Since when did a 2016 Democratic Primary debate, like the one tomorrow night, become must see TV? It is all of a sudden a fascinating point in the campaign. Sanders is calling Clinton “nervous” while Clinton is basically calling Sanders “unelectable.” On guns, she’s found rare room to his left, but Sanders just identified Clinton as in “serious trouble.” Things are heating up!
It might be the optimist in me — the deep desire to have two competitive contests — but this year’s Democratic Primary might just turn out to be fun after all.
That’s not to say it’s up for grabs. Ever since she declared, I had Hillary Clinton’s nomination chances at roughly 90 percent. Only in the last week did that estimate drop, but I still don’t think it’s any lower than 80. I still believe she has at least a 4 in 5 chance of winning the nomination.
But she just can’t shake Bernie Sanders. He’s now getting the reliable last minute push of the exciting underdog against the heavy favorite. It’s happened many times before, not just in general elections (Romney and Kerry each had strong Octobers) but in primaries as well (Santorum, Bradley, McCain, and Buchanan all benefited from this pattern). In those primaries, however, the deficit was so large that it didn’t really matter. Yet, Sanders has remained within a stone’s throw of Clinton, and now the final push that boosts the challenger has made him look stronger than ever.
Just how much recent progress has he made? Let’s take a look at a series of charts from the last two months showing average polling trend lines. Iowa:
The gap is closing! And the trend is that it will close all the way before the caucuses themselves. That would of course set up a Sanders sweep in the first two states, considering he’s now growing his lead in New Hampshire:
It’s worth noting that dating back to August, I thought this Sanders sweep in the first two states was a realistic scenario. I just thought it wouldn’t lead to a nomination. The question, really, is not “Wow, can Sanders actually win the first two states?” It’s “Even if Sanders DID win the first two states, would it be enough to overcome Clinton’s lead everywhere else?” For six months, my answer has been a resolute “No!” Still, recent national polling suggests that a complete erasure of her enormous lead has never been more plausible:
It’s enough to make those smug Clinton predictors squirm. (Ahem, excuse me while I loosen my collar to get some air circulating. Is it hot in here?) Sanders is rising in the polls and now taking larger swings at the favorite. He looks stronger and more confident than ever.
Even more important, Hillary Clinton looks weaker and more frustrated than ever. Perhaps if her 2008 loss to Barack Obama didn’t stalk her at every turn, she wouldn’t look as fragile, but alas, Clinton is still traumatized by that primary is lashing out at Sanders’s popularity. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the country’s aversion to her.
Sanders supporters reinforce this weakness by pointing to his often stronger general election numbers against Republican contenders. Still, I caution against reading too much into those match-up figures. Consider:
- The general election is not a national popular vote. The Electoral College often renders general election national polls as overrated. In the last two elections, thanks to the Obama coalition, the Democrats have had favorable electoral math in important states. Clinton — with her family’s inroads with women, African Americans, and Latinos — is a strong bet to maintain this coalition. A Sanders nomination — with his Democratic-socialist label, struggles winning over minorities, and unprecedented religion and age for a president — would be rolling the dice, although he does seem to have higher upside with the untrustworthy youth vote.
- The Republican field has rarely mentioned Sanders in its highly rated debates and ubiquitous speeches and television appearances. It’s Clinton they’re using as a punching bag, not Sanders. Sanders’s socialism doesn’t appear to be holding him back, but that’s only because it’s not an issue yet; indeed, in the modern Democratic Party, such a label has proven to be helpful. It’s still a dirty word for most Americans, however. In June, Gallup ran a poll asking if people would consider voting for hypothetical candidates who are each of the following: African American, atheist, Catholic, evangelical, female, Gay/Lesbian, Hispanic, Jewish, Mormon, Muslim, and socialist. Coming in dead last: socialist. In fact, it was the only demographic for which a minority of those polled — just 47 percent — would consider voting. (Joining socialist in the bottom three were Muslim and atheist, but each polled more than ten points better.) The Republicans would have an absolute field day with it, but they haven’t yet because they’re praying — on their knees every. single. night. — for a Sanders nomination. Many voters don’t yet associate him with socialism, but they would after six straight months of hearing about it from the GOP. In sum, it’s Clinton that the right has specifically targeted and weakened for years, and her sluggish general election numbers partially stem from that.
I’m not saying Sanders is unelectable, but I do think it’s the riskier nomination for the Democratic Party.
And then there’s Martin O’Malley. Calling him a potential kingmaker might be a bit generous, but he’s almost certainly waiting for a backroom gift from the Clinton Campaign. Did you know he hit 8 points in this week’s PPP Iowa poll? Eight points! Considering Clinton’s average lead is down to just 4 points, O’Malley now holds some sway over the enormously important Iowa caucuses.
And important they are! Throwing his support behind one of the two candidates before Iowa could mean the difference between Sanders sweeping Iowa and New Hampshire, which would scramble the national polls, or Clinton earning the split, which is all she needs to coast the rest of the way.
Unfortunately for Sanders, he does need to be close to perfect to even have a chance. Take the first four states: Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina. If they split them two a piece, or if Clinton wins a majority, Clinton will hold her national lead and have a huge Super Tuesday and beyond. Sanders, therefore, needs to win three of these four. South Carolina is the only state we can confidently project either way at this point, and Clinton, with her 40-point margins, can count on it, regardless of what happens before. That leaves three February states, and they all need to go for Sanders for him to be competitive on Super Tuesday. If she wins Iowa, he can’t win three. If he does win Iowa, though, he’ll probably win New Hampshire. And if he wins Iowa and New Hampshire, he has all the momentum heading into Nevada for the all important third victory.
So yeah, Iowa’s pretty important.
That being said, you can see why I’m still confident in a Clinton nomination. Her margin for error is much wider. There’s also the continued and overwhelming party backing. I do think the party saves her, but not just in endorsements and surrogates. If I were advising the Clinton Campaign — quite the coup, but for which of us I’ll leave up to you — my strategy for victory would not be the electability thing. After all, her struggles in general election polling — however overrated — look bad, as do her poor favorability and trustworthiness numbers. These are easily digestible metrics for voters, so her electability argument might be ineffective.
No, her strategy should be to play up both her loyalty to the Democratic Party and Sanders’s skewering of it. Indeed, in his career as an Independent member of the House and Senate, he has a history of ripping on the party, including calling it “morally bankrupt.” Only in the fall did he become a Democrat. O’Malley probably had the best line on this last year when he boasted, “I choose to be a Democrat, not just in presidential years, but in every year of my life.” Sanders’s history of being critical of the party from which he now asks a nomination is hypocritical bordering on Trumpesque. You might argue that if he wants to effect change on a large scale, he must join one of the two major parties so he can become a national official, but he has specifically said, “You don’t change the system from within the Democratic Party.”
Hillary Clinton can stave off Sanders if she reminds voters of this dichotomy. Something along the lines of, “Our party, criticized so often by Senator Sanders, has pushed marriage equality, affordable college, affordable health care, equal pay for equal work, and it has protected women’s right to choose. You, me, and millions of Democrats across this country have made so much progress together. It’s been all hands on deck as we do battle day in and day out against the Republicans. And yet, during these battles — during these efforts to move our country forward together as a team — Senator Sanders couldn’t find it within himself to join our family until it suited his own purposes. For over two decades, I have given this party — our party — everything I have. I hope I’ve done enough to earn your vote.”
It’s not that hard.
Regardless, thanks to this tightening of the race, we’re starting to see a feistier Sanders and angrier Clinton. Initially, Sanders’s purpose in this campaign seemed to keep Clinton honest by nipping at her left heel, but it appears he’s talked himself into thinking he actually has a shot to win.
And despite the distance of this shot — half court, at least — I agree. I’d put the percentages at:
- Biden/Warren “Save the Day” Ticket if Clinton struggles early–12%