2016 Democrats, State of the Race

Did Hillary Extinguish the Bern?

November 4, 2015

Is it over?  Did Bernie Sanders peak too soon?  Six weeks ago, Hillary was floundering, Joe was probable and Bernie had a path, albeit a narrow one with several obstacles.

Now every day brings a new poll showing Hillary with an enormous lead.  She’s ahead 71 to 15 in South Carolina.  Iowa polls frequently show her ahead by 25-35 points.  Texas polling has Hillary ahead by almost a 6 to 1 margin.  Even in New Hampshire, the latest Monmouth poll puts Clinton ahead by 3.

Bernie is on the defensive.  His campaign team is busy reassuring non-core supporters he’s viable.  Hillary is attacking from the left on gun control.  EMILY’s List, a Clinton-supporting group which works to elect women to office has called him sexist.

He’s introduced his first TV ad and it’s a bit conventional, more of a standard introductory bio piece than a call to arms.

If he’d built up to his current numbers, within the margin of error one way or the other in New Hampshire, sometimes sort of in striking distance in Iowa, trailing 53-35 in the new national Quinnipiac poll, slightly ahead of Hillary in favorability ratings, even with or ahead of her in hypothetical matchups with GOP candidates, and generally reducing Martin ‘O Malley to an afterthought, while finding almost a million contributors, it would be a great story.

Does the narrative matter?  If someone told you 180 days ago that he’d have those numbers today, it would have been north of what you could have imagined.  But he’s worse off than he was on Labor Day.  The progress has stopped, we aren’t sure if he’s bottomed out and two months of time were wasted.

Hillary’s recovery was swift.  She went from looking like a terrible candidate, propped up by establishment investment, willing to take any position to get elected, to helming a smart and disciplined juggernaut, outsmarting the Congressional GOP and willing to do what it takes to keep the White House in Democratic hands.

The comeback was so swift, aided by Biden’s exit, that Team Sanders was caught flat-footed.  The bad news is they were knocked completely off stride.  The good news is they were knocked completely off stride, you’re seeing them scrambled.  They will get back on message.

However, there isn’t a path yet.  Sanders partisans have pointed out his fundraising is ahead of Candidate Obama’s pace.  His national poll standing is also a bit ahead of where Obama was in early November 2007.  The current president similarly failed to make progress in September and October and had worried donors at this time eight years ago.

But Hillary had not locked down endorsements from every imaginable Democratic figure.  Obama wound up with a nod from the Senate Majority Leader and Kennedy family.  Harry Reid and the Kennedys aren’t going to Feel the Bern.

Hillary did not save enough money for a lengthy primary struggle, did not realize Obama could pick up so many delegates in small caucus states.  These structural mistakes won’t repeat.  Even with them, Clinton actually won more primary votes.

Perhaps most importantly, John Edwards was a big part of Obama’s victory path.  Remember, Edwards was a legit contender in Iowa and actually finished second.  Though he finished third in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida and dropped out after that result, it forced Hillary to compete on multiple fronts at first.

You can see the difference this time.  While Edwards forced Hillary to compete for blue collar voters the way Biden would have, Clinton is now able to attack Sanders from the left.  The gun control gambit wouldn’t be advisable with an Edwards-style candidate in the race.

The easiest path for Bernie was to have Biden and Clinton divide and fight for establishment, minority and blue collar voters, giving him a chance to put together a plurality.

Failing at that, in a two-way race, Bernie needed to pivot away from Iowa and New Hampshire and start building a foundation in the Rust Belt along with trying to keep things close enough in Southern and Border States to avoid being decimated in delegates.

Now stuck reinforcing his base, Sanders doesn’t have time for serious minority and union outreach.  He does not have the time or opportunity to build a structural base to win the nomination.  He will enter the voting process as an extreme underdog.

This doesn’t mean it’s impossible for him to win, just unlikely.  Instead of building himself a path, Sanders will need to rely on surprise and last-minute momentum.  In losing momentum now, he’s created the possibility of having an Iowa victory be a huge deal again.

He does actually need to win.  Getting close won’t count, anymore than a narrow loss did for Bill Bradley against Al Gore in 2000.  But it would matter.  Forget what Team Hillary said a few weeks ago about being prepared to lose the first two states.  Blowing a lead in January, when everyone is paying more attention is different than not being able to catch up.

Bernie needs to win New Hampshire too, and by a wider margin than Iowa.  His key problem is viability.  It’s an even bigger problem than struggling with the minority voters that are almost a majority of the Democratic Party and having a pro-male gender gap in a party that skews the other way by a 57/43 margin.

Most Democrats like both of them.  When Hillary is riding high in the saddle, she both appears predestined and ready to fight the GOP.  When she stumbles, voters remember she isn’t a sure thing and isn’t ideologically committed to much.  This means she can both gain and lose ground very quickly as we’ve recently seen.

Though it’s odd that a public figure with so much time under the microscope could evolve so quickly for good or bad in the eyes of the voter, it’s true, at least among some Democratic primary voters.  Republicans don’t like her at all, have not for most of the past 20-25 years.

Independents are now skeptical and will remain so for the duration.  They probably are not her friend in primary states that allow them to weigh in.  Many will vote in the GOP contest, as there are more options, but some are clearly left-leaning.

Among Democrats, a quarter to a third really prefer Bernie and most will vote for him unless the odds are very long.  This makes him able to compete in New Hampshire, but puts him way behind in South Carolina because they aren’t evenly distributed.

Another quarter to a third really prefer Hillary and not just because of inevitability, perceived electability or anything like that.  These are true Clinton partisans, those who supported her when it looked like Obama would win, picked her in polls six weeks ago when she was floundering and Biden was an option.

Thirty to forty percent of Democratic primary voters are not completely locked down.  Half of them chose Biden when he was part of the polling.  Many of the others have considered Bernie, but are mostly in Hillary’s camp now.

When she looks strong, it’s not worth it to them to think too hard about Bernie.  When she looks weak, it’s another matter.  Some of these voters belong to unions and other organizations who have formally endorsed Clinton.  They won’t blindly follow, but need reasons to defect.

No true insurgent candidate has ever defeated an establishment favorite.  Obama doesn’t count.  He was favored by plenty of insiders.  2008 was more of a polite Civil War than an insurgency.  If you delivered the keynote address at the most recent convention, you aren’t an outsider.

Normally, gut check time for the outsider is much later in the process.  In 1952, Estes Kefauver was stopped at the convention.  In 1968, Gene McCarthy ran into Bobby Kennedy in the primaries and was stopped by Hubert Humphrey at the convention.  In 1984, Walter Mondale pushed back against Gary Hart in the spring.  Howard Dean lost ground to John Kerry right before the Iowa caucus in 2004.

You’ll notice the timeline gets earlier as we move forward in time.  None of the failed outsiders were able to recover from particular voting defeats, be they early, late or at the convention.  While Bernie peaked earlier than the others, he can also recover sooner.

Better to play catch-up in November than next February.  At this point he’s a definite underdog to win Iowa and somewhere between 10 and 20 to 1 to get nominated.

If he wins Iowa, this gets interesting again.  He should likely spend the next 3 months worrying about the Hawkeye State and hoping for the best afterwards.  Lots of us want something to talk about on the Dem side, it’s up to Bernie to make that happen.

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