January 31, 2016
It looks like Bernie is trailing. Not by much, but Hillary has the edge. The benchmark Iowa poll has her up by 3. Like Trump, Bernie’s results are at least somewhat dependent on turning out voters who haven’t caucused before. Unlike Trump, he isn’t indisputably ahead in the Iowa polls.
Hillary is ahead slightly more frequently and by a slightly larger margin. Estimates are indicating turnout looks robust, but well short of 2008. The actual 2008 number surprised everyone, but it that means Bernie would need a surprise too.
The Des Moines Register endorsed Clinton. So did the New York Times. Not a huge thing, but it can’t hurt. Important Iowa Democrats have endorsed her too. Again, this doesn’t mean what it used to in the days of machine politics, and the endorsements aren’t new, but at the margins it helps on caucus day.
Maybe more important than any of the above is the concentration of Bernie’s support in a few counties and around colleges. A vote is a vote, but even if they are virtually even in support, hers is more spread out and could lead to Clinton having a dominating presence at the majority of caucus sites.
Unlike the Republicans who vote by secret ballot after hearing pitches for the various candidates, Democrats assemble in preference groups. No dedicated Berner is going to join the Hillary squad just because it’s larger. But, there are always wavering and undecided voters, not to mention Martin O’Malley caucusers who will need a new home if their guy doesn’t have 15% support in a given location.
Sanders surged in the polls in late December/early January, but hasn’t moved in the past couple weeks. On the bright side, he held his gains, but unlike Trump, who first caught Cruz and then surpassed him, Bernie didn’t keep moving forward.
Recent shifts in the poll averages have more to do with which pollster most recently released numbers than a change in trajectory. Bernie has the enthusiasm and momentum on the ground, but the structural advantages are all with Hillary.
Though an average of polls shows a very close race, inside the margin of error, the majority of polls themselves do not. Few are forecasting a blowout, but most pro-Clinton results are outside the margin of error. If the poll thinks Bernie is going to pull new voters in large enough numbers, they show him with a modest, but definite lead.
Others are focusing more heavily on voters who have participated before and/or have registered already, as opposed to on caucus day. Those surveys usually favor Hillary, and by several points. If this is the actual outcome, there isn’t much to discuss. Clinton wins, Berniemania stalls a little.
He probably hangs on and wins New Hampshire, but it’s a sign the Hillary message is working. It means more Democratic caucus voters believe in incremental change and preserving the Obama legacy than pushing forward toward a list of progressive dreams.
Barring an indictment at just the right time to give Bernie room to win enough delegates before Joe Biden can ride to the rescue, he’s done. Sanders would win other states, but only the several that are most favorable to him. Perhaps he’d earn one big upset somewhere, but Hillary would clinch the nomination well ahead of the convention.
If the pro-Sanders polls are correct, it gets fun. He’s now well ahead in the Granite State and would have a more than adequate chance of going 3 for 3 by winning Nevada. Even if Hillary wins South Carolina as expected, we’d have a real race. A couple weeks ago, I took a long gaze at what that looks like.
Easy enough. But what if most of the polls are wrong, and the poll average and Ann Selzer’s Iowa poll are correct? What if the race is very close, but Hillary uses some of that structural edge to win by the slimmest of margins? How close is close enough to count as a moral victory? How close would beat expectations?
The framing thus far does not help Bernie. He got temporarily close in the polls back in September. This means the talking heads have had months to prepare for the possibility of a Sanders win. It also means Team Clinton has had months to prep their spin. Nobody will be shocked, or even that surprised if he wins, so a narrow loss winds up as a “too bad. thought he could pull it off.”
Iowa is officially tagged as a place that is easier for Bernie than average, primarily due to the high percentage of white progressives in the caucus electorate. When 43% of Iowa Democrats self-describe themselves as socialist, it sure appears like fertile ground. There is an important catch.
The Hawkeye State is not young. Iowa is the 4th oldest state in the union. Yes, Bernie does better with Caucasian voters. Yes, he does better with self described liberals, progressives and socialists. He’s running better with men than women. The largest variable is age.
It’s possible he’d actually have an easier time in Nevada (where there isn’t adequate recent polling to test this theory) than Iowa, due to the vastly younger electorate. Expect that detail to get buried if he falls short.
Sanders will not quit the race until Hillary has the delegates. He has money and a message, so there’s no reason for him to stop. At 74, he doesn’t have an incentive to step aside early to preserve himself as the party’s choice in 2020. Plus, he’s not a Democrat, so they wouldn’t automatically rally around him next time if he was 44.
He’s getting progressively grouchy about Clinton’s tactics. She isn’t doing anything beyond the pale for a presidential campaign, but her campaign knows how to play hardball and he’s locked in to promising to run a positive campaign. It doesn’t mean he won’t fight back in editorial board interviews and other settings, but he has certain self-imposed limits.
This combination of a determined candidate, who is not willing to back down or exit, has funding, but is up against the full weight and power of the party, is reminiscent of another campaign.
A very close loss in Iowa would put Bernie on the 1976 Ronald Reagan track. Hillary may not be an incumbent president like Gerald Ford was, but she’s effectively captured the entire party apparatus. A few senators and congressmen supported Reagan, but the vast majority stood by their president. Even Barry Goldwater endorsed Ford.
Reagan temporarily ran out of funds, before rallying behind the first incredibly successful direct mail campaign. Forty years before the Berners, Citizens for Reagan produced the first large-scale grass roots funding of a presidential nomination campaign. Technology has improved dramatically, but the principle is the same.
Though Reagan rallied strongly after losing the first five contests, a crucial North Carolina win giving him new life, he fell just short. In the Gipper’s case, New Hampshire was his crucial narrow loss. Ford won by a couple points after the two went back and forth in polling. Reagan was actually ahead at various steps along the way.
Though he was the underdog, he’d looked strong enough in the Granite State that the loss was considered a loss, not a Rocky I-style performance. He didn’t have the outperforming expectations momentum that helped George McGovern in 1972 when he finished second in both Iowa and New Hampshire.
Comparing Reagan and Sanders may seem absurd. Beyond one looking presidential, while the other is Larry David, we’re biased by what Reagan was able to accomplish after falling short in 1976.
Their function is very similar. Reagan wanted to pull his party right, arguing there was no point in being a pale imitation of Democrats. Observers and elected Republicans assumed this was a suicide mission and the public had no appetite for actual conservatism.
Sounds very familiar. The narrow defeat in New Hampshire mattered because it cost Reagan a few crucial delegates and the chance to build early momentum. With Ford controlling the party apparatus, the incumbent was able to win a narrow procedural victory at the convention, clinching the nomination.
Like Reagan, Sanders can’t afford to drop a single delegate. Clinton will control as much of the process as possible. While there is the potential for him to win voters over as the race progresses, exactly how Reagan did, he needs the delegates early momentum would give him on March 1. Otherwise the math doesn’t work.
The only possible way out of the trap (besides legal trouble for Hillary) is Trump. Bernie has only surged once since September. This early January momentum matches the 7 to 10 day period when Hillary was the focus of The Donald’s scorn. We can’t prove causation, but there’s definite correlation.
When Trump attacked Bill Clinton’s history with women and how Hillary attacked some of those women, the polls moved. Perhaps Aries was in retrograde, maybe Hawkeyes, Granite Staters and people answering national polls were suddenly just feeling the Bern a little more frequently.
Or maybe Trump is just as hard for the Clintons to handle is he is for the GOP contenders. We don’t know if or when he’ll strike on the Democratic side during the primary season. We don’t know if he wants to run against Hillary or Bernie. He is a uncontrollable weapon unavailable to Reagan.
Jimmy Carter attacked Ford while he was trying to get nominated by the Democrats. He wasn’t Trump. Nobody is. There’s little evidence he said anything to dramatically affect the GOP race.
If Marco Rubio becomes Trump’s primary challenger (Cruz can still win Iowa, so this is premature today), expect to see more attacks on Hillary. Rubio is pushing his electability very heavily. There’s no better way for The Donald to argue he’s wrong than to reaffirm his power over her destiny.
In the meanwhile, if Bernie doesn’t want to depend on Trump, he needs to win Iowa, even if it’s by 3 votes. Should he wind up getting a few more votes, but Hillary more state convention delegates due to the distribution, it’s probably good enough. Bernie just needs the story to say he won more individual voters in Iowa. A tie is a win, but a moral victory isn’t.