What Bernie Sanders 'Won' in the Debate

The news media consensus is that Clinton came out on top. Here's why she didn't.

Tuesday night saw the first Democratic debate of the primary season, with five debates to go. It served as a chance for the candidates to introduce themselves, and in the case of Hillary Clinton, a chance to reintroduce herself after a summer of sagging poll numbers.

The news media consensus is that Clinton came out on top. Indeed, she made no enormous gaffes and maintained her composure, often deflecting questions in a way savvy enough to avoid controversy. And the email scandal that the media has been obsessed with was basically discarded, thanks partly to an assist from Bernie Sanders. With its primary hit on Clinton demolished, many in the press basically assumed the frontrunner was the one who walked away with a victory.

But while Clinton avoided hurting herself in any major way, she was unable to do what she needed to do most; blunt the rise of Sanders.

There are numerous signs that Sanders got exactly what he wanted from this debate: a chance to positively introduce himself to millions of Americans who had no idea who he was. The first sign was the focus groups. Three networks, CNN, Fox and Fusion, held focus groups that tackled the debate. As Adam Johnson notes on AlterNet, all three focus groups said Sanders won the debate. The most surprising was the Fox group. Prior to the debate, about half of the 28-person focus group said they supported Hillary. After the debate, almost everyone in the group said they supported Bernie Sanders, with five holdouts at most.

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Various organizations did online polls after the debate concluded, and Sanders was winning them all, as Johnson notes; everything from Slate's online poll to CNN's own poll to the Daily Kos poll. Neither online polls, which are unscientific, nor focus groups are necessarily indicators of how the record 15 million people (the largest audience for a Democratic primary debate ever) felt about Sanders. But there are a number of other positive signs. Google searches for “Bernie Sanders” increased 193 times during the span of the debate, a crucial mark for Sanders, who is still unknown to millions of Democratic voters. A staffer at Merriam-Webster said online dictionary searches for “socialism” were “spiking off the charts.” Sanders gained twice as many new Twitter followers as Clinton; on Facebook, Sanders had almost six times as many mentions as Clinton during the debate.

And the Sanders campaign was inundated with financial support. A press release from his campaign this morning notes that he received $1.3 million overnight, with contributions at one point coming in at 10 per second. This was spontaneous—the campaign did not send a fundraising email until this afternoon, well after the debate had ended. As a basis for comparison, Hillary Clinton raised $28 million during the entire three months of the last quarter.

Simply put, by every measure (and yes, the measures are imperfect), the public saw dramatically increased interest in Bernie Sanders last night, and the same cannot be said about Clinton. 

Sanders did not knock Hillary Clinton out of the race last night. But he introduced his platform to millions of people, and did so in a way that significantly boosted interest in his campaign, winning over new devotees and donors. That's exactly what the senator from Vermont set out to do, and because Clinton failed to stop his insurgency—by every indicator, it's likely to grow—it's a victory for him.

Zaid Jilani is an AlterNet staff writer. Follow @zaidjilani on Twitter.

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