January 12, 2016
Well that was fast. A few days ago, I started building a scenario for how Bernie Sanders would deliver on his 10% or so chances of winning the Democratic nomination. The indispensable first step was winning Iowa, a state he was then trailing by several to a ton of points.
The logic was he should do well there and basically had to. If he couldn’t figure out how to win over the progressive white voters of Iowa or get them to caucus in large enough numbers, he wasn’t going to win Virginia or Tennessee.
If you’re the sort to believe polls are somewhat accurate, what I figured would take most of the month was already in progress and close to the destination.
Hillary Clinton led Bernie in Iowa for all of 2015, staying safely ahead of him in the Real Clear Politics average for all but 5 days in mid-September when they were tied. Despite her clear lead, polls last fall disagreed quite a bit, with some viewing the race as much closer than others.
The pro-Bernie polls had him down 5 to 15 points, while the pro-Hillary surveys had her ahead by 20 points or more. The major disagreement involved turnout. Most polls were relatively consistent in showing which voters each was more popular with, the big difference was in the quantity they expected to caucus.
PPP is a Hillary-friendly poll in Iowa. They now have her ahead by 6. Quinnipiac trends towards Bernie. They have him up by 5. NBC/Marist/Wall Street Journal, taken a couple days earlier than the others, Hillary +3. They’re normally kind of in the middle. ARG, which hasn’t previously surveyed Iowa, Bernie +3.
Sure looks like a tie. It probably isn’t. There are times where a race is legitimately split between two equally popular candidates. In this case, the RCP average (and our own eyeball glance) is creating a median between two possible scenarios, one which still has Hillary ahead, the other with Bernie leading.
So two big questions. One, which outcome seems more likely or plausible? Second, how the hell did we get here in one week instead of three or four?
I’ll answer the second question first. Donald J. Trump. I’m willing to accept another explanation as soon as someone comes up with one. At the end of 2015, Hillary had a noticeable advantage. Iowa wasn’t locked down yet, but she was ahead by any measure.
Now she’s not. The only visible switch on the Democratic side was the week spent on discussing Bill Clinton’s sexual past, the women who accused him of Cosby-like violations, and whether Hillary was an accessory by defending him and publicly attacking the accusers.
While previous attempts to bring up Bill’s private life, the 1990s, etc., have seemed to fail, as the country decided it didn’t want to think about Monica Lewinsky ever again, this was different. In the Cosby Era, it’s not as easy for parts of the media to reflexively defend the Clintons.
Pre-Trump, the ability of a single candidate to control the national news narrative based only on what he felt like making an issue in a given week, did not exist. Back in the primeval 1980s, Reagan White House operatives were given credit for creating photo ops that set a favorable scene and put the president in a good light. That’s what passed for Harry Potter-like wizardry in those days.
Even as “The Great Communicator” and leader of the free world, Reagan had nowhere near Trump’s current hammerlock on the issues of the week. As we enjoy “Was Ted Cruz Naturally Born in the USA from Alberta? Week”, let’s pause for a minute to recognize the tremendous achievement or end of the world as we knew it, depending on your views.
Democrats aren’t supposed to respond to GOP politicians bashing Bill Clinton’s personal indiscretions. Polling doesn’t indicate Trump’s argument about Hillary’s responsibility and/or hypocrisy has severely damaged her standing among Democrats planning to caucus.
She’s still safely over +50 favorability in each of the surveys that list it, a degree of approval most Republican candidates would kill for among their own party. While Independents have a much lower opinion, the polls are capturing only the Independents who plan to participate in the Democratic caucus.
Among that sample, she’s still more than fine. The problem is they like Bernie too. A lot. He has no baggage. If you can accept a Democratic candidate who doesn’t belong to the Democratic Party and calls himself a Democratic Socialist, full speed ahead.
Trump hasn’t forced Democrats (or Dem-leaning Independents) to completely re-evaluate their opinion of Hillary Clinton after 24 years. He has enabled those who were not solidly in her camp and also liked Bernie to lean in another direction, at least for now.
The Donald does not turn water into wine. He does shake the ground enough to make an aquifer lying right below the surface visible. As Hillary is trying to package herself as the only Democrat who can stop the GOP yahoos next fall, it’s not the best timing.
Back to the first question, does this Trumping change the odds any beyond what they were last week? A little bit, but not a ton.
If Bernie’s odds were 50/50, now they’re 60/40. The reason is while I assumed he would narrow things to the point where he would appear viable enough to get a few leaners to flip and plenty of his people to caucus, there was always the chance it wouldn’t happen.
If Hillary went in to Caucus Day up 15 points, it would become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Incidentally, things could still break her way in the polling, but Bernie is still better off tied than hoping to be tied in the future.
But, if you believe there’s a scenario where Hillary’s months of planning and organizing, countless endorsements from local elected officials who are invested in making their decision look good, and not-insignificant core of loyalists makes a difference, having her in trouble earlier might help.
As we’ve learned over the years, a cornered Clinton doesn’t back down. She fights back. Already over the weekend on Face the Nation, her tone was distinctly more combative than over the past couple of months.
If Bernie had waited until just before the vote to pull close, there was always the chance of complacency, if not on her part, then that of her supporters. Hillary is already pushing on the policy front, highlighting Bernie’s gun control votes, and suggesting a 4% tax on very high earners.
Hillaryphobes will find even more reason to vote against her. A strong Sanders supporter can point to this as a typical, cynical ploy to horn in on a place Bernie reserved decades ago. Berners can and will point to her criticism of his votes as a reason to remember Hillary supported the Iraq War while he did not.
However, for those more favorably disposed, these are just the cookies they need to remember why they want to stay with the proven entity. Shifting with the wind is a positive. These are the voters who would respond to ads declaring her the last best hope to save the world from Trump (or Cruz, etc.).
We will find out in 20 days exactly which side is larger. Thanks to Trump, both campaigns will have enough time to market to their supporters without any question about whether it’s worth going all-in. Expect Bernie to be more like Bernie as Hillary goes into her attack/survival mode.
While today many Iowa Democrats feel somewhat equally about the two, that number will shrink as most are pulled more in one direction or another. With two candidates this viscerally different, it’s hard to stay on the fence when they start tugging.
I can’t help but think Bernie might have been better off staying a little more under the radar for another couple weeks. In a strict mathematical sense, he’s better off right now, but isn’t anywhere near safely ahead. He’s lost the element of surprise. A win still looks good, but won’t shock anyone now.
On the other hand, if he can take all Hillary can dish over the next couple weeks, he has more chance of thriving in the long run and giving March 1 voters more time to consider voting for him.
If nothing else, ratings for the debate on Sunday will probably go up a little bit. Let’s see how they do and how much Martin O’Malley tries to interpose himself on a brawl he wasn’t invited to.
UPDATE: Sanders ran significantly more advertising than Clinton over the past couple/few weeks. The combination of more positive exposure for him and Hillary’s Trumping probably explains most of the shift.
The timing really worked out for Bernie.