Hillary Clinton is very good at presidential debates. The other Democrats on stage on Tuesday night? Not so much.
She's particularly adept at the pivot. She moves, in the last 15 to 30 seconds, from whatever question she's been asked to a list of policies that Democrats love and swing voters tend to trust them on -- family leave, early-childhood education and the like -- with her voice rising over the moderator's attempt to cut her off. It's almost Ali-like, for those who remember the Greatest's habit of rallying at the end of rounds to impress the judges.
Indeed, she floated through tough questions for which she didn't really have good answers -- her vote on the Iraq war, Libya policy when she was secretary of State -- by deploying these skills.More coverageOpinion and analysis about the 2016 presidential campaignCartoonsCartoons: The race to the presidency in 2016 CartoonCartoon: Early for 2016?
Of course, she wasn't facing Joe Frazier or George Foreman on Tuesday night. Bernie Sanders does what he does, which is OK, but it isn't designed to appeal to anyone outside of a fairly narrow niche. The others were weaker: Martin O'Malley sleepwalked quite a bit, Jim Webb mostly whined about not getting enough talking time, and Lincoln Chafee chalked up some hard-to-explain Senate votes with the excuse that he was new to the job and lots of people voted for those things. Both Sanders and Webb are afflicted with severe cases of Senatoritis, talking about congressional procedure and co-sponsors instead of policies that sound good to voters. O'Malley has the governor version of it.
Indeed, it was easy to see the difference between a Republican field filled with talented politicians (and a reality TV star) and a Democratic field that doesn't go very deep. Also, experience helps. Debates are harder than they may appear, and Clinton has done this before.
None of this makes a lot of difference to the outcome of the nomination contest. If, say, Chafee had done a great job and received a public opinion boost, it would have rapidly disappeared; he just doesn't have the campaign to sustain it.
Some on Twitter were predicting this would mark a turn in the campaign in Clinton's favor, but I doubt that too. For now, the media bias in favor of keeping the nomination competitive (or at least pretending to do so) should still be the main driving force until it becomes implausible to keep up the effort. And it isn't as if Sanders's supporters are going anywhere; the die-hards will surely see him as the winner of this debate, and those who support him for strategic reasons (because they believe it will move the party in their direction) have no reason to give that up.
Nor will Clinton's solid performance mean anything in terms of the general election. If she gets some positive press coverage, it might move the polling numbers for a while. But those will be just as useless in predicting what will actually happen in November, 2016 as her mediocre head-to-head matchups with Republicans now or her excellent ones last year.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist covering U.S. politics.