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.

Hillary Clinton Bernie Sanders

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.

FILED UNDER: 2016 Election, 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. Ron Beasley says:

    Sanders is not in it to win but to change the conversation. He wins if he can force Clinton to the left.

  2. James Joyner says:

    @Ron Beasley: I think that’s the goal. Additionally, I think Sanders is simply acting as a stand-in for “Not Hillary” right now.

  3. gVOR08 says:

    @Ron Beasley: I suspect most of the people who responded they’d vote for Bernie have exactly that same attitude. I’ll vote for Bernie, if he’s still in for the Ohio primary, and if it looks like Hillary’s nomination is secure.

  4. Liberal Capitalist says:

    Breaking — Supreme Court legalizes gay marriage nationwide.

    What a week!

  5. Franklin says:

    We see this sort of thing with polls all the time, inflated numbers for marginal candidates. Back in my early 20s, I voted Libertarian (sorry – just a demonstration that people can change). Anyway, I would get my hopes up when Ron Paul was polling at 4% or whatever just before the election. The final results? Less than 1%, IIRC.

  6. al-Ameda says:

    I agree with Ron and James that at this point Sanders is a proxy for those who are very progressive and who want to see how Hillary campaigns before they make a final commitment.

    Bernie Sanders is further to the left on some economic issues than I am but, if a REAL scandal envelopes Hillary’s campaign I would have no problem voting for Bernie Sanders.

  7. dmichaelwells says:

    Doug Mataconis may be correct in minimizing the significance of recent polling, however, the Clinton campaign is concerned enough to bring out Sen. Claire (give me a job in the Clinton Administration) McCaskill to make a public attack on Sen. Sanders as a (gulp) “Socialist!”

  8. stonetools says:

    Bernie may end up in the Clinton cabinet…

  9. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    I don´t know. To me, Bernie Sanders lacks charisma – he is not Jean-Luc Melanchon, a very charismatic far-left candidate that challenges a boring establishment candidate. That´s point out much more to Hillary´s weakness than to Bernie´s strength.

  10. michael reynolds says:

    Hillary is nowhere near being weakened by Bernie Sanders. Sanders isn’t running for president and if by some unlikely chance he came close to winning he’d probably quit.

    Right now he’s helpful to Hillary. He’s Gene McCarthy and not Bobby Kennedy. He’s a safety valve for college kids and activists.

  11. Kylopod says:


    however, the Clinton campaign is concerned enough to bring out Sen. Claire (give me a job in the Clinton Administration) McCaskill to make a public attack on Sen. Sanders as a (gulp) “Socialist!”

    A few thoughts:

    1. I suspect that after 2008, Hillary is a little more paranoid about potential challengers than the situation warrants.

    2. McCaskill endorsed Obama over Hillary in 2008 and was one of the first senators to do so. She has some debts to pay.

    3. I find something delightful about the fact that Sanders is the only national politician who can respond to that charge with “Yeah, and your point…?”

  12. Tillman says:

    Probably a matter of learning about Sanders rather than any drop in Clinton’s support.

    Clinton is on everyone’s minds. Sanders has to get his name out to compensate so he’s bound to pick up percentage points along the way. As Andre said above, it reflects more on Clinton’s weaknesses than Sanders’s strengths.

  13. Todd says:

    I still think everybody gives too much credence to the socialist label. It’s easy to write Bernie Sanders off, but the fact is, many of his positions are popular .. and not just among Democrats. I can tell you one thing, he the only Democrats who some of my Conservative military friends have shared memes about on social media … the quotes about the VA, and how if we can afford to go to war, we can afford to pay for it.

    I could very well be wrong (lol, ok, likely). But honestly, it wouldn’t really shock me all that much if Hillary Clinton is not the eventual Democratic nominee. And I don’t agree with Doug that a Bernie Sanders nomination would mean 1972. The republicans have killed the sting of the socialist label … and Sander’s actual positions are more popular than might be expected from a mere socialist.

  14. Tony W says:

    Sanders vs. Trump in November 2016!

  15. Tillman says:

    @Tony W: not the election this country needs, but the election it deserves. 🙂

    Or maybe it’s the other way around.

  16. dmichaelwells says:

    @michael reynolds: Oooh, Gene McCarthy as a “safety valve for college kids and activists.” Memories. But that just shows how old I am.

  17. Kylopod says:


    I still think everybody gives too much credence to the socialist label. …. But honestly, it wouldn’t really shock me all that much if Hillary Clinton is not the eventual Democratic nominee.

    I agree about the first point; totally disagree about the second.

    Writing off Sanders because of the socialist label is indeed ridiculous–but it also happens to be the reality. The fact is that he has already been written off by the establishment, and you simply don’t win a party’s nomination when the entire establishment is against you. Just because it’s unfair doesn’t make it any less real.

  18. Todd says:

    @Kylopod: To be clear … I didn’t mean that I think it’s likely she won’t be nominated (or even something I’d be willing to bet on without to some really generous odds). Just that if it does happen for one reason or another, I won’t find it shocking. I really don’t think my feelings about Hillary Clinton (I’ll vote for her, but won’t be even remotely excited about it) are all that uncommon.

  19. Kylopod says:

    @Todd: Really the only plausible scenario I could see that could stop her nomination is a decline in her health. Even that is not terribly likely despite our assumptions based on her age. But even if that does happen, I don’t think Sanders would win the nomination. Either it would go to O’Malley or some other figure will jump into the race (Biden, maybe) and the whole party establishment will coalesce behind that person.

    Having said all this, there’s a very good chance I’ll vote for Sanders in the primaries, if he’s still available. My hope is that if he gets a decent showing it will remind Hillary not to take the left flank for granted, something she’s shown a weakness for doing in the past.

  20. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    Frankly, if Hillary is losing support among Democrats for Bernie Sanders that´s not a good sign for her. It shows that there are many Democrats that does not like her.

  21. Kylopod says:

    @Andre Kenji de Sousa:

    Frankly, if Hillary is losing support among Democrats for Bernie Sanders that´s not a good sign for her. It shows that there are many Democrats that does not like her.

    That doesn’t follow. Just because you prefer one candidate doesn’t mean you dislike the other. Polls have suggested most Democrats do like her:

    Now, I’ve personally never liked her very much, not when she was First Lady and not now. But I am not projecting my own dissatisfaction onto the populace at large as so many on the left do.

  22. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    @Kylopod: I do agree that even considering name recognition Hillary has very good poll numbers. But Bernie Sanders is not a particularly impressive candidate. It´s not the kind of candidates that should be competitive with Hillary.

    Bernie Sanders growth is more about Hillary´s weaknesses than about Hillary´s strength.

  23. Kylopod says:

    @Andre Kenji de Sousa: Sorry, that’s BS. Hillary doesn’t just have “very good poll numbers”; she has the highest poll numbers ever recorded for a non-incumbent presidential candidate. Sure, Sanders is doing better than some people expected, but that’s only because Hillary’s ridiculously high numbers have led people to set the expectations for her challengers unusually low. By normal standards, Sanders’ numbers aren’t impressive at all.

  24. An Interested Party says:

    I really don’t think my feelings about Hillary Clinton (I’ll vote for her, but won’t be even remotely excited about it) are all that uncommon.

    This perfectly illustrates how pathetic the Republican field is…

  25. Todd says:

    @An Interested Party: @An Interested Party:

    This perfectly illustrates how pathetic the Republican field is…

    Yes. In the past two Presidential elections, I kind of felt like if McCain and Romney had been allowed to run as their former (more moderate) selves, maybe, possibly I would have at least been more willing to listen … although I wouldn’t have voted for them, as I like President Obama. This time around, there is nobody on the Republican side who I could even imagine voting for, despite my lack of enthusiasm for Clinton.