A few months ago, Mr Sanders led Ms Clinton in both NH and Iowa, which spurred a lot of “Feel the Bern” love and raised hopes among his loyal adherents. Now, Ms Clinton leads Mr Sanders in Iowa (56% to 28.6%) and has drawn almost even with him in NH (40.4% to 41.4%). In South Carolina, which would never have been winnable for Mr Sanders, Ms Clinton’s lead is massive.
We may have reached peak Bern. First, he’s not a good retail politician. Second, his weakness in electoral demographics shows no sign of improvement. Polling in South Carolina (see below) is illustrative of the mountain his must still climb to become a viable candidate.
On the Democratic side Hillary Clinton continues to be dominant, getting 72% to 18% for Bernie Sanders, and 5% for Martin O’Malley. In September Clinton led Sanders 66/12 in a Biden-less field, so her 54 point advantage on Sanders has remained steady. Clinton’s up big with every segment of the Democratic electorate but what’s most notable are the numbers with African Americans- she gets 86% to 11% for Sanders and 1% for O’Malley. Those numbers really speak to the trouble Sanders may have in states beyond Iowa and New Hampshire that have considerably more diverse primary electorates. Clinton is also polling over 70% with liberals, women, men, and seniors while getting over 60% with moderates and younger voters. Her weaker groups, comparatively, are whites where she leads 56/25 and non-Democrats where she leads Sanders only 40/37. Those self identified Republicans and independents are the only thing keeping the race even within 60 points- among actual Democrats Clinton’s up 79/14.
Rachel Maddow’s forum in South Carolina last Friday looks to have been a success- 32% of Democratic primary voters in the state say they watched it. It mostly reinforced Clinton’s front runner status in the state- 67% who watched declared her to be the winner to 16% for Sanders and 6% for O’Malley. And although forum viewers said it made them view all three candidates more positively Clinton (61% more positive, 14% less positive) came out ahead of both Sanders (51/11) and O’Malley (38/18) on that metric as well.
The Democratic contest could turn out like the Leonard v Durán “No mas” fight if Ms Clinton sweeps Iowa, NH, and SC.
Mr Sanders situation reminds me of Ron Paul and Rand Paul, whose campaigns were comprised of passionately vocal, young libertarian supporters. In the end, neither Paul was able to gain traction outside of this niche.
Of course, Mr Sanders faces specific institutional difficulties. He was never a member of the Democratic Party until he announced his candidacy. This plays a role in his lack of endorsements from Democratic governors (0) and members of Congress (2).
From Mr Sanders’ supporters one hears the hopeful refrain “unless she’s indicted,” which indicates how quixotic Mr Sanders’ campaign has become. Certainly, Fox News and Tea Party Republicans have been pushing for indictment. Unfortunately for this wing of the political universe, Ms Clinton unmanned Congressional Republicans during an 11 hour enhanced interrogation last month.
One also hears criticism of the DNC and Debbie Wasserman-Schultz for rigging the contest in favor of Ms Clinton. In 2008, a similar situation existed: the DNC was allegedly “in the bag” for Ms Clinton. What happened in 2008? Clinton lost to Obama. So the weight of the DNC is no guarantee of victory. What’s likely to be the difference this time around? Mr Sanders is not the candidate that Mr Obama was.
During the second Democratic Party debate, Mr Sanders repeatedly talked about political revolution. That’s fine. But one can be the leader of a revolution without being President; one might be a more effective revolutionary leader if one is not a President. When he was asked “You say you want to put the private insurance companies out of business. Is it realistic to think that you can pull the plug on a $1 trillion industry?”, he demurred “It’s not going to happen tomorrow.” Then he went back to talking about being the leader of a revolution. Join the revolution, etc. After a while, this sort of rhetoric wears thin, especially against a skilled debater and policy wonk like Ms Clinton, who once again held up her end of the bargain. Mr O’Malley was diminished in this debate in comparison to his performance during the Rachel Maddow colloquium.
For Mr Sanders to gain any ground on Ms Clinton, he’ll need to master some details of policy that can match his soaring ideological statements, which, in any case, do not speak to the electoral demographics he desperately needs. Mr O’Malley remains a non-factor.
Someone I know who worked for a Congressperson was given the following vision of the American polity: American politics at the national level is about the 60 percent in the middle, not the 20% on the left and right extremes. If Mr Sanders’ ‘campaign of principles’ has an interest in winning, he would do well to speak to more than 20% of the electorate.
One criticism of Ms Clinton from the Sanders’ camp is that she panders. In the primaries, Mr Sanders will also need to “pander” to (or, less pejoratively, speak to the issues and concerns of) women, blacks, and latinos in the Democratic Party electorate. His class-centric principles don’t come close to addressing the post-60s cultural dimension of American politics. Mr Sanders’ current political style would go over well at a national convention of SDS in 1966, addressing students, drawn from the top tier universities (Harvard, Berkeley, Chicago, etc.), who were well versed in Marxist theory and Thoreau, and were disgruntled with the anti-communist orientation of the Old Left. In 2015, his audience is more diverse and less likely to make politics the center of life.