Who Won Rachel Maddow's Democratic Forum? Hillary Got It Done

Well, it's all wrapped up — the MSNBC Democratic Presidential Candidates Forum, hosted by Rachel Maddow, is at an end. And at a tidy two hours! Considering how long those full-fledged debates have been running, that's pretty good. So, you might be wondering: who won Rachel Maddow's Democratic forum? Who gets to walk away from this thing thinking, "Hey, I just really helped myself out there?"

It's going to be a matter of some argument, sure, especially between people who already have their allegiances sorted out. There are strong cases to be made on all sides — from the polished sharpness of Martin O'Malley to the stirring rhetorical passion of Bernie Sanders to the ease and all-around expertise of Hillary Clinton, there really wasn't a candidate on stage Friday night that did themselves any major harm. At the very worst, anyone who supported one of these candidates going in almost surely walked out with the same opinion.

But when you look at the all-around performances, and the stakes within the respective campaigns, it's hard not to arrive at a familiar conclusion. Sorry, Bernie and Martin fans: Hillary Clinton carried the night, on both personal and political levels, and she looks like she's rounding into form heading into the final weeks of 2015.

Maddow was a standout as the moderator of the forum, and each and every candidate got an entirely fair chance to express their views on a range of topics — O'Malley keyed in on climate change, Sanders on economic justice (of course) and even a little about himself (a nice surprise), and Clinton was pressed on an array of issues that are hugely significant to Democratic viewers, like the death penalty, gun control, racism in policing, and her hawkish reputation on foreign policy.

Her answers might not please everyone, no doubt — she downplayed the hawk criticisms, which flies in the face of much of her record and past public statements. But her demeanor was undeniably the most composed and ready for the spotlight, and perhaps most crucially she never came across as disingenuous or insincere, those qualities that so many voters seem to ascribe to her. Quite the contrary, in fact — she looked like a future president.

That's not to say that the others did poorly, make no mistake. But if you were to assemble the trio by order of success, it's entirely possible that the distantly trailing O'Malley turned in the second-best performance, with Sanders bringing up the rear. He was charismatic, he spoke confidently and extemporaneously, and he tackled every question more or less head-on. In light of his currently dire situation, the O’Malley team has to feel happy with how things went.

Sadly, considering how exciting Sanders’ brand of working-class, income inequality-focused politics can be, he probably came out accomplishing the least. His foreign policy views have remained ill-defined and poorly prioritized throughout his campaign. Beyond stating what he’s done in the past — he frequently trumpets his vote against authorizing the Iraq War, which is a key area of distinction between himself and Clinton — viewers still didn’t get a very firm sense what he’d like to do internationally if he became president.

Really, that's a big part of the reason that Friday was such a big win for Clinton: Sanders didn't broaden his message in any considerable way. That's not to take away from the passion and merit of the message he does send so effectively, but it's always the same one, and at this point, anyone watching has surely heard it before — it's not likely to win the battle on its own, in other words.

Suffice it to say, it'll be interesting to see how the polls shake out in advance of the next Democratic debate — it's scheduled for Nov. 14 at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.