Three presidential hopefuls met in Charleston, South Carolina, on Sunday to participate in the first Democratic debate of election year 2016. NBC and YouTube partnered to host the evening, which featured on stage former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley. The debate, which began at 9 p.m. Eastern, was the fourth Democratic debate of the 2016 election and marks the first Democratic face-off before the primaries — the results of which are typically a bellwether for who's really leading in the long race to the White House.
The debate fell on a quiet Sunday evening during a long weekend, which caused some to speculate on viewer turnout. Yet considering recent polls, which show Sanders making significant gains on Clinton, the debate was a crucial moment for the candidates to appeal to voters before the Iowa caucus on Feb. 1.
According to a Sunday NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, Clinton's got a 25-point national lead on Sanders, however a separate New York Times/CBS survey paints a less rosy picture of Clinton's jump on Sanders. According to that poll, 48% of Democratic primary voters said they supported Clinton compared to Sanders' 41%.
° 2016 Presidential Poll Results: Latest National and Primary Polls for Week of January 11
° Latest Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders Buzz Ahead of NBC Democratic Debate
Check back as Mic will be live-blogging a recap and highlights from the debate here.
Just before the debate, Sanders released updates to his campaign platform that change his position on both health care and gun control. "Senator Sanders has been changing a lot of positions in the last 24 hours because when his plans and record come under scrutiny, their very real flaws get exposed," said Clinton campaign spokesman Brian Fallon, according to the Guardian.
"After digging in his heels for weeks, he backpedaled on his vote to give sweeping immunity to gun manufacturers and dealers. And after weeks of denying the legitimacy of the questions Hillary Clinton raised about flaws in the healthcare legislation he's introduced nine times over 20 years, he proposed a new plan two hours before the debate."
In their opening statements, the focus was on MLK day and the legacy he built fighting for equal rights for all. Clinton began by pointing out that the debate fell on the eve of MLK day, and how the significance of his life's fight for equal rights inspired her to pursue a career of service. Sanders began his remarks in much the same way, adding, "this campaign is about a political revolution to not only elect the president, but to transform this country."
As a first line of questioning, the candidates were asked to list their top three priorities during their first 100 days in office, should they be elected as America's next commander in chief.
Sanders said his first days are about bringing America together to rethink taxes in the U.S., healthcare and creating jobs.
Clinton said that job creation, raising the minimum wage and guaranteeing equal pay for women's work are among her top priorities. The candidate also said she'd work to advance the Affordable Care Act and eradicate divisiveness in the U.S.
O'Malley also spoke about raising the minimum wage and equal pay, creating jobs through a clean energy agenda, and focusing on America's cities by reinvesting in infrastructure.
On gun control: Fielding questions from the moderators, and in light of the changes announced hours before the debate, Sanders took a stab at explaining his changing stance on gun control — more specifically holding firearms vendors accountable in some events of gun violence. Sanders also pointed to his rating on gun legislation according to the National Rifle Association, saying he's been awarded a D- grade from the gun rights organization.
Clinton jumped in next, pointing out Sanders' voting history on gun legislation and saying Sanders voted against the Brady Bill five times and that he voted for the "Charleston loophole."
"Let's not forget what this is about," Clinton said. "Ninety people a day die from gun violence in our country. That's 33,000 people a year."
On race and police brutality: Next, the candidates spoke about race relations in the U.S., and Clinton argued for a critical need to reform things like race in the criminal justice system. Sanders agreed by saying that the criminal justice system in America is broken.
"Who is satisfied that 51% of African-American, young people are either unemployed or underemployed?" the senator from Vermont asked. "Who is satisfied that millions of people have police records for possessing marijuana when the CEOs of Wall Street companies who destroyed our economy have no police record?"
The candidates were then asked to explain how they would address how cases of police brutality are investigated, using the non inditement of the officer involved in the death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice as an example of law enforcement not being held accountable.
"This is a responsibility for the U.S. justice department to get involved," Sanders said. "Whenever anybody in this country is killed while in police custody, they should automatically trigger a U.S. attorney general's investigation," and continued by advocating for what he sees as a need to demilitarize the police force. "We have got to make our police departments look like the communities they serve in their diversity," Sanders said.
On health care: Clinton kicked off the discussion on health care, expressing her longstanding support for national health care and the need to build on the Affordable Care Act. She spoke about her fight against the health insurance industries in to '90s and her history of advancing children's health care legislation. And on that note, Clinton evoked challenges from across the political aisle. "I do not to want see the republicans repeal [the Affordable Care Act] and I don't want to see us start over again with a contentious debate," she said. "I want us to defend and build on the Affordable Care Act and improve it."
But Sanders had some opinions on what the Clinton campaign has said about his position on health care, and added a jab that the former Secretary of State hadn't answered the moderators' question. "What her campaign was saying, [is that] Bernie Sanders was saying... he wants to end medicare and medicaid and the children's health insurance program," Sanders said. "That is nonsense."
After the candidates waded through a relatively lengthy spar on health care, during which time the tone of the remarks intensified more than once, Sanders touched on a need to address corruption in campaign finance, an issue Clinton was ready to tackle head on.
"I know how much money influences the political decision-making," she said. "That's why I'm for huge campaign finance reform. However, we started a system that had private health insurance. And even during the Affordable Care Act debate, there was an opportunity to vote for what was called the public option."
A question about millennials: At one point, the candidates fielded a question from a popular 23-year-old YouTube star who has north of five million subscribers on the social platform, who asked how the candidates planned to engage younger demographics and address the issues that matter to millennials.
"A lot of the young people that I talk with are pretty disappointed about the economic prospects they feel they're facing," Clinton responded. In her response, she also stressed a need to find ways to allow young people to attend community college for free, reduce college debt and protect inalienable rights, "especially from the concerted Republican assault on voting rights, on women's rights, on gay rights, on civil rights [and] on worker's rights."
"I know how much young people value their independence, their autonomy and their rights," Clinton added. "I think this is an election where we have to pull young people and older people together, to have a strategy about how we're going to encourage even more Americans to vote."
Nearly an hour into the debate, Sanders and Clinton butted heads on campaign finance once more, which, after a heated exchange on the candidates' relative coziness to Wall Street, produced perhaps Clinton's strongest moment of the evening. Pointing out the attack ads that "hedge fund billionaires" are currently airing against her, Clinton betrayed just how big a threat she is to the opposing party.
"I'm the one they don't want," Clinton said.
Climate change and the green economy: Moving on from the dispute on campaign finance, Sanders drew one of his biggest laughs from the audience when he pointed out that Trump thinks climate change is a "hoax invented by China." And O'Malley, given a rare chance to weigh in, said he believes that "the greatest business opportunity to come to the United States of America in 100 years is climate change." He then said he "put forward a plan to move us to a 100% clean electric energy grid by 2050."
"On this stage tonight, this Democratic stage, where we actually believe in science, I would like to challenge and invite my colleagues here on this stage to join me in putting forward a plan to move us to a 100% clean, electric energy grid by 2050," O'Malley said. "It can be done. With solar, with wind, with new technologies [and] with green buildings."
The fact that O'Malley had little speaking time during the debate was not lost on Twitter users, whose comments were sometimes brutal.
Terrorism and radical Islam: Early on in discussing the threat of terror at home and abroad, Sanders argued for a need to normalize U.S.-Iran relations and weed out anti-American rhetoric among Iran's leadership. This invited a moment for the candidates to weigh in on the recent nuclear deal with Iran, an accord Clinton said she's "very proud of." Yet despite the progress that deal represents, Clinton was quick to qualify the agreement saying it marks one step forward in over three decades of discord. To that, she added that it remains to be seen if Iran will fully implement the agreement.
Jumping into the discussion, Sanders called Jordan's King Abdullah "one of the few heroes in a very unheroic place," and said the true way to defeat the Islamic State group, or ISIS, is to cooperate with other nations affected by terrorism and ensure that Muslim troops are on the ground along with American forces in the fight against terror.
With about half an hour left in the debate, the candidates invited another question sourced from YouTube, this time on privacy rights in the digital age, the dealings in Silicon Valley and big tech firms.
O'Malley answered first, evoking the Patriot Act and calling for a need to develop an adversarial court system and appoint a public advocate to "develop a body of law that protects the privacy of Americans in the information and digital age."
Clinton and Sanders were not given a chance to respond to the question of privacy, but were instead asked to speak about how they would fight homegrown terrorism if elected as America's president. But Sanders wasn't ready to table the discussion on privacy so swiftly. Instead, he argued for a need for Silicon Valley to work more closely with the U.S. government, and linked that proposal back the original question posed by saying that kind of collaboration would ultimately aid in the fight against ISIS, as the terrorist organization is known to use the internet as a recruiting tool.
O'Malley had a standout moment on Sunday evening when he denounced Trump's position on Muslims — more specifically Trump's proposal to ban all Muslims from entering the U.S. — and called the GOP frontrunner a "fascist" for his anti-Muslim rhetoric.
"If Donald Trump wants to start a registry in our country of [Muslims], he can start with me, and I will sign up as one who is totally opposed to his fascist appeals that wants to vilify American Muslims," O'Malley said. "That can do more damage to our democracy than anything."
Next, the moderators pressed Sanders on past comments he's made about Clinton's husband Bill Clinton and his personal past. The question "annoyed" the Vermont Senator, who launched into a rant about how he's under pressure to attack Clinton. Instead, Sanders said he refused to take the bait to attack the former Secretary of State, and said that he planned to focus his campaign efforts on the issues that Americans face today.
In closing: At the end of the debate and during closing statements, O'Malley lamented what went unaddressed during the evening's debate — issues like immigration reform and the threat of drug trafficking. In closing, Clinton took a similar approach by mentioning what went unmentioned, and spoke about the recent debacle of toxic water infected with lead in Flint, Michigan, and how she helped work on ways to resolve the issue.
"I want to be a president that takes care of the big problems and the problems that are affecting the people of our country every day," she said.
Sanders was given the final chance to speak on sage in Charleston, during which time he argued for a need to rip power out of the hands of wealthy campaign contributors.
"We are a great nation," Sanders said. "And we've heard a lot of great ideas here tonight. But let's be honest and let's be truthful. Very little is going to be done to transform our economy, and to create the kind of middle class we need unless we end a corrupt campaign finance system, which is undermining American democracy."
Though a definitive winner of Sunday night's debate was not immediately clear, political commentators in post-debate coverage suggested that the debate was "all about Sanders." And for a better sense of the night's victorious Democrat, Time invited readers to vote in a poll to determine whose remarks were most auspicious.