January 9, 2016
We all know Hillary Clinton is the likely nominee. But there’s a difference between likely and definite. In between those two is the chance America Feels the Bern this fall.
I should probably disclose a few biases. I’m planning on spending most of my time over the next 10 months covering the election. Having two nomination contests instead of one would help my cause.
My sister is a volunteer coordinator for Bernie. I know several people who are supporting Hillary, but I’m getting a more steady diet of pro-Bernie info.
I like Bernie better. Not necessarily from a policy basis, though even for someone who will vote in the other primary, there are some interesting thought nuggets, but because he really is Larry David and I loved Curb Your Enthusiasm.
It’s more fun to speculate on how he could win the nomination than how Hillary would. The Clinton win is easy. She wins Iowa by more than a few points, which causes a small bounce heading into New Hampshire.
Then she narrowly wins New Hampshire, sweeps the other 48 states, plus whatever territories are participating, enjoys a lengthy coronation period and prepares for a knock-down, drag-out fall campaign.
You don’t need me to analyze that.
So what makes me think this is worth thinking about now?
The Field Poll put out a new California survey the other day. It matters for a few reasons. First, like I mentioned when writing the GOP counterpart to this piece, candidates are mostly staying away from the Golden State for non-fundraising purposes.
Hillary and Bernie have spent more time here than the Republicans, but neither are doing enough to influence polling yet. Californians are getting the vast majority of their information from national and social media, not local coverage of campaign visits.
Second, given the neutral focus and lack of serious campaigning or advertising, the modest margin between the two candidates matters. You can discount Bernie’s favorable polling in New Hampshire due to the influence of Independent voters, his Vermont residency, etc.
It counts for his chances of winning that primary but doesn’t tell you much about how he would do somewhere else. Especially because, like Iowa, New Hampshire is extremely Caucasian. The overall Democratic primary electorate is most certainly not. Neither is California.
Hillary is currently ahead by 9 points in a state with an average amount of African-Americans and well above average amount of Latinos and Asians. Whatever demographic you want to measure; young, old, educated, not, yada, yada, is here and in large quantities.
So there isn’t a huge gap, the state looks more like the rest of the country than Iowa, and enough voters are still undecided that Hillary only has 45% support at the moment. Gets you thinking a bit.
As you would expect, he’s stronger with guys, she does better with women. She’s supported by older voters, he’s preferred by younger. Bernie has an easier time with white voters, Hillary with ethnics.
Clinton is ahead because the margin is larger where she’s favored and often minimal or even where he has the advantage. Among non-white voters she is leading 57/32. That’s noticeable, but closer than we saw a few months ago.
It may take a little time and momentum, but non-white voters are at least open to Bernie. If you compare favorable/unfavorable numbers, you get the following:
Hillary +34 (29% negative)
Bernie +31 (21% negative)
Hillary +63 (16% negative)
Bernie +38 (18% negative)
Bernie +34 (19% negative)
Hillary +10 (41% negative)
NOTE: This particular breakdown was among all California voters, not just Democrats or Dem leaning Independents. However, Democrats have a substantial registration advantage among each group.
Not only is Bernie largely favorable with each group now, but his negatives are actually lower than Hillary’s. Given how readily African-Americans and to some extent Latinos abandoned her for Barack Obama in 2008, there is reason to believe Sanders could see top line improvement.
Yes, I’m aware African-American voters might not be quite as excited about the first Jewish nominee, but the biggest hang-up last time was viability.
Before Obama started winning he trailed Hillary. His initial support was with the same younger white voters who have flocked to Bernie. Sanders will not equal his support among African-Americans, but that’s not necessary to win.
Hillary had an advantage with less educated white males that does not exist this round. Bernie merely needs to get close with non-white voters and stay within shouting distance among women over 40.
Overall, Bernie has a higher favorability rating than Hillary, both among voters planning on participating in the Democratic primary and the general voting population.
Bernie is +59 among Hillary supporters, while she is +15 among Bernie fans. However, Clinton supporters are marginally more sure they’ll actually vote for her than Bernie supporters.
That’s a long way of saying Hillary has a higher floor, one dangerously close to 50%, but Bernie has a higher ceiling. Some need to see more from him on foreign policy, or things related to being able to execute the job as well as Hillary.
Others just want a sign he could actually win the nomination. The first hurdle is having the voters open to consider, and Hillary has nowhere near enough voters locked down to clinch the nomination before voting starts.
Momentum is extra important to Sanders. Not only his he the underdog and trailing candidate, but his core support is among voters under 40 who are generally far less likely to vote. They aren’t going to force themselves to register or get to the polls unless he’s got a real chance.
All of the polling we see is estimating the ultimate turnout number and breakdown in each state. Beyond asking voters if they intend to participate, the pollster decides how many survey participants in each demographic and registration category are needed for balance.
If they are assuming 20% of voters are under 40 and it winds up being 30% (for example), this is way good for Bernie. None of this is knowable until we see how many 23-year-olds tromp through the snow on February 1 in Iowa.
I’m really comfortable assuming that a few early wins would make a huge difference though. Less frequent participants will turn out and it will increase the frequency of Independents opting for the Democratic primary in states that allow it.
Another very consistent result is Clinton doing better with registered Democrats and Sanders with Democratic leaning Independents. Go figure, the guy who isn’t actually a Democrat is having an easier time with voters who aren’t.
A candidate relying on Independents and younger voters really needs to get off to a quick start. For our scenario, that’s exactly what I’m going to do.
This is far from the first time a candidate with Bernie’s approximate appeal has tried to upset the presumed nominee. As you’ll see, only two of these paths ended successfully, and Sanders can’t quite duplicate either.
Any credible victory scenario will need to address the following:
Gene McCarthy Scenario
In 1968, Minnesota Senator, Eugene McCarthy challenged incumbent President Lyndon Johnson in the New Hampshire primary. He didn’t win, but came really close. LBJ soon after announced he would not seek another term.
The good news for Bernie is there probably isn’t a Bobby Kennedy lurking in the shadows, waiting for him to decapitate Hillary. Elizabeth Warren has given zero indication she’s interested in running. That would be the equivalent.
The bad news is Hillary will not drop out just because Bernie does better than expected in a primary, caucus or three. McCarthy got LBJ out with a close loss, not gonna happen here, even with a big win.
McCarthy didn’t have enough delegates under control to clinch the nomination before the convention. Party insiders turned to Hubert Humphrey.
With approximately 6 trillion endorsements, Hillary has a clear edge among super delegates if Bernie can’t secure the necessary number ahead.
McCarthy had the first batch of super-motivated students and younger voters (some of whom weren’t old enough to vote yet before the minimum age dropped from 21 to 18 for the 1972 election).
He didn’t have modern tech. Huge advantage for Bernie. Plus most Sanders supporters can actually vote for him.
George McGovern Scenario
McGovern finished second in Iowa and New Hampshire to the original front runner and epic disappointment Ed Muskie. Fresh off a solid performance as VP candidate on the losing Humphrey ticket in 1968, he was next in line.
While President Obama seems to have successfully used tears in his gun control speech, Muskie was undone by a more modest show of moisture (which he claimed was melting snow) after a surprisingly close finish in New Hampshire.
Bernie isn’t going to win the nomination because Hillary sheds a few tears. In fact, some think her show of emotion in 2008 ahead of the New Hampshire primary helped her close a polling deficit and defeat Obama to keep her campaign going.
More importantly, Hillary has managed expectations far more effectively than Muskie. Pundits are already mentally ready to have Sanders win both opening states, never mind finish a respectable second.
Once Muskie stumbled, Humphrey entered the race, splitting what amounted to the establishment vote of the day. Unless Joe Biden has a sudden change of heart in several weeks, no such obstacle is waiting for Clinton.
Yet another candidate, George Wallace, took votes from Muskie in the South, an area that is likely Hillary’s strength. The moral of the story is Sanders needs to do a whole lot more than McGovern to win the nomination.
That’s without accounting for the campaign team advantage McGovern had. Between Frank Mainkiewicz, who was RFK’s press secretary in 1968, a young Gary Hart (more on him later), and some bright state coordinators (Texas was run by Bill Clinton), he had a far more energetic and dynamic team than Muskie or Humphrey.
But wait, there’s more…..McGovern was the driving force behind a complete overhaul of the nominating system between 1968 and 1972. His team understood the new rules better than anyone. After being surprised by some details in 2008, nobody is catching Hillary’s team off guard this time.
Gary Hart Scenario
This is what happens if Bernie wins early but just can’t quite make it happen in the delegate count. Due to far lower expectations and many more candidates, 16% in Iowa, one third of Walter Mondale’s total, was enough to launch Hart forward in New Hampshire.
He won there and he won a lot of other places, but ultimately couldn’t corral enough delegates to unseat Mondale, the uninspiring front runner and former Carter VP.
Mondale did not win enough delegates to clinch the nomination outright before the convention, but he did have more than Hart, plus the support of unpledged super delegates to put him over the top on the first ballot.
It is very safe to assume that unless Bernie wins a noticeable majority of the popular vote and has more delegates entering the convention, he will not be able to rely on super delegates to put him over the top.
In 2008 Hillary did have more initial commitments than Obama, and did actually get more individual votes during the primary process, but he still got a majority of super delegates.
That won’t happen this time. Unlike Obama, Sanders isn’t part of the Democratic Party. He also has very, very few endorsements, where Obama had a nod from Majority Leader Harry Reid and the Kennedy Family among others.
Bernie has a few advantages though. Mondale had an edge with voters who belonged to unions, a far more numerous group in 1984. While Hillary has a sizeable lead in national union endorsements, many state and local chapters are partial to Bernie.
It is reasonable to think Bernie will split these votes. He’s far more visibly pro-labor than Hart was, and is the big advocate for a $15 minimum wage.
Hart had even more trouble drawing African-American voters than Sanders is. Beyond Mondale’s status as the establishment figure tied in to big-city black politicians, Jesse Jackson made his debut in 1984.
This left Hart as third choice. Hillary is at least as tied in to the African-American establishment as Mondale was, but at least there isn’t a third option. Had Biden run, Bernie would have faced this problem.
Biden would have competed with Hillary for establishment Democrats, so at worst he would have served as a net neutral force. Jackson was of no help there. The combination was too much to overcome.
Bill Bradley Scenario
Al Gore was the heavy favorite for 2000, so most prospective candidates stayed away. Bradley, a respected senator who passed on running in 1992, was the one challenger.
Appealing to many of the same voter types as Bernie, he fell well short in Iowa, deflating his supporters before New Hampshire. With John McCain another option for Independents, he lost narrowly, ending his best chance at a win.
Gore won every state.
This absolutely could happen to Bernie. He has some advantages though. Bradley was a fairly conventional nominee. You can’t say that about Sanders, who has a legit movement going. Bradley wasn’t pulling 20,000 people to see him.
Bradley did not have a million individual donors and well over two million individual donations before New Years 2000. He was not on somewhat equal financial footing with Gore.
He had nowhere near the volunteer force, nor the advantage of current technology. Moreover, much of what Bernie is doing rests on the shoulders of the 2008 Obama effort and the 2004 Howard Dean Experience.
Howard Dean Scenario
Like Bernie, Dean was from Vermont. Like Bernie, Dean relied on a bunch of motivated students. Like Bernie, Dean raised surprising amounts of money online. Like Bernie, Dean offered a clear contrast with the conventional candidate(s).
Two things upended Dean. Lack of discipline and high expectations. While Sanders has led or run even in New Hampshire polling for months, Hillary has consistently led nationally and in Iowa.
Dean was the national front runner, and Iowa leader for multiple months. When he fell short in the Hawkeye State it was a collapse instead of a nice showing for a previously unheralded candidate from another part of the country.
Beyond the Dean Scream, when he sounded unhinged to viewers watching his caucus concession speech, his ground troops, wearing brightly colored beanies as they knocked on Iowan doors, lacked the discipline of the Obama team that would follow next cycle.
While expecting Bernie’s crew to match Team Obama’s precision might be asking too much, they know what not to do from Dean and should at least split the difference.
Barack Obama Scenario
This is the scary part for Bernie. I think we can all agree Obama was a tremendous candidate. He was disciplined, sounded incredible, raised a ton of money, had a great campaign staff, both on the strategy and volunteer sides, and was almost universally loved and favored by the media.
He barely won.
How the *@&# is Bernie going to get nominated if Obama almost didn’t?He had the element of surprise. Hillary’s 2008 campaign wasn’t prepared to fight for each caucus delegate and spent most of their money early.
None of those things will happen this time.
The media sometimes ignores Bernie, other times is neutral at best. While they don’t always like Clinton, she was the relative enemy in 2008. Not now.
Sanders is an effective communicator. He is not early 2008 Barack Obama. So how? How does he do this?
Come back tomorrow for Part Two and I’ll show you.