While mainstream media pundits fell in line this week to declare Hillary Clinton the winner of Tuesday's Democratic primary debate, signs suggest that it was Clinton's main rival, Bernie Sanders, who in fact emerged victorious.
Not only did the U.S. senator from Vermont have "the biggest soundbite of the night," as Sanders' senior adviser Tad Devine told Politico—referring, of course, to the "damn emails" line—but he also raked in post-debate donations, won several online polls and focus groups, and dominated the internet and social media over the course of the evening.
"According to Google Trends, Bernie Sanders won the debate," said Lindsey Cook for US News. "He was the most-Googled candidate post-debate in every state and led Google Search results into [Wednesday] morning. Sanders was also the most-discussed candidate on Facebook, followed by Clinton, then [former Virginia Sen. Jim] Webb."
Politico reports that the Sanders campaign "is touting the debate as a victory expected to expand his audience, boost fundraising, and, most important, peel off Clinton supporters to his cause. Indeed, at a fundraiser in Hollywood on Wednesday, Sanders said he had raised $2.5 million since the debate."
And Gawker added:
There were several large online polls, which are a fairly degraded form of data that can end up measuring enthusiasm of a candidate’s base more than actual total voter preference. But to the extent those online polls have any value, Bernie Sanders won 68% in the MSNBC.com poll; Bernie Sanders won 55% in the Daily Kos poll; Bernie Sanders won 54% in the Time.com poll; and Bernie Sanders overwhelmingly won CNN’s own Facebook poll, not that you would know it from what the pundits were saying on CNN itself. CNN’s own focus group also said that Bernie Sanders won, and Fusion’s focus group said that Bernie Sanders won, and Fox News’ focus group said that Bernie Sanders won.
Polls and focus groups are "admittedly a wholly non-scientific pair of metrics," wrote The Atlantic's Russell Berman on Wednesday, "but the results got the attention of former advisers to President Obama, who said they saw the same dynamic play out during the debates eight years ago."
Clinton had a great night, but Sanders winning the focus group and online polls, but losing the pundits is reminiscent of Obama in 07-08— Dan Pfeiffer (@danpfeiffer) October 14, 2015
Corporate media, however, ignored Sanders' success and clear resonance with voters, choosing instead to push a pro-Clinton storyline.
"Professional political reporters pride themselves on knowing what is really happening," Gawker's Hamilton Nolan argued. "It would be more accurate, though, to say that they establish what is really happening, by creating the narrative that defines our messy political process in the public mind."
According to Nolan, "That narrative sayeth: the person with the most famous name and the most money at their disposal and the most powerful connections to the political establishment shall win the nomination. And that is the narrative that all of these mainstream political reporters are sticking to. Hillary Clinton did not tip over and collapse on stage, or spout any racist slurs into a hot mic; therefore, she won the debate."
Relying on the mainstream media, then, can offer a skewed view of political reality.
As Gunar Olsen writes for Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) on Thursday, the only poll so far to ask a random sample of respondents about debate performance found that 62 percent thought Clinton won, while 30 percent gave it to Sanders.
"The most significant win of the evening was for those millions of people in the Sanders revolution, who continue be inspired by a candidate who speaks seriously and credibly about building a movement to retake our democracy."
—Ruth Conniff, The Progressive
However, Olsen notes, the poll "is described as a 'random survey of 760 registered Democratic voters across the US'—not as a survey of people who actually watched the debate. Given that there are some 43 million registered Democrats in the country and 15 million people who watched the debate, not all of whom are Democrats, it’s highly likely that a large majority of the poll’s respondents got their impressions of who won the debate secondhand."
"If they relied on corporate media to tell them about the debate, as no doubt many of them did," Olsen concludes, "it’s no wonder that most of them thought Clinton won."
For example, as Common Dreams reported, it is largely due to Sanders' candidacy that the White House hopefuls were forced to debate the merits of capitalism on a national stage.
"The winner had to move the issues and set the tone for the evening, which is what Bernie Sanders did on Tuesday," wrote columnist H.A. Goodman on Wednesday. "Because of his ability to lead on the biggest issues, from the environment to wars in the Middle East, Bernie Sanders is on his way to the Democratic nomination and the first debate was a major stepping-stone. He won the debate, and he'll win the nomination because only one candidate is setting the agenda for ideas and discussion within the Democratic Party."
Indeed, as Ruth Conniff argued at The Progressive, "the most significant win of the evening was for those millions of people in the Sanders revolution, who continue be inspired by a candidate who speaks seriously and credibly about building a movement to retake our democracy."
"That," she said, "was worth tuning in for."