In the final televised face-off before the voting for the Democratic presidential nomination kicks off in Iowa, Bernie Sanders rode a powerful wave of growing confidence, rising poll numbers, and accumulated debate experience to his best performance yet. Facing off against Hillary Clinton, and placed directly in the spotlight more than ever, Sanders’ improvement manifested itself all night, winning him more good moments overall than both Clinton and Martin O’Malley. After this event, Sanders will likely head into the homestretch fired up.
Far more assured and comfortable than in previous debates—miles from where he started out at the first event—reflecting his gains in New Hampshire (where he’s leading) and Iowa (where he’s challenging). Employed his recently honed authoritative tone without moderating his typically intense style. Articulate, tough, on-message, and energetic, even as his voice got rougher and raspier over the course of the evening. Initially took a defensive instead of offensive role, and was more effective at pushing back on health care than on guns, but was careful to leave no charge unchallenged. Eventually became more aggressive, hitting Clinton on her Goldman Sachs ties. Helped his cause rhetorically, substantively, politically, and, perhaps most importantly, psychologically. Confidence begets confidence.
Calm and mechanical rather than energized or conversational, offering up talking points in the manner of a candidate with a sizable lead rather than one with a major fight on her hands. Kept up her assault on Sanders for his various gun votes, the most comfortable terrain from which to snipe at her rival. Had less opportunity to talk about national security than she probably would have liked, and failed to score points off Sanders on the topic, as she has in past debates. Trained her attention far more on Sanders this time than on Donald Trump and the Republicans. As usual, was steeped in policy and gravitas, with occasional flashes of humor. Did nothing to arrest the momentum Sanders had coming into the debate, but made no obvious blunders.
More relaxed and natural than in previous debates. Gave it his best shot, showing his personality and presenting himself as a governor and a progressive who has gotten things done. Avoided squabbling or pique, but had his usual trouble joining the flow of the Clinton-Sanders colloquies. Was granted less time to talk than his rivals and never found an extended way into the conversation. Like Sanders, has improved in tone and confidence, and was able to shine—but not enough to improve his stubbornly low poll standing.
Note: Grades reflect many aspects of the candidates' performance, including style, substance, and crowd reaction, and whether a candidate seemed to improve or hurt his or her overall standing based on the debate.