It’s been a good day for the Bernie Sanders campaign. Hell, it’s been a good year. A pair of new polls released today by major pollsters put the self-described democratic socialist in the lead in the first two states to vote in the Democratic primaries: Iowa, where Sanders now leads by five, and New Hampshire, where he holds a 14-point lead.
Those are swings of 16 and 17 points respectively compared to polls done in November and December by the same pollsters. Other pollsters have reported similar results, but that isn’t all. Several polls show the Democratic dark horse outperforming his party’s frontrunner significantly in hypothetical head-to-head matchups with Republican candidates, putting the lie to Hillary Clinton’s argument that only she is able to hold off the Republicans at the gate.
Also Tuesday, the online advocacy organization MoveOn.org announced that after a survey of their supporters in which over 78 per cent backed the Vermont senator, it is endorsing his candidacy. The organization was a key supporter of Barack Obama in 2008 during his primary fight with Clinton, and it claims over 8 million members nationwide. The organization says it plans to mobilize over 75,000 members in Iowa and New Hampshire to support Sanders over the coming weeks.
For whatever it’s worth, the momentum is clearly with the Sanders camp. Now the question is, can he actually win?
Superdelegates, money and the establishment
The conventional wisdom in the United States is that Bernie Sanders will not win — not the democratic primary, and certainly not the presidency.
Sure he attracts huge crowds and seems to have momentum coming out his ears, but none of that is a match for the structural advantages of the Clinton campaign. Democratic superdelegates alone account for around one-sixth of all delegates, and an AP poll in November found they support Clinton over Sanders by a staggering margin of 37 to 1.
Polls show that Clinton enjoys a huge lead among black voters, and commands the support of a majority of women voters, and Sanders continues to trail Clinton by a 2:1 margin in national polls.
Then there’s the money. Bernie may have set a new record for number of contributions at this point in a campaign (2.3 million), and it’s true his donors are overwhelmingly small dollar (meaning he can continue to solicit contributions from them while it’s believed many Clinton donors have already given the legal maximum of $2,700, making them ineligible to contribute in the future), but if this primary will be won by the dollars, as history suggests they so often are, it’ll be Clinton who comes out on top.
The former secretary of state has raised over three times as much money as Sanders, and although she’s spent much of it, she retains a narrow $10-million lead in cash-on-hand entering the homestretch.
Sanders has also refused the support of super PACs, while Clinton basks in the multi-million-dollar embrace of their ad buys and “uncoordinated” support.
Finally, say the pundits, consider the apparent willingness of the Democratic Party to get its hands dirty to ensure Clinton wins, as evidenced in December when the party used a trumped-up offence to cut off Sanders’ access to the voter data collected by his campaign. They restored his access only after the candidate filed a lawsuit against the party.
So are they wrong? Will Sanders sweep to triumph at the Democratic convention in July?
Likely not. For all these reasons and more, the self-described democratic socialist remains a serious underdog. But he does now have a real shot at winning, perhaps even a more realistic shot than Trump does, despite having received 23 times less media coverage than The Donald.
Time to start taking Sanders seriously
Clinton’s edge in money raised and support among women and minorities is slipping. She still has the superdelegates and the Democratic establishment, but with less than a month remaining until this primary fight gets real, she’s more vulnerable than she has been since she launched her campaign.
The question is no longer whether Sanders can win Iowa and New Hampshire, but what happens if he does.
A December Wall Street Journal/NBC poll found Clinton leading Sanders by 35 per cent among likely primary voters who aren’t white, underlining the Sanders camp’s trouble with winning support from minorities.
A Sanders win in Iowa and New Hampshire would inject his campaign with equal parts momentum and credibility, but then comes Nevada, and South Carolina, where over half of Democratic primary voters in 2008 were black, and where Clinton enjoys a wide lead in early polling.
Then it’s Super Tuesday on March 1, when 11 states will hold votes on the same day, many of them in southern states such as Arkansas, Georgia and Alabama, where Clinton is expected to do well.
But even if Sanders splits the 29 primaries and caucuses held between March 1 and June 7, he’ll need to hold his own in California, whose primary awards 11 per cent of Democratic delegates, to win. That may be difficult with a new poll showing Clinton maintaining a double-digit lead in that state.
Then again, Clinton won California in 2008, and we all know how that turned out.
The bottom line is that Sanders has an uphill battle to win the nomination, and victories in early states won’t mean much if he can’t close the gap among non-white and women voters.
But the X factor here is momentum. In Quebec, the 2011 Orange Wave of support for the NDP showed that momentum can move mountains, and right now the big mo is with Sanders. Primary polls in later states mean little at this point, with so many voters still open to changing their mind.
Perhaps the key question is how the media will react if Sanders sweeps Iowa and New Hampshire. If they start giving his campaign a fraction of the oxygen they’ve offered Trump, things could change very quickly indeed.
Americans are angry with the political establishment and looking for a champion. For some that means the easy answers of Trump’s racist demagoguery, but for an increasingly large number of Americans the real issue isn’t immigrants or terrorists, but the unprecedented concentration of wealth in the hands of so few.
If that fire burns hot, and Sanders is able to ride its momentum out of the early states and into Super-Tuesday, then watch out. Polls seem to indicate that if he pulls off the nomination, he’ll trounce the Republican candidate and win the presidency.
And that, well, that might actually change things.