When Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders shared a stage—separately—at Monday night’s Iowa Democratic Forum on CNN, the most noticeable thing was the difference in volume. By reputation, Sanders is a shouter, but on this occasion he came across as much quieter than Clinton, who gave forceful, directed, and impassioned answers to some difficult questions from Iowa Democrats. Both candidates were fighting against stereotypes that voters have formed of them, using a new tone to win over those still wavering before the Iowa caucuses next Monday. And both of them gave, in their different ways, remarkably convincing performances.
Sanders’s image, of course, is that of a brash New Yorker, a barker with loud words and spittle flying out of his mouth. Larry David’s now-legendary Bernie Sanders imitation captures this side of the Vermont senator. But that wasn’t the Sanders on stage Monday night. Instead, he talked to his interlocutors—mostly ordinary Democrats, as well as host Chris Cuomo—in a genial, good-natured, conversational way. When asked how he could do better on gender issues than Clinton, who is making a bid to be the first female president, Sanders went out of his way to engage his questioner, not letting his answer be truncated by Cuomo but speaking at length on a point where he’s perceived as weaker. Whether he convinced the questioner or not, he certainly came across as sincere and willing to be engaged.
At the end of his 45 minutes, which kicked off the forum, Sanders spoke movingly about his late parents—quietly, too, and in an unfeigned manner that was surprising coming from any politician. This was a very human Bernie Sanders.
To be sure, he didn’t avoid every political pitfall. Sanders is likely to be haunted by his statement, “We will raise taxes, yes we will.” The Clinton camp eagerly seized upon this answer during the forum, in fact, making sure that journalists didn’t miss it. And if Sanders is the Democratic nominee, he gave the Republicans a sound bite they will eagerly exploit. If Bernie’s style on Monday night didn’t fit the stereotype of him as a barking socialist, his tax comment will provide fuel for that other stereotype: that his ideas are too extreme for America.
But on the whole, the kinder, gentler Sanders showed that he has a much wider tonal range as a politician than the Larry David stereotype—or some of his rallies—would suggest. It’s likely that this softer Sanders was crafted in no small part to appeal to the rural populations of Iowa and New Hampshire. Rural voters are especially important in Iowa, because of the weight their votes have in the caucus system. Sanders has already won over a considerable number of college students and urbanites, who form his core fan base, so he needs those rural voters to diversify his support.
Clinton’s new fightin’ tone is also aimed at skeptical voters. She’s been accused of being a complacent front-runner and pillar of the establishment. Whether this image is fair or not, Clinton needed to counter it. And so she’s re-cast herself as Hillary Clinton the fighter, the counter-puncher who has had to fight the Republicans her whole life. The theme of a combative Hillary is quite visible in her recent campaign ads, and her performance in the Democratic Forum was designed to reinforce this idea.
Asked a tough question about her reputation for dishonesty by a skeptical young Democrat, Clinton responded in a tough, forceful manner that will remind many of how she fended off the Benghazi hearings. “They throw all this stuff at me and I’m still standing,” Clinton said. “I’ve been on the front lines of change and progress since I was your age. I have been fighting to give kids and women and the people who are left out and left behind the chance to make the most of their own lives.”
In terms of their self-presentation, Sanders and Clinton are moving in different directions as the actual voting looms near. Sanders is trying to dial it back, while Clinton is upping the amps. Political messaging is all about trying to address an audience at their comfort level. At Monday’s forum, finding the right pitch also meant fiddling with the volume dial.