Policies clashed and tempers flared at Thursday's Democratic Debate. Viewers of the MSNBC-hosted event witnessed the first debate of the primary season between just two candidates — former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
“I thought with Governor O’Malley dropping out, we had a true debate,” said Michael Bitzer, a professor of political science at Catawba College. “It was policy-oriented, it was substantive — and at times it got a little personal and very heated.”
A key feature of Thursday’s debate was the attempts by both candidates to prove who the "true" progressive is. Dee Stewart, the president and CEO of the Stewart Group, Inc., a Raleigh-based firm that concentrates on political consulting and public affairs, said when the debate centers on progressivism, Sanders has the edge.
“Sanders clearly is more liberal than Clinton,” he said. “As long as that is the issue upon which the debates are being conducted, it benefits Sanders.”
The two-person debate notably diverged from Saturday’s Republican debate, which featured the top seven candidates. Bitzer said a candidate’s policy stances are more difficult to discern with a wide range of hopefuls onstage.
“I think what a two-candidate debate does is that it brings out the very stark differences, as opposed to what the Republicans are continuing to suffer from, which is that there are so many candidates and so many different views,” he said. “You don’t get a real sense of where the key differences are, other than the kind of personal attacks.”
Bitzer said given that primary voters in Iowa and New Hampshire tend to be more liberal than the typical voter nationwide, Sanders has had an advantage. The tension between the two candidates was evident Thursday night, which he said was a battle between the heart and the head.
“Sen. Sanders would argue you have to be progressive on policies," Bitzer said. "What Secretary Clinton would argue is you can be progressive, but you have to understand the process. I think it’s two very different philosophies that Democrats are struggling to figure out — do we want to be more of our heart, or do we want to go more with our head?”
In Iowa, and likely in New Hampshire, primary voters are voting more with their heart. But Stewart said this will change when primaries begin to move southward.