How Seriously Should We Take The Polls Showing Bernie Sanders Surging?
Bernie Sanders is closing in the polls, but it still seems as though it doesn't mean as much as some political pundits will try to tell you it does.
First, two Bloomberg polls show Sanders gaining ground on Hillary Clinton in Iowa and New Hampshire, but there’s no real sign that Sanders is a serious threat to Clinton winning her party’s nomination:
Bernie Sanders’ surge against Hillary Clinton continued on Thursday, with two surveys of Iowa caucus-goers and New Hampshire primary voters showing the independent Vermont senator taking a bite out of the Democratic front-runner’s lead, which remains substantial.
In Iowa, 50 percent back Clinton, while 24 percent support Sanders in the latest Bloomberg Politics poll out Thursday. In the most recent poll commissioned by Bloomberg Politics, 57 percent of likely caucus-goers said they would vote for Clinton, and 16 percent pledged their support to the self-described democratic socialist Sanders.
Meanwhile, Clinton leads Sanders 56 percent to 24 percent in New Hampshire, slightly down from last month, when she held an advantage of 62 percent to 18 percent.
More than 80 percent of likely primary participants in both states say they are backing Sanders because of what he stands for, while just 13 percent in Iowa and 9 percent in New Hampshire said the reason for their support is because they don’t want Clinton to be their party’s nominee or because they want to make a statement to the front-runner.
Among independents in Iowa, Sanders leads Clinton 35 percent to 29 percent, though the margin of error is higher in smaller subsets of the respondents.
Also in the Hawkeye State, Sanders leads in terms of voters’ assessment of authenticity — 47 percent say Sanders is authentic, while just 30 percent say the same of Clinton. In New Hampshire, too, 46 percent of voters said he is authentic, compared with 34 percent for Clinton.
Voters were also more likely to say that Sanders would take on Wall Street, with 48 percent in Iowa and 44 percent in New Hampshire saying so, compared with 30 percent and 37 percent in the same states for Clinton.
At the same time, voters in both states gave Clinton high marks compared to Sanders on foreign policy experience and the ability to get things done in Washington. On the first issue, 84 percent of voters in both states said Clinton has the experience to “navigate a dangerous world.” More than 60 percent in both states said the former secretary of state and first lady knows how to navigate D.C. as well.
Then, late yesterday a CNN poll conducted in conjunction with New Hampshire’s WMUR-TV puts Sanders just eight points behind Clinton in the Granite State:
Hillary Clinton’s once vast advantage over independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has shrunk to single digits in New Hampshire, according to the latest CNN/WMUR Granite State Poll released Thursday evening.
Among likely Democratic primary voters in the state, 43 percent said they would vote for Clinton, with 35 percent going for Sanders.\
Vice President Joe Biden, who has not indicated that he will run, follows with 8 percent, with 2 percent or fewer backing former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee, the former senator and governor of Rhode Island.
In the same poll conducted last month — which notably included Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren (who is not running) — Clinton drew 51 percent, with Warren grabbing 20 percent and Sanders at just 13 percent.
Sanders holds a strong lead over Clinton in terms of empathy, with 45 percent saying he is the candidate who cares the most about people like you. Just 24 percent picked the former secretary of state and first lady when asked that question.
Clinton appears to be more trusted on domestic and foreign policy issues, though when asked about “big banks and corporations,” 36 percent trust Sanders, while 31 percent back Clinton.
Asked who “best represents the values of Democrats like yourself,” 41 percent picked Sanders, with just 30 percent going for Clinton, who led the answer to this question in May, when 38 percent chose her, 22 percent picked Warren and just 13 percent looked to the Vermont senator.
At the very least, these numbers indicate that the bump we saw for Sanders in New Hampshire earlier this month was not a fluke, but I’m not sure that they mean anything much more than that. Hillary Clinton remains the overwhelming favorite to be the Democratic nominee in the national polls, in Iowa, where she maintains an average lead of nearly 40 points over Sanders even after this poll is factored into the equation, and in New Hampshire, where her lead over Sanders averages out to 15 points. In the Bloomberg poll, in fact, Clinton’s lead in New Hampshire is larger than it was in the St. Anslem poll that came out last week. All three of these polls are polling “Likely Voters,” but it’s important to keep in mind that different polling methods may be leading each of these polls to come to wildly different results. Moreover, one should also keep in mind that predicting who a “Likely Voter” is may be difficult in New Hampshire, especially this far away from the primary. Since both the Republican and Democratic Primaries are open to anyone regardless of party, that large bloc of voters in the Granite State who identify as “Independent,” and who in the past have done things such as rally behind John McCain 2000 and 2008, can vote in either the Republican and Democratic Primaries. It’s entirely possible that either the Republican or Democratic polls there are, at the moment, picking up voters who may end up voting in the other party’s primary depending on what the state of the race is in February.
The larger caveat, of course, is that this polling is taking place some seven and a half months prior to the primary itself so it ought to be taken with something of a grain of salt. As I’ve said before, it’s not entirely surprising that Sanders is doing well in New Hampshire considering that he has long represented the state right next door to New Hampshire for the past thirty years or so in Congress and the Senate. Additionally, he has the kind of populist message that plays well in a state like New Hampshire (and Iowa to no small degree) so it’s also not surprising that he’s been drawing crowds on the campaign trail. One should also keep in mind the fact that political reporters are going to be looking for something interesting to cover over the coming months, and there’s nothing particularly interesting about an inevitable candidate like Hillary Clinton. Sanders is a far more interesting candidate than Martin O’Malley or Lincoln Chafee, so he’s going to be the candidate that gets press attention in a race where there isn’t much else to report on. That press attention means his poll numbers will go up, as they have.
In the end, though, it still seems fairly clear that Clinton is not in anything approaching the “bad shape” that some might claim to find based on poll numbers such as this. First, the fact that the polls are so far away from the primary means that they really aren’t much of a reflection of how the race will turn out end in the end, and they don’t take into account the impact that future events will have on the race. For example, to the extent these polls are showing that Sanders’ message is resonating with Democratic voters in New Hampshire, Iowa, or elsewhere, we can expect to see Clinton start to adopt some of his messages on the campaign trail. She’s already done that to some extent in her comments on issues such race and income inequality as well as the way she was critical without being entirely dismissive of the legislation related to trade negotiations that recently passed Congress. As Clinton does that, the voters presently rallying around Bernie Sanders will start to drift back toward her. Not all of them maybe, but enough that she’s likely to be just fine in the polls going forward. The second factor that argues against Sanders being a serious threat to Clinton is the simple fact that he does not have the resources to do so. He doesn’t have the same fundraising prowess that Barack Obama did, and he’s not going to have access to the big money donors that rallied around President Obama as his challenge to Clinton became more serious the later we got into 2007. Finally, as I’ve said before, it’s simply implausible that Democrats are going to rally around a septuagenarian socialist from Vermont as their Presidential nominee.
Of course I could be wrong about all of this, Democrats could decide to make the biggest mistake since they nominated George McGovern in 1972. I just don’t think it’s very likely.