5 takeaways from the Democratic debate

Sanders — with a powerhouse fundraising operation and widespread appeal among college-age supporters — remains a significant factor in the Democratic primary, but he did little to repulse Clinton’s surge at the dawn of 2016. If there was any question about the Democratic pecking order, it was erased when Clinton returned late from a commercial break — leaving her empty podium to upstage the two men who soldiered on unsuccessfully as the audience focused more on her blaring absence than their uttered eloquences….

Sanders — famously allergic to debate prep and resistant to attacking his opponents on issues not directly pertaining to his core message of income inequality — clearly understood the fierce urgency of knocking Clinton down a peg. But his heart wasn’t quite into it. His staff defiantly refused to apologize for improperly tapping Clinton’s secret voter file, but he quickly offered a mea culpa. "Yes, I apologize," he said. "Not only do I apologize, I want to apologize to my supporters."

That’s not to say he didn’t take his shots. His most effective attack on Clinton, not surprisingly, came when he hammered the former New York senator on her close financial ties to Wall Street.

It speaks well of Sanders as a person, but he needs to recover lost ground.

Over at National Journal Patrick Reis offers up his view that the rhetorical confrontation between frontrunner Clinton and Sanders, her top challenger, is likely to remain closer to tepid than white-hot:

If a face-to-face throw­down full of per­son­al at­tacks was ever in the cards, they would be on the table already. Both can­did­ates have now had a chance to go for a crush­ing per­son­al at­tack—and both not only passed, they came to their rival’s aid: Sanders waived away Clin­ton’s private email serv­er, Clin­ton dis­missed the Sanders cam­paign’s data peek as a non­is­sue….

What ac­counts for the lack of per­son­al an­im­us?

In short: Sanders can’t win with per­son­al at­tacks, and Clin­ton can win without them.

For Sanders, it may be that he just can’t bring him­self to use the tac­tics that re­semble those of a stand­ard cam­paign. Or it may be that he knows that many of his sup­port­ers are with him spe­cific­ally be­cause he doesn’t re­semble a stand­ard cam­paign. He prom­ised not to go neg­at­ive, he swore off su­per PACs, and he has built his cam­paign around sup­port for a spe­cif­ic set of policy po­s­i­tions. If he strays too far from that, he risks los­ing the luster of ideal­ism that pulls sup­port­ers to him to be­gin with. (It’s not for noth­ing that, im­me­di­ately after apo­lo­giz­ing to Clin­ton, Sanders offered a second apo­logy, this time to his sup­port­ers, telling them it was not the kind of cam­paign tac­tic he sup­por­ted.)

Sim­il­arly, Clin­ton has little to gain from at­tempt­ing to bury Sanders by un­der­cut­ting his char­ac­ter. She’s still the clear fa­vor­ite to win the party’s nom­in­a­tion, and after a sum­mer in which Sanders put a scare in­to her camp with some sol­id poll num­bers, she again ap­pears well on her way to a primary win. After that, she’ll need sup­port from the lib­er­al base that’s back­ing Sanders when she gets to the gen­er­al elec­tion. That doesn’t just mean votes, it also means con­vin­cing people to vo­lun­teer, or­gan­ize, and donate with the same vig­or that they’re now do­ing for Sanders. And when Clin­ton asks Sanders’s fol­low­ers for their zeal­ous sup­port, she’ll have a much bet­ter chance of get­ting it if she de­feats their can­did­ate without de­mon­iz­ing him.

In­stead of per­son­al at­tacks, they’re both tak­ing a safer route, one that pro­tects Sanders’ move­ment and Clin­ton’s gen­er­al elec­tion pro­spects. And that means spar­ring (some­times po­litely, some­times less so) over policy.

The hesitation on both candidates’ parts to aggressively engage in attacking each other is likely to make the debates on the Democratic side mostly a non-factor in terms of influencing the nomination, at least if both Clinton and Sanders continue their current debate strategies. Another reason why the debates may not play a significant role is that they have been scheduled at times when the likely audiences are expected to be small, something the Sanders campaign has complained about. The Washington Post reports:

Presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders said in a television interview that the Democratic National Committee deliberately scheduled debates at times when viewership would be low in an effort to “protect” the party’s front-runner, Hillary Clinton.

The criticism from Sanders followed the third Democratic debate of the 2016 contest, held here on Saturday night, six days before Christmas and at a time of heightened tensions between the Sanders campaign and the DNC over a data-breach controversy….

Sanders also pointed to the timing of the previous Democratic debate, held last month on a Saturday night in Des Moines at a time when the Iowa Hawkeyes were playing football against the Minnesota Golden Gophers.

“In Iowa, do you know when the debate was held?” Sanders said. “It was the night of the big football game in Iowa. Do you think that’s a coincidence?”

The next Democratic debate will be Jan. 17 in South Carolina, the Sunday evening before the Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday, so the audience will probably be reduced because of the three-day weekend. Because of that factor, plus both candidates’ strategies to avoid aggressively confronting the other face-to-face, it’s likely the Sanders campaign will look for another way to catch the frontrunner. The question is, what could that be?