Democratic presidential contenders Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders laid into each other in their first televised one-on-one debate on Thursday. Sanders fumbled on foreign policy, Clinton on her Wall Street connections.
There was no clear winner. “A super aggressive Clinton scores victory” declared a Washington Post analyst. “Bernie wins the MSNBC debate, narrowly,” wrote a Slate.com columnist.
Clinton extended her lead in national polls over Sanders, who is rising in states next in line to hold primary elections.
Clinton is still the favourite: She has name, establishment backing, oodles more money and, importantly, strong minority support. But from once being a shoe-in for the Democratic Party presidential candidacy, she has a fight on her hands.
Here is why her campaign team is worried.
One is the minority vote. The Democratic Party consists of three traditional voting blocs. One is a middle-class, cosmopolitan vote centred in the big cities. Another is the minorities, mainly black Americans but also a large chunk of Hispanics. The third are white blue-collar workers.
Clinton had overwhelming support in the first two categories. The third had decided to flirt with Donald Trump.
Sanders threatens on all three fronts.
The first group, or more accurately their children, mobilised strongly for Sanders in Iowa. Among Iowa voters in the 17 to 29 age bracket, Sanders beat Clinton by a staggering 70 percentage points.
The second, notably African-Americans, remain Clinton stalwarts. But a number of prominent black Americans have endorsed Sanders after Iowa. In South Carolina, where nearly 60% of Democratic primary voters are black, Clinton has seen her formidable lead slip by 10 percentage points from mid-December to end January.
The third group will be back in the hunt for a flag to follow if Trump’s Iowa debacle is an augury of his future. They will be susceptible to Sanders’ protectionist, anti-corporate, pro-welfare platform.
Notably Sanders has declined to support gun control – something that wins points with the working class.
Sanders will sweep the next primary, New Hampshire. In recent weeks, his poll ascendancy over Clinton has jumped a third to 30 percentage points. Earlier this would have been attributed to Sanders being from Vermont, a neighbouring state. After Iowa, it will be attributed to Clinton’s newfound weakness.
Clinton is far from out. She leads in national polls. She has a depth of knowledge and experience that no candidate in the fray right now can match. The question is whether her strengths will match the concerns of the Democratic voters, whose support she needs to hold on to.
Foreign policy nous is not one of those issues. As far as one can tell, Sanders has not even appointed a foreign policy advisor. A January NBC poll may explain why. When asked to list what issues mattered the most to them, only 11% of Democrats listed terrorism (the foreign policy issue that tends to rouse US voters the most) as number one, well after the economy, environment and education. On the latter three, Sanders is a match for Clinton.
The edge in her attacks against him during the MSNBC debate indicates she knows this.