By Noah Lieberman
It was a mixture of old and new, familiar and unexpected tonight in Charleston at the Democratic debate, and a similarly mixed night on the Ballotcraft market. As many predicted, the moderators largely avoided Martin O’Malley (much to his chagrin) and instead focused on the now fierce race between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Our market reflected that dynamic, with a tight, shifting battle between the two for top price.
As one would expect, Senator Sanders quickly gained the upper hand in the market, dominating during the opening portion of the debate which focused on economic and domestic policy. He hit the same notes as usual, and saw the same rise we had seen in these portions of previous debates. As the debate shifted to foreign policy, Secretary Clinton’s forte, so too did the markets shift back to a tossup race between the two candidates. Clinton was helped by Sanders’ fumbling of a question on stopping domestic terrorism, and his insistence on linking foreign issues to domestic ones, especially Wall Street reform. As the debate closed, Sanders led Clinton by the slimmest of margins, 49.0 to 46.3, by far the closest difference we’ve seen thus far in the Democratic debates.
Which makes the result even more confusing. Sanders won in an absolute landslide, capturing two-thirds of our focus group vote, easily trouncing Clinton’s 25 percent. Such a slaughter would make you think Clinton barely showed up, so why did the market have such trouble separating her from Sanders? I believe the answer lies in the senator’s numerous calls to campaign finance reform and the impact of big banks on our politics. Alone, they make little impression on a trader, who see them as simply more of the same policy talk from Sanders. But to a focus group member, who takes the debate in more as a whole, they build a strong case against Clinton, without dirtying Bernie’s image since he never used an overt attack. Sanders figured out how to get back at Clinton without risking his reputation as being above the usual political attacks, whereas Clinton’s attacks on Bernie were more direct and obvious, and made her come across as desperate to take the Senator down. It remains to be seen how this will affect the vote in Iowa, but this strategy is certainly worth looking out for in future debates.