Democratic Race Continues To Tighten, Democrats Still Believe Clinton Will Be Nominee

Polling is continuing to show a tightening in the race for the Democratic nomination, even though most Democrats continue to believe that Hillary Clinton will be their eventual nominee.

Bernie Sanders Hillary Clinton

There are signs that the race for the Democratic nomination is continuing to tighten, but it’s still unclear whether this is a real threat to Hillary Clinton or simply an example of the natural tightening we often see in the weeks before voting actually begins, starting with a new national poll from CBS News and The New York Times which shows Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders closing the gap with Hillary Clinton:

As the first nominating contest approaches, Hillary Clinton’s commanding lead nationally in the Democratic primary has largely melted away, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News Poll.

The tightened race between Mrs. Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont is revealing a sharp generational divide within the Democratic Party, with primary voters under 45 favoring Mr. Sanders by a roughly 2-to-1 ratio.

Yet more than 7 in 10 Democratic voters — including most supporters of Mr. Sanders — still believe Mrs. Clinton will ultimately win the party’s nomination. Voters expressed deeper confidence in her ability to be an effective commander in chief and more of her supporters say their minds are made up compared with Mr. Sanders’s backers.

Over all, 48 percent of Democratic primary voters across the country support Mrs. Clinton, while 41 percent back Mr. Sanders, the poll found. Just a month ago, she led Mr. Sanders by 20 percentage points nationally.

Mr. Sanders’s shifting fortunes underscore the unsettled state of the presidential race in both parties with just three weeks before the Iowa caucuses. Previous contests have seen candidates rise and fall in the weeks before the first votes are cast, and national polls at this stage of the race are not necessarily predictive of the final outcome of the monthslong nominating battle. But Mr. Sanders’s surge has clearly unnerved the Clinton campaign, and she is responding aggressively.

Two state polls released Tuesday further underscored the stiff competition that Mrs. Clinton is facing from Mr. Sanders. A Quinnipiac University poll found Mr. Sanders rising in Iowa, and a survey by Monmouth University gave Mr. Sanders a double-digit lead in New Hampshire.

“I like Bernie’s sincerity,” Dalton Paget, 27, an insurance agent from Spokane, Wash., said in a follow-up interview. “He’s talking about working towards policies that he’s been championing for a long time.”

In particular, Mr. Paget cited Mr. Sanders’s advocacy of overhauling the campaign finance system. “Honestly, before I heard much about Bernie Sanders and realized he had a decent chance for winning, I might have supported Hillary,” he said.

Mrs. Clinton is no longer treating Mr. Sanders as a distant rival who can be left unmentioned as she looks toward the general election. She is now confronting Mr. Sanders more forcefully, raising doubts about his electability and criticizing him as weak on the issue of gun violence.

In a rare issue on which she can challenge Mr. Sanders from the left, Mrs. Clinton has repeatedly sought to highlight his vote in 2005 for legislation that broadly shields gun manufacturers and dealers from liability lawsuits, portraying him as out of step with her and President Obama. And on Monday, she proposed a tax surcharge on people who earn more than $5 million per year, exploiting an issue that has energized Mr. Sanders’s supporters.

The tightening of the race on the Democratic side can be seen in the poll averages, where the momentum that Clinton had established late last year seems to have slowed significantly while Senator Sanders has seen his numbers rise. At the national level, for example, Clinton now holds an 8.6 point lead in the RealClearPolitics poll average thanks largely to the fact that the post-holiday polling has, so far, shown her lead over Senator Sanders shrinking significantly as time goes on. In Iowa, Clinton’s average lead is now less than one point, thanks in no small part to a new Qunnipiac poll that actually shows Sanders leading in the Hawkeye State by five points and a new ARG poll shows him leading by three points. This is the first time we’ve seen Sanders lead in the Hawkeye State since September when he briefly surged there before Clinton’s campaign seemed to turn around from its summer doldrums. In New Hampshire, Sanders has expanded his lead in the poll average to 6.2 points thanks largely to recent polls from Monmouth University, Fox News, and ARG showing the Vermont Senator momentum heading back upward in the Granite State.

What all this means is still wildly unclear. Political pundits, news reporters, and, for obvious reasons, Republicans, have begun to point to these new polls as evidence that Democratic voters are souring on Hillary Clinton as their eventual nominee, but it’s not at all clear that this is anywhere close to being true, at least at the moment. For one thing, even the polls that show Sanders leading or gaining strength in individual states show that the vast majority of Democratic voters still believe that Hillary Clinton will be their party’s eventual nominee. This includes Bernie Sanders supporters, which suggests that many of the people who are telling pollsters that they support Sanders recognize that their support is, in essence, a brief flirtation with a candidate whose message appears to them on an emotion level rather than a statement that they believe he is best qualified to be the party’s nominee in the fall. Additionally, Sanders doesn’t appear to have the same level of support or organization outside of Iowa and New Hampshire that one would expect he would need to take advantage of wins in either or both of those states going forward. Clinton continues to maintain a massive lead in South Carolina, for example, and appears to have a strong organization in Nevada, where such a factor will be quite important in helping voters navigate that state’s somewhat confusing caucus process. It’s also possible that Clinton’s campaign will be able to turn its fortunes in Iowa and/or New Hampshire in the next three weeks around and come out of either or both states with a win. If that happens, then this race would largely be over.

The bigger question for Clinton, of course, is what happens if Sanders momentum continues. In all honesty, Clinton could likely afford to lose either Iowa or New Hampshire and still go on to easily win the nomination in a short period of time. To a large degree, this is due to the fact that the structure of the race after New Hampshire, as well as the way that delegates to the convention will be allocated, tends to favor Clinton and her large, well-organized campaign operation, much of which is being managed by many of the same people who led President Obama’s campaigns in 2008 and 2012. While Sanders has been building up an organization as the months have gone on, by all accounts it is nowhere close to being as sophisticated as Clinton’s at this point, and the fact that Sanders has yet to find a way to appeal to important Democratic constituencies like African-Americans and Latinos suggests that the success he may see in Iowa and new Hampshire is not likely to be replicate elsewhere. Finally, in the end, it is clear that the majority of the Democratic Party powers that be are lined up behind Clinton, and the fact that many of these people will end up being “superdelegates” at the convention suggest that Clinton already has a built-in advantage that will be hard for Sanders to overcome.

Clinton would find herself in a more difficult position if she lost both Iowa and New Hampshire, of course. If this happened, it would likely revive talk about some other candidate entering the race ‘for the sake of the party,’ even though it’s already far too late for anything like that to realistically happen. At the very least, though, back to back losses like this would undermine the Clinton inevitability argument significantly, and would require Clinton to continue focusing on the primary battle with Sanders rather than the General Election. It would also arguably require her to shift further to the left on economic issues than the campaign might prefer in order to stave off the Sanders threat, something that could end up being a problem in the General Election depending upon how the race for the Republican nomination goes. In the end, it would still be likely that Clinton would eventually win the nomination even with twin losses in Iowa and New Hampshire, but it could make the future much rougher for her than she’d like it to be.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2016, Public Opinion Polls, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. C. Clavin says:

    Monmouth University gave Mr. Sanders a double-digit lead in New Hampshire.

    Sanders was a yyyuuuuggely popular Governor in neighboring Vermont…he’ll probably take NH.

  2. Sanders was Mayor of Burlington, Congressman for many years, and Senator. He’s never been Governor of Vermont. But, yes, the fact that he has been a fixture of Vermont politics for more than 25 years is playing a role here.

  3. C. Clavin says:

    @Doug Mataconis:
    yup…more hungover than I thought this am, I guess.
    And I’m a native Vermonter!!!!

  4. edmondo says:

    @C. Clavin:

    Your posts made more sense when you had a white screen and couldn’t read them. Is there any chance I can get a white screen whenever Clavin posts?

  5. grumpy realist says:

    I think a lot of us are in my own position: voting for Bernie in the primaries, resigned to the fact that we’re probably going to have to vote for Clinton in the general in a “lesser of the two evils” category.

    The clown car on the Republican side is full of totally crazy people. No matter who wins, I wouldn’t vote for them.

  6. Neil Hudelson says:

    I’m excited to see how long it takes the DNC to suddenly want and need more prime time debates now that their candidate is suffering.

  7. James Pearce says:

    @Neil Hudelson:

    “DNC to suddenly want and need more prime time debates now that their candidate is suffering”

    If so, good! I get this idea that Clinton thinks she’s going to win just by showing up, that it’s her turn, that she did everything she needed to do to get to this point, so just inaugurate her already.

    She needs to have that Ali moment where she realizes she’s going to have to actually fight and not just dance around and watch George Foreman fall.

  8. Hal_10000 says:

    Clinton will be the nominee. Of that, I have little doubt. However, it will be a lot of fun watching the Clintons squirm if they have to fight out another tough primary.

  9. Ron Beasley says:

    I too tend to think that HC will be the Democratic nominee but I have already been so wrong this election cycle I hesitate to prognosticate.

  10. JKB says:

    Could be interesting. The Dem voters are having make a guess as to whether Hillary will be indicted. That’s not so unusual for Chicago voters, but elsewhere….

    Worse case, Hillary gets the nod, Lynch refused to indict and “Deep Throat” re-emerges to trickle out the evidence against Hillary all summer. Remember, the real Deep Throat was a disaffected FBI SES.

  11. C. Clavin says:


    The Dem voters are having make a guess as to whether Hillary will be indicted.

    WTF are you talking about, Willis?
    Oh…copying your opinions from ZeroHedge again.
    Has that website ever been right about anything?
    They are also recommending you invest in gold. Just like Glen Beck.
    Have at it……

  12. Tillman says:

    That Clintonian image of sleaziness is really holding down the campaign (which was the worry last spring/summer if you recall). You have the suspicious scheduling of debates on days with small audiences. Sanders’s campaign breaches confidential voter modeling data, but the ham-fisted response of Clinton managers and allies has him come out smelling better in the exchange. Chelsea as surrogate says he wants to dismantle Obamacare and private insurance (implying he wants to take away their health insurance) while making the minor mistake of forgetting he wants single-payer. Remember, Clinton is the sure bet. We didn’t need a contest.

    Granted, Sanders only survives if he wins both Iowa and New Hampshire.

    @grumpy realist: The problem that surely keeps some advisers up at night is how many people are willing to vote Sanders and then Clinton, as you and I are. They need that first vote, figuring the second will come when Republicans make fools of themselves. I don’t care if it ultimately works, it’s still an incredibly dumb strategy that trusts too much to opponents making unforced errors.

  13. MikeSJ says:

    Is there anyone out there who actually thinks Bernie could win this election? Maybe there are. I know lots of people supported Nader so that proves they exist.

    The idea that some old socialist (and yes, he looks ancient) would be competitive in a general election is laughable. Correction: It would be laughable under different circumstances. Right now it’s a tragedy.

    The republicans would would bury him under a mountain of accusations that would make the attacks against Dukakis and Mondale look like pattycake.

    Speaking of Mondale and Dukakis, they’d also do far better in this election than good ole Bernie. I say this as someone who voted for both and if it comes down to it I’ll vote for Bernie as well.

  14. C. Clavin says:

    Bernie is drawing yyyuuuugge numbers from the young set…and no minorities are going to vote for the Xenophobia Party.
    So sure…I’ll vote for Bernie before any of the riders in the Clown Car.

  15. Tyrell says:

    This is interesting : Michael Bloomberg is doing some research in contemplating entering as an independent.

  16. JKB says:

    @C. Clavin:

    What? You mean Hispanic voters won’t vote for a Hispanic candidate? The Republican have two of the three top contenders having Hispanic descent. The Democrats on the other hand, have whiter than White candidates from the old North Eastern Liberal establishment.

  17. edmondo says:


    You must be a Clinton supporter. You seem to know EVERYTHING, even when it’s not true.

    According to a new poll by Quinnipiac University, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) destroys Republican candidate Donald Trump in a general election by 13 percentage points. In this new poll, Sanders has 51 percent to Trump’s 38 percent.

    It is noteworthy that in this Quinnipiac poll, Sanders runs so much stronger than Clinton against Trump…

    In the December 22 poll, Bernie Sanders defeats Trump by 13 points, while Clinton beats Trump by 7 points.

  18. Neil Hudelson says:


    I will gladly wager a small sum that in the event of a Cruz v Any-Dem-Candidate, the Democrats take a significantly larger share of the Latino vote than the Republicans.

    It’s too early to tell on the unlikely scenario of a Rubio v. Dem Candidate matchup, but if that were to occur I would have to wait to see if he moves back to the middle on immigration before making a bet.

    So what do you the bet to be? $50? $100? I work at a nonprofit, so it can’t be too rich of a wager.

    It’s funny how conservatives always accuse liberals of identity politics, but here you are assuming that latinos must vote based on a candidates ethnicity first, policies second. It’s even funnier that you fail to see any chance that Rubio and Cruz–Cubans both–may have issues resonating with other Latinos.

  19. MikeSJ says:


    Every fighter looks good before they get into the ring.

    The news will be pushing Jane Fonda, hippies, commies and black panthers 24 – 7. Sadly this will work.

    The republicans will skin him alive then bury him in a shallow grave. The last image we’ll see of ole Bernie is him whimpering while dirt lands on him.

    I say this as someone who like ole Bernie.

  20. just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @edmondo: Try not reading them. As Captain Planet used to say, “the power is in your hands.” (Emphasis in original.)