January 25, 2016
We have a debate tonight! Sort of. CNN is hosting a town hall/forum in Iowa for the Democrats tonight (9pm Eastern/6pm Pacific). Bernie, Hillary, and their plus-one Martin will all attend. This isn’t an official debate, one of the six certified by the DNC.
It was only announced a few days ago and won’t get the promotion and coverage that normal debates do. Still, this should matter, perhaps more than any of the regular events, at least since the first one in Las Vegas.
At this point, the whole game is Iowa. Absent indictments, health issues, etc., I still don’t see a path for a Sanders nomination that does not include wins in both Iowa and New Hampshire. He’s clearly ahead in the Granite State, but that’s not enough.
Without an Iowa victory, that’s easily passed off as home-field advantage. Without an Iowa victory, Hillary could yet catch him there, as a third of Independent voters haven’t decided which primary to participate in yet. America may wind up feeling the Bern, but the flame isn’t on high yet.
On Friday, I thought Bernie and Hillary were essentially tied in Iowa, with Bernie having a momentum advantage. Gun to the temple, I would have given him a 55-60% chance of victory. One of the great things about close contests is changing your mind based on individual pieces of evidence.
Over the weekend, CBS/YouGov put out their most recent Iowa poll. Sanders leads by 1 point. That’s good for Hillary. In mid-December, when she was clearly ahead, leading by double-digits in most surveys, ahead by 9 with the Ann Selzer/Des Moines Register poll, her CBS/YouGov lead was only 5.
For better or worse, CBS/YouGov is not a live interview poll. Most polling aficionados prefer the live element, but it costs more. By using an internet response model, you can survey more states and more individuals in those states. Instead of 300-500 registered voters in one or two states, they covered 1,247 Iowans and released polls in New Hampshire, Florida, South Carolina, Georgia and Texas.
Survey Monkey had notable success in the last British election with the same methods, so we shouldn’t dismiss the approach out of hand. CBS/YouGov is not the only poll included in the Real Clear Politics average that does this. Still, even with their care in weighting and balancing the respondent sample, it likely favors Sanders.
This doesn’t mean he can’t win. It just mean if the caucus was today, he’d face the disadvantage of being dead even among voters who regularly use the Internet. Based on Hillary’s demographic edge among older voters, I’m going to take the liberty of assuming the older voters who would respond to a phone poll, but not an internet poll are more likely Hillary supporters.
Don’t read too much into this, but it indicates a small edge for her. Between the methodology and where they stood in December, +1 for Bernie is a good number for Hillary. If we believe this is where the race is now, it puts the burden on Sanders to make the better closing argument.
Even if you think he still has a small advantage, Iowa is more crucial to him, a must rather than an important win. There’s another structural factor. Unlike the GOP caucus which uses a straw poll, with each participant writing a name on a piece of paper and submitting, the Democrats use open balloting.
After listening to speeches from supporters for each candidate, voters join a preference group with others who support the same candidate. This forces you to show your choice to the room. If a candidate is short of 15% of the room, they are declared non-viable and their supporters scatter to the other groups.
Bernie needs to fire up his supporters and get them to caucus in the first place. That part should go fairly well for him. He’s doing more than well enough for first-time participants to think they are caucusing for a reason. His national numbers have improved. He’s still an underdog, but clearly not a lost-cause.
The second task is to pull in his share of truly undecided, or leaning mildly Hillary voters, without losing the leaning mildly Bernie voters. The speeches given in the room, the atmosphere when people are physically choosing sides, all of those hard to predict variables may make the difference. If things are as close as they are today, they will.
This is who Bernie’s closing argument is for. Let’s take a look at how the CBS/YouGov respondents answered a few supplementary questions. Remember, this is an audience that likely skews slightly to his advantage.
Are policy positions realistic or idealistic?
Hillary: 76% realistic, 24% idealistic
Bernie: 38% realistic, 62% idealistic
This supports the general impression their hearts are with Bernie and heads with Hillary, especially when combined with:
Purpose for voting?
54% Give the Democrats a good chance to win in November
27% Get progressive things done
12% Shake up politics as usual
7% Support a historic candidacy
You can add the second and third things together as pro-Bernie reasons, totaling 39%. Depending on the respondent, supporting a historic candidacy could be the first woman president or the Sanders revolution.
Hillary has spent the past couple weeks pushing the idea she has a better chance of beating Donald Trump or any Republican nominee. She’s questioned Bernie’s ability to execute any of his reforms if he was elected. She’s attacked his positions on gun control. More recently, she hit him for considering Planned Parenthood part of the establishment.
By a 56/28 margin, surveyed voters think her criticisms are mostly fair. For comparison, the same voters think Bernie’s criticism of Hillary for voting for the Iraq War, taking money from Goldman Sachs and being in the pocket of Wall Street are fair by a 63/16 margin.
That’s close enough that there’s no reason for her to feel she needs to back off because voters will hate her for criticizing Bernie. Figure her public arguments are very close to what individuals at caucus locations will hear next week.
Bernie supporters will need to close by arguing Bernie can close. If it is a matter of who they like better, he’s home free.
By a 91/9 margin, voters think Bernie will do what regular people want. By a 57/43 margin, voters think Hillary will do what big donors want.
That’s +82 for him, -14 for her.
When asked if each candidate “gets it”, understands what the voter is feeling right now, Bernie +70, Hillary +30.
If you pull all this together, Bernie has an edge in most of the measures you would want a week ahead of a Democratic caucus in an outsider year. However, he hasn’t yet sold undecided voters. They aren’t yet sure he can deliver. They like Hillary well enough to avoid taking the chance.
He’s taken to reading his poll numbers during rallies a la Trump. Bernie should take this act to the CNN forum. At some point, somebody will ask if he can win. I’m sure he’s got his numbers as memorized as The Donald does.
On the various Sunday shows yesterday, Bernie repeated over and over his belief that he will expand the voter base and help Democrats down ballot in November. This may or may not happen, but there’s no evidence he’s wrong. The polls do back him up.
Hillary is relying on the assumption Republicans will be able to brand Sanders as a communist, without being able to similarly bury her. I still think it’s easier to sell hope than fear (even if the current GOP race argues differently). Democrats are not as mad as Republicans right now.
If Bernie argues Democrats have come too far to give up, that’s a better argument than having come too far to take any risks. I’d rather be the candidate trying to get 29 million people insured than saying that’s better than having 38 million uninsured.
Sanders has a great opportunity to use Hillary’s logic against her and tie her criticisms of Bernie to her greater comfort with Wall Street. If he points out that assuming you can’t do enough about entrenched power is exactly what made it logical for her to partner with big banks instead of oppose them, he’s got his close.
Taking a chance on getting the outcome you want is better than giving in and being sure you’ll fall short. If he can frame it this way, he’s got a winner.
As for Hillary, it’s very simple. If she can keep Bernie more on defense than offense, she’s likely to hang on.
One last thing. I almost forgot about O’Malley. He gets to play too, though he’ll probably get less than half the talk time of the contenders. Does he assume he has no chance, or think he can get somewhere with just the right bold statement?
I’m assuming he realizes it’s the former. Either way, which of the two would he prefer to see nominated? If he has a preference, will he do anything to tip the scales? If he tries to tip them, can he? Keep your ears open for any signals that he’s pushing his supporters one way or the other.
We can’t assume he’ll articulate well enough to pull that off, but something to be aware of. This is the last debate-like event before the vote. It’s available on CNN and local Iowa affiliates. Most Americans won’t see this, but a high percentage of caucus participants will. If Bernie seems credible to the median voter, Hillary’s small lead will evaporate. Will he?