The fifth Democratic debate was held in Durham, New Hampshire at the University of New Hampshire. The first Democratic debate to occur after the critical, first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses, it was also the first of four new debates added to the 2016 primary season schedule by the Democratic National Committee. In months previous, the DNC had demonstrated great reluctance to sanction any contests beyond the modest amount it was planning, but amid mounting pressure from candidates and voters alike, it finally acceded.
This debate was important for its timing. It came just three days after Iowa's hotly-contested caucuses, when rumors of a Hillary Clinton rout of rival Bernie Sanders were handily dispelled. Clinton did eke out a victory with 49.9% of the vote, but Sanders was practically neck-and-neck at 49.6%, placing better than supporters hoped or opponents feared he could and making for the closest caucus result in Iowa's history. Meanwhile, distant third Martin O'Malley, who drew just 0.3% of the state's voters, was disheartened by the results. He announced the suspension of his presidential campaign shortly following the caucuses, making tonight's contest a one-on-one faceoff between Clinton and Sanders. This time, Sanders was no underdog: After Iowa, polls showed he had erased what was once a seemingly insurmountable 30-point lead on Clinton's side.
The debate was hosted by MSNBC, and was moderated by MSNBC journalist Rachel Maddow and NBC News journalist Chuck Todd.
Because of the results in Iowa, speculation was high that Clinton would be combative tonight with her rival, in contrast to previous Democratic debates that have been almost sedate – especially in comparison to those held by the Republican party. Indeed, Clinton was noticeably more aggressive. Right off the bat, when each candidate delivered their opening statements, Sanders made no mention of his opponent at all – but Clinton edged in a jab with an assurance that she was “not making promises she cannot keep”. This seemed a subtle reminder of her frequent criticisms of some of Sanders' proposed policies, including tuition-free college for all American citizens, for which Clinton has expressed skepticism of the nation's ability to pay, and demanded specifics from Sanders on how he would finance them.
Later, Clinton accused Sanders of speaking with “innuendo” and “insinuation” in his criticisms of her accepting money from wealthy donors and super PACs, saying he was implying that she was a bought candidate who would forever be owned by and beholden to special interests. She pointedly told Sanders that if he had something to say, he should say it directly, and that his roundabout attacks were “not worthy” of him. While not answering this challenge in itself, Sanders did repeat his umbrage at Clinton's contributors, and expressed his pride over running a campaign funded entirely by what he stated to be millions of middle-class Americans, each donating an average of $27 per head.
Prodded by a question from moderator Rachel Maddow, Clinton addressed remarks made by Sanders previous to the debate in which he challenged her status as a political progressive. Clinton essentially responded by saying that Sanders was setting an unreasonably high bar, and that by his definition, virtually no Democrat would qualify as a progressive, including the likes of President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, each of whom hold some of the policies which Sanders has discussed as disqualifying Clinton from the label. She also took a shot at Sanders' own progressive credentials, calling his Senate voting record on gun control into question. Asked specifically whether he considered President Obama a progressive, Sanders said that indeed he did, even if he does disagree with the President on a number of issues.
The discourse between the two seemed to cool somewhat as the debate wore on, largely because the candidates were in essential accord on a majority of issues. Though there were some differences between them, Clinton and Sanders basically saw eye to eye on military operations against ISIS, veterans' affairs and the folly (in their opinions) of privatizing the Veterans' Administration, and the Flint water crisis.
At one time, with Clinton's e-mail scandal having heated up in days and weeks leading up to the debate, moderator Chuck Todd pointedly asked her whether she could assure Democratic voters that the issue would not be lethal to her candidacy should she receive her party's nomination. Clinton responded in no uncertain terms that she could, saying that before her e-mails, she had been attacked on Benghazi, which she said had been thoroughly investigated and found not to have been a viable means of discrediting her. When Sanders was asked for his own input on Clinton's e-mail issue, he reiterated his previously held position, saying that there was an ongoing investigation on it and that he would not politicize it – despite, he said, the pressure of campaign aides encouraging him on a daily basis to attack Clinton on this point. For her part, Clinton said that she was not at all concerned about the FBI investigation into her activities.
A number of other issues were brought up, including global trade, health care in the United States, and foreign policy. Regarding the latter point, Sanders admitted that in light of Clinton's term as Secretary of State, she had greater experience than he on foreign policy. He cautioned, however, that there were important considerations beyond experience, and pointed out that on the issue of authorizing then-President George W Bush's Iraq war, “one of us voted the right way, and one of us didn't.” Sanders opposed the war in Iraq, while Clinton voted to authorize it.
The evening's final question asked each candidate whether, in the event he or she won the nomination, they would tap the other as Vice President. Neither chose to offer a straight answer, with Clinton saying instead that if she were nominated, Sanders would be the first person she would call for advice on how to proceed, and Sanders reiterating that he has tremendous respect for Clinton. Closing statements immediately followed this, with Clinton encouraging viewers to vote with both “your heart and your head” in the coming New Hampshire primary, and Sanders calling for a “political revolution” that throws off establishment politics.