Four Ways Bernie Sanders Won the First Democratic Debate


Four Ways Bernie Sanders Won the First Democratic Debate

by Okla Elliott

First off, let me say that even as an avid Sanders supporter, I have to admit Sanders did not perform to his fullest capacity in the debate—or to use one of Clinton’s pandering phrases from Tuesday evening, he did not live up to his “God-given potential.” And let’s be honest: Clinton is a pro and did quite well. That said, however, I still consider him the clear winner.

But before I enumerate the ways he won, allow me to sum up his debate performance. He had the strongest opening statement and received the most applause of any opening statement for it; he then had a somewhat rough first third of the debate, wherein he uncharacteristically stumbled over some of his words; then he either dominated or held his ground solidly for the rest of the debate, going so far as to garner the most quoted line of the evening when he showed his honor and integrity by defending Clinton against attacks about her emails.

His solid performance aside, here are the four key ways he won the debate.


  1. Name Recognition. I don’t think people realize how much just getting on that stage did for Sanders in terms of name recognition. Clinton is a perfectly known quantity, and pretty much everyone in the country has a formed opinion of her because she’s been a celebrity for two decades now. As recently as June of this year, a friend of mine with a PhD and who is politically engaged to a moderate degree had never even heard of Sanders. And that anecdotal evidence aside, all polling shows that Clinton has much higher name recognition than Sanders. Sanders therefore won the debate because he increased his profile much more than Clinton could. Clinton really has nothing to gain by these debates, since the vast super-majority of voters already have fixed opinions about her.
  1. Winning the Internet. Sanders garnered more Google searches than Clinton, received three times more new Twitter followers, and received more new online donations in the 48 hours after the debates (totaling $3.2 million). This is likely related to the above point about name recognition. Tens of thousands of voters were finally introduced to him. He therefore won in terms of new supporters and fundraising. It is worth noting here that Fiorina received a massive increase in Twitter followers after the first GOP debate, and then experienced a corollary increase in donations and poll numbers. And, finally, every online public poll showed that viewers believed Sanders won the debate. These are, of course, non-scientific polls, but that’s what they said in 2008 when Obama won them all.
  1. Focus Groups. Both CNN’s and Fox’s focus groups gave the victory to Sanders. These focus groups are only semi-scientific and the sample size is small, but they have historically been a solid predictor of voting patterns. For example, Obama also won among focus groups in 2008, much like he won the internet in terms of social media activity, polls, and donations. Clinton won among the talking heads and formal polls in 2008, much as she did this time, and we know what that got her before.
  1. Increased Mainstream Media Support. Of course Clinton is much more of a mainstream media darling, so she’s getting more noise from them, but having SalonThe Chicago Tribune, and Forbes name Sanders as the winner of the debate is huge. These are major news outlets discussing Sanders over Clinton, something that has never happened before. Let us hope this is the beginning of a new trend.

About Okla Elliott

I am currently an assistant professor at Misericordia University in northeast Pennsylvania. I hold a PhD in comparative literature from the University of Illinois, an MFA in creative writing from Ohio State University, and a legal studies certificate from Purdue University. My work has appeared in Cincinnati Review, Harvard Review, The Hill, Huffington Post, Indiana Review, The Literary Review, New Letters, Prairie Schooner, A Public Space, and Subtropics, as well as being listed as a "notable essay" in Best American Essays 2015. My books include From the Crooked Timber (short fiction), The Cartographer’s Ink (poetry), The Doors You Mark Are Your Own (a coauthored novel), Blackbirds in September: Selected Shorter Poems of Jürgen Becker (translation), and Bernie Sanders: The Essential Guide (nonfiction).
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