December 14, 2015
Hillary Clinton is ahead. She has a 22 point national lead in the Real Clear Politics average. The presumptive nominee has polled over 50% in the last 16 national polls they’ve listed.
Bernie Sanders is suffering from an effective media blackout. His supporters are loudly noting he’s received approximately 1,000,000th of the network TV time as Donald Trump, which may help explain why he trails Clinton significantly among seniors.
Largely due to Trump, the Republican nomination is getting way, way, way more attention. Shrewdly, Hillary is using this as an excuse to ignore Bernie and focus on the GOP. Democrats like her much better when the alternative is a Republican and taking the fight to them reinforces it.
The nation is (at least temporarily) more interested in terrorists than emails, more concerned about whether to ban Muslims from our shores than what happened in Benghazi.
Democrats were never fixated on either, but being able to focus her rhetoric on Trump and any Republican she can tie to him instead of self-defense is only helpful. Clinton has gone weeks without consistently skeptical/negative press, and is regularly on message.
When seemingly put in a difficult position, like when President Obama’s Oval Office address would have left her noticeably to his right, or stuck defending a weak speech, Trump tends to bail her out by completely diverting attention.
All in all, it’s hard to put together a scenario much less advantageous for an underdog insurgent heading into the Holiday Season and a time all but the most interested of voters are likely to tune out (if Trump will let them).
With that in mind, the new Iowa poll by Ann Selzer on behalf of Bloomberg and the Des Moines Register is at least mildly encouraging. Though Clinton is still leading, as she has in all but two polls, the most recent of which was released September 10, the margin is 9 points (48/39).
Not exactly insurmountable. First the good news for Team Bernie:
Martin O’Malley isn’t making an impact
This is a bigger deal than it might seem. He’s currently holding about 5 percent support. In a normal primary, these votes are lost, unless people decide they don’t want to waste a vote on a lost cause. Given how poorly O’Malley is doing overall, these voters seem determined contrarians.
Caucuses are different. It’s a longer process, which requires the commitment of hours, not minutes as you hear speeches in support of each candidate. It’s not easy to be in the minority. Plenty of incentive for those precious few voters to flip.
In this case, they almost have to. Iowa Democrats have different rules from the Republican caucus. In order for O’Malley to get votes, an individual caucus location needs 15% percent support for him in the room. Otherwise, those voters need to choose one of the other candidates.
An O’Malley voter clearly isn’t anxious to jump on the Clinton bandwagon. If Selzer is as accurate as in past years, this could close a 9 point gap to 5 or 6.
Bernie and Hillary are equally popular
Each of them are at approximately 80% favorability and net 70 in the new poll. While Hillary has the polling edge and a higher percentage of her supporters say they are locked in, Bernie only needs to swing a few voters who like them both fairly equally.
When including second choices, Hillary and Bernie are virtually tied. O’Malley is rarely the second choice, and as mentioned above, isn’t a structurally viable backup anyway.
If Bernie can pull 2% of caucus voters from Hillary and have them support him, it’s a 4 point swing, pushing the gap to margin of error (or more likely turnout) range.
There is one big negative though:
Voters trust Hillary more
This may seem odd as Hillary has horrible trustworthy numbers with the general public, while Bernie is often the most trusted in either party.
Democrats trust his intentions and give him better marks in attacking Wall Street and caring about the middle class, but they don’t trust his effectiveness.
Hillary is judged as better on foreign policy, more able as Commander-in-Chief, stronger on the economy (especially among voters who remember the Clinton 42 years), and way more likely to win.
Bernie isn’t comfortable going negative, isn’t getting much media attention and has limited debate opportunity. The next round is on another Saturday, worst night of the week for ratings.
Though he gets high marks from motivated supporters, contributors and volunteers, to a neutral party, he’s awkward at best. If Larry David can do a spot-on impression by being himself, it’s a sign you aren’t naturally presidential.
Once again, he’ll face debate questions more focused on foreign policy/national security than he may prefer, though unlike the last round, which took place a day after Paris, this time he’ll be more prepared.
The most viable path to the nomination was to make inroads with minority voters, closing the gap with Clinton and putting the majority of large states at least in reach, even if her Mason-Dixon Line firewall holds.
That hasn’t happened yet, something visible in his national poll numbers. Though the lack of visibility really limited him here, it may help focus Bernie between here and caucus day.
The only path now is a pure momentum play. Win Iowa, however narrowly, win New Hampshire, where he’s now back in the lead. Follow with motivated volunteers leading a caucus upset in Nevada.
Even if Hillary wins South Carolina relatively easily, it’s still a fight going forward from there. Bernie does have the funding to play long-term.
That means he has two things to focus on to close the remaining gap and give himself a legit chance to win Iowa and make the Democrats worth paying attention to.
The first is highlighting his administrative capabilities and track record of getting things done. Part of his problem is I’m unable to tell you what those things are. He spent a while as the popular mayor of Burlington, VT, so maybe there’s something there.
I’m sure Sanders has passed a few pieces of legislation, ideally more than Clinton did. He’s spent significantly more time in Congress. Even if a little flimsy, he needs to show results to pull a few of those Hillary leaners over.
It’s not enough to say he voted against the Iraq War while Hillary voted for it. Despite Democrats saying by an almost 4 to 1 margin they aren’t ok with her vote, they still like her better on matters of war and peace.
It’s likely constant GOP criticism of her record as Secretary of State rallies Democrats to the cause, but that doesn’t help Bernie any.
The second thing is getting the troops out to vote. He needs more first-time caucusers than Howard Dean got and isn’t disciplined enough on the ground to pull as many as Barack Obama did. At the moment, Selzer’s projections have him somewhere in between.
If he can push this from a little closer to Dean to a little closer to Obama, it might, when combined with forced O’Malley defectors and a few voters abandoning Hillary, be just enough.
The odds are still against Hillary feeling the Bern on caucus night, but the fire ain’t out just yet. Stay tuned.