Take last night’s Democratic presidential debate, for example. The immediate post-debate narrative across virtually the entire mainstream media has been that Hillary Clinton “won” the debate. The New York Times slobbered over her “sure-footed performance” and “crisp answers to nearly every question.” Similarly, the Washington Post praised her “self-assured performance” and declared that she “dominated the debate.” Slate says that “Hillary Clinton Won the CNN Debate With a Surprisingly Spectacular Performance.” New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait said that Hillary was “the best candidate onstage” and her performance was a “triumph.” CNN itself, the host of the debate, declared Hillary the official “Winner,” with Bernie Sanders’ performance labeled “Unclear” and the others on stage labeled “Losers.”
That’s funny, because I also watched the whole debate, and I thought Bernie Sanders was by far the best candidate on stage.
Now—you might just dismiss my opinion as that of a lone partisan stumping for his own preferred candidate. Fair enough. Anyone in the world watching a debate among political candidates is likely to find that they agree with the candidate... that they most agree with. Woop de doo. But is that enough to say that the candidate I most agreed with “won?” I think not. If the media is going to be in the business not just of analyzing policy stands (the actual meaningful part of politics) but of declaring “winners” and “losers” of policy debates—and I would never argue that it should—then the media is obligated to present some sort of reason past personal opinion that candidate X “won,” and candidate Y “lost” the debate. If presidential debates were “won” and “lost” according only to the personal impressions of media elites, George W. Bush never would have been elected, and Mitt Romney would have defeated Barack Obama.
My position is that me telling you who won or lost last night’s debate amounts to a bit of opinioneering by me, in an effort to convince you that the candidate I believe is most correct won. There is nothing wrong with this. That is what opinion writing is for. But that is not what the mainstream political press would have you believe they are doing. They would have you believe that they are not just stating their opinions; they are giving you valuable informed analysis about what is objectively happening.
So: where is all of this evidence that Hillary Clinton “won” the debate last night? It is.. nowhere, as far as I can tell. The only real sort of evidence that a candidate won or lost a debate would be a bunch of statistically significant quality polls showing clear, strong voter sentiment that a single candidate “won.” Is that what the mainstream media is touting here? No. Not even numbers factory Vox could come up with a single such poll in their debate explainer. 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.
Not that any of that should stop the political media from credulously buying into the stated opinions of political operatives.
Professional political reporters pride themselves on knowing what is really happening. 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. 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.
I thought Bernie Sanders said the most true and important things last night. But that is just one jerk’s opinion. And that opinion—like every focus group and extant poll—is not worth much.