Hillary Sweeps the Table
A Commentary by Fran Coombs
As predicted last week, Hillary Clinton sailed through the first Democratic debate last night unchallenged, unscathed and unrepentant. It looks like the party bosses were right when they limited the number of debates to six. In fact, that might be five too many if last night is any indication.
Unlike the audience and her four would-be challengers, even CNN moderator Anderson Cooper had difficulty with Clinton’s blithe response to a question about her use of a private e-mail server during her years as secretary of State. In a follow-up question, he noted that the matter was under investigation by the FBI and that even President Obama has said it’s a legitimate issue. But then Clinton’s chief opponent, Bernie Sanders, jumped in to save the day, declaring, “Enough of the e-mails. Let’s talk about the real issues facing America.”
A beaming Clinton thanked Sanders and stepped over to shake his hand while the partisan audience roared.
That may work in a room full of hardline Democrats, but 59% of all likely voters in this country think it’s likely Clinton broke the law by sending and receiving e-mails containing classified information through this private e-mail server. The investigation is ongoing.
Fifty-one percent (51%) of Democrats think Clinton has done a good or excellent job explaining her use of the private e-mail server. Among all voters, just 28% feel that way.
But then this is still the primary season, and it’s the party’s voters that count right now. So the full pander was on last night with Clinton, Sanders and former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley all trying to outdo each other with the freebies they promised to rain down on the American people. There was little mention of how this was all going to be paid for other than reference to the highest income earners not paying enough in taxes.
Most Democrats, after all, have a favorable opinion of the federal government and prefer a government with more services and higher taxes over a smaller one with lower taxes. Republicans and unaffiliated voters strongly disagree.
Sanders, a longtime U.S. senator from Vermont and an avowed socialist, has the biggest vision of government and was perhaps the most convincing of last night’s speakers. But just 36% of Democrats think he is even somewhat likely to win the party’s presidential nomination. His debate performance is unlikely to change that.
O’Malley too often seemed to be recalling flash cards in his head, and while he tried hardest to take on Clinton face-to-face, his disagreements were muted and respectful like a man thinking about his future beyond last night.
The remaining candidates on the stage – former Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee and former Virginia Senator Jim Webb – showed little evidence of why they are even in the running. Chafee most memorably bobbled a question on a vote he took when first joining the U.S. Senate. Webb seemed to spend more time complaining about his lack of time compared to the other candidates than in using that time to explain succinctly where he stands on the issues. Webb’s record suggests that he disagrees with much of the “progressive” talk on the stage last night, but he certainly didn’t show it.
All three of these candidates barely earn single-digit support, and that isn’t going to change.
Most Democrats said they were likely to watch the debate, but even before it aired, 52% said Clinton would win. Sanders came in a distant second with 20% who said he was likely to win, but just as many (20%) predicted there would be no clear winner.
The Democratic Party was perhaps the biggest winner. Unlike the Republican presidential hopefuls who have been eviscerating each other as they weed out the weak and wounded to reduce the number of candidates in the race, the Democratic contenders never lost sight of the real enemy last night. Time and again, Clinton and Sanders scored the GOP for its governing policies and practices in language that they never used on each other.
The process rolls on, but Republicans will have no sound bites to take away from this debate and use down the road. This unity of purpose and party discipline is likely to serve the Democrats well in the months ahead.
Fran Coombs is the managing editor of Rasmussen Reports.
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