2016 Democrats, 2016 General Election, Debates, Iowa, New Hampshire, Poll Watch, State of the Race

State of the Race: President Larry David?

October 19, 2015

Democratic Debate 1.0 is now safely almost a week in the rear view mirror.  We can now move from speculating on the impact to a 60/40 analyze/speculate split.  To help in this endeavor, we have post-debate polling from Suffolk/Boston Globe for New Hampshire along with CNN/ORC and Monmouth for national numbers.

After spending more time than I’d care to admit looking at the underlying data, the overall conclusion is nothing changed last week.  A couple trends already in place were reinforced, but no new developments.  None.

Let’s get the micro candidates out of the way first.  Neither Jim Webb nor Lincoln Chafee have turned into anything but a punch line.  I guess you could say having Alec Baldwin play Webb on SNL was the biggest exposure of his political career, but we both entered and exited the week thinking he was miscast as a modern Democratic presidential candidate and that Chafee was a twit.

Despite superficially decent qualifications (including looking the part), Martin O’Malley was the invisible candidate before, during and after the debate.  Debbie Wasserman Schultz and the DNC could add 50 debates and nobody would remember anything he said.  Webb and Chafee even overshadowed him during the SNL spoof.  For anyone thinking he might serve as a non-Biden alternative to the Hillary-Bernie duopoly, not gonna happen.

Hillary Clinton was declared the debate winner by journalists, political pros and many mainstream Democratic voters.  Unless you are feeling the Bern, you probably thought she won, or at least acquitted herself very well.  For a brief, fleeting moment after the debate, many were attempting to re-declare Hillary had the nomination locked up.

While the evidence strongly suggests Hillary has stabilized and is no longer free falling, it does not indicate she has this in the bag (even one which might spring an indictment-sized hole).  In a two-way race against Sanders, she is certainly favored.  Leading in every national poll, her margin increases when you remove Joe, taking anywhere between 65 and 80 percent of his supporters.

All good news for Hillary, but also all true two weeks ago too.  It appears she hit her floor in early-mid September, whether measuring favorabilty ratings or poll results, among Democrats or all voters.  With the possible exception of New Hampshire where the latest poll shows her with her first lead (of 2 points) since mid-summer, she’s reinforced the floor, not raised the ceiling.

36% of Democrat primary voters (per CNN) have Biden as their second choice.  Sanders has the most committed base of voters.  Joe may have the White House behind him in a primary run.  Bernie is ahead of Candidate Obama’s 2007/08 pace in funding and polling.  In a three-way race, Biden could play spoiler and make it possible for Bernie to win with a plurality instead of a majority, or could beat Hillary outright.  All we know now is Hillary isn’t going away quietly, something we shouldn’t have expected anyway.

She remains a very flawed candidate with strong debating skills, plenty of resources and plenty of detractors.  Sometimes she will turn the email controversy to her benefit, other times she’ll get stung.

We entered the week with Bernie Sanders having plenty of money, a very motivated base, and needing more supporters to win the nomination.  That’s how it ended too.  The only important development was discovering Larry David reprising his character (which is pretty close to his real self) from Curb Your Enthusiasm on SNL as a dead ringer for Bernie.

This is the existential challenge for the Sanders campaign.  Can Democrats nominate and will the country elect Larry David as President of the United States?  Given the initial success of Donald Trump, this isn’t quite as absurd as it sounds.  Here’s where President Larry’s math is right now:

Among all voters, he does better than Hillary, worse than Biden.  Clinton advocates will argue she’s taken 2.5 decades worth of hits while many voters know next to nothing about Sanders and surprisingly little about Uncle Joe.  True.  We don’t know how the opinions of either will suffer during a drawn out primary process or in a general election, while Hillary has taken as many hits as possible short of being indicted.

However, for now, many voters are open to considering Bernie and these voters are not only far-left liberally progressive Democrats who like the color red.  Among Democrats, he has a 5 or 6 to 1 favorability ratio, once again, better than Hillary, worse than Joe.  All three are more popular among their own than most GOP candidates are with theirs.  Many Democrats would accept and support any of the three.

Though almost 30% of all voters don’t have an opinion yet, Bernie is still at least +10 net favorable with the country as a whole.  He’s about neutral with Independents, and surprisingly is only viewed unfavorably by 54% of Tea Party supporters (21% favorable) according to CNN’s new poll.  How? Why? Shouldn’t 110% of Tea Party people hate the “democratic socialist”?

I’m not suggesting he’s actually going to capture their votes, but it shows how helpful not looking like a normal politician is.  It’s really hard to demonize Larry David.  He’s just not that scary.  Eccentric, nebbishy, rough around the edges sure, but a communist plot to bring down the country, not so much.

Many voters are at least curious about exploring free public college tuition.  Many would both consider having the government do more or less.  While some people are in favor of a smaller federal government because they believe in the 10th amendment and think private industry is almost always a better option, others are just upset the Feds seem impotent and wasteful.

If Bernie can send the kids to college and fix a few potholes and bridges, while getting grandma another $150/month in Social Security benefits, all while making a few rich Manhattanites pay, why not give him a try?  Though comparisons to Trump are overdone, there is some overlap here.  The Donald also talks about taxing hedge fund guys, unscrewing the middle class, and fixing horribly outdated/worn out infrastructure.  Both are relying on not yet released proposals to make the math work.  There are voters who would actually consider both of them.

That’s his upside.  We haven’t even talked about better outreach to minority groups, which are virtually a majority of the Democratic electorate.  Though Bernie made a few attempts in the debate, it didn’t really register or become part of the post-debate consensus/sound bite rotation.  The bad news is he still does poorly.  The good news is there’s still time and black and Latino voters are not opposed, just not sold yet.

There is a cultural divide to leap.  Despite being one of the most successful shows in history, Seinfeld (with co-creator David) never did well with African American viewers (nor is it a touchstone for less-assimilated Latinos).  Bernie may have yielded the mic over the summer to Black Lives Matter protestors, he may have marched on Washington with Dr. King, but stylistically and tonally what makes him acceptable to some you might expect to detest him can cause others to question his effectiveness in promoting minority interests.

The Larry David Effect is also holding him back with some mainstream white Democrats, particularly women.  Again, it’s not that they dislike him, or disagree with his proposals.  Many Hillary supporters are very pro-Bernie.  They just have more confidence in Hillary’s ability to get things done.  They’ve seen her take hits and get back up for more than 20 years.  They know she’ll go after the Republican candidate with everything in her arsenal.

Until Bernie shows more staying power, these voters are with Hillary.  They aren’t part of the Hillary or Biden group, they are instead Hillary or Bernie.  In a three-way race, he needs a few of these voters and a few minority voters to get to 35-38% and a plurality.  In a two-way race, he needs a bunch of them and/or major progress with minority voters.  Either way, the job is to make Larry/Bernie a credible national leader to those favorably disposed but still questioning.

This leaves the Great Ditherer, one Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr.  Last Tuesday evening, he was deemed surplus to requirements, a needless adornment at best, spoiler at worst.  Well more than half of instant post-debate respondents said he should stay out.  Interestingly, even Sanders supporters felt this way, despite the likely advantage of a Biden run to their candidate.

A small majority of Suffolk-surveyed New Hampshire voters agree.  Nationally, CNN found the no Joe question virtually even.  Sounds bad, right?  If half of your own party thinks you should stay out, why get in?  He scored at 11% in New Hampshire, in the upper teens in both national polls.  All of these numbers are worse than 3 weeks ago.

Yet, it’s not because of the debate.  Except for New Hampshire, where no major polls were taken in the 7-10 days before the debate, the numbers are virtually identical to where they were at the beginning of the month in the immediate aftermath of Biden’s latest kick of the can a bit further down the street.

He’s the most popular candidate with Democrats, with the highest approval rating and lowest negative rating.  He’s the most popular candidate period with the general electorate.  He wins each hypothetical match-up with a GOP candidate.  In a primary, Hillary and Bernie would attack him repeatedly from the left.  That’s a plus.

The more Democratic candidates bitch about his lack of pure liberal credentials, the better he looks next November, especially to moderates and Independents.  Biden is still plenty liberal and will run for a third Obama term with his own spin.  At least some Big Labor support is virtually guaranteed.  With two other contenders, he merely needs to pull 35-40% of Democrats, not 51%.

If he takes many more moderately liberal Democrats, plus those who just like him better and don’t see enormous ideological differences, plus some who appreciate his close ties to and consistent support of President Obama, you get there really quickly.  All of his first choice supporters plus converting half the second choice supporters and you get there too.

Many have pointed out no candidate in recent decades has begun a campaign this late and won a nomination.  Very true.  However, none of those failures were sitting Vice Presidents.  None of those candidates were possibilities for an overt or implicit presidential endorsement.  None had near 100% name recognition.  None had previously tried running for president twice.  None had a Draft X organization pushing for them months ahead.  None had zero questions about being experienced enough for the job.

Joe Biden is a unicorn.  His candidacy may remain mythical, but I’d still be very surprised if he’s not in the race in enough time to qualify for the majority of primary ballots.  At such time he enters, whether before this piece gets posted or after a successful or unsuccessful Hillary Clinton appearance before the Benghazi Committee, he becomes the Democrat with the best nomination odds.

Hillary has more infrastructure, Bernie more passionate followers.  Neither are easy opponents.  At best for him the odds are 2 to 1 Biden, 5 to 2 Hillary, 10 to 1 Bernie.  You could argue it’s closer than that, as Bernie has many advantages with two opponents instead of one.  But nothing in the past week or even three has changed the equation.  There is a point where it’s too late for Joe, but that time is closer to Thanksgiving than Halloween.


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