Heading into tonight’s Democratic debate – the final one before the Iowa caucus – media pundits would have us believe that a surging Bernie Sanders has turned the race for the Democratic nomination into a dead heat, in no small part because Clinton is making the same strategic mistakes that doomed her in 2008. But despite the understandable urge among pundits to hype the electoral horse race, the reality is a bit more complex than the prevailing media narrative would have one believe.
1. Is Bernie Sanders surging in the Iowa polls? In December, he averaged about 38% support in the Iowa polls. So far in January, he’s up to 42%. But in the three most recent polls in Iowa, he’s slipped back down to his December level, after averaging 47% in the three previous polls and leading Clinton in two of them. Note that the Des Moines Register poll that received so much media attention had 14% of Iowans likely caucus participants undecided – a relatively high number compared to other polls. Compared to an earlier Des Moines poll, it seemed to indicate that Sanders wasn’t gaining support so much as Clinton supporters were reconsidering their options. In contrast, the newest Gravitas Iowa poll that has Clinton up big 57%-36% apparently did not give respondents an undecided option. In short, it may be that the race appears to have tightened because some previous Clinton supporters have moved into the undecided column, but that doesn’t mean they are ready to commit to Bernie. The bottom line is that polling in the Iowa caucus is notoriously difficult, and that in previous years there has been significant movement in the last two weeks prior to the caucus.
2. There’s been a lot of stories on background in which unnamed sources argue that Clinton should have been more aggressive attacking Bernie from the beginning. This type of arm-chair strategic advice is to be expected whenever a front-running candidate appears to be performing below expectations. But there’s no evidence that I know of suggesting that a more aggressive strategy would have changed the electoral dynamics of the Democratic race. In fact, Sanders is doing about as well as I expected when I was interviewed on this topic back in June. He’s doing well among more progressive voters, but so far hasn’t shown an ability to expand his coalition much beyond that.
3. A related media theme that has gained traction in recent days is that we are seeing a reprise of 2008 when Hillary blew a big lead in the polls and lost the nomination to Barack Obama. As she did then, the argument goes, Clinton is once again gaining a reputation as a political opportunist who takes her “coronation” for granted, but who does not match up well with a more principled opponent. This time around, Bernie Sanders occupies Obama’s role. But the historical analogy does not stand upon closer scrutiny. At this time in 2008, Obama had already pulled ahead of Clinton in the South Carolina polls by about 10%. In contrast, Sanders trails Clinton there now by more than 40%. More generally, Sanders hasn’t demonstrated nearly the support among minority voters that Obama did eight years ago. This is 2016, not 2008, and Sanders is not Obama.
I understand the incentives driving political pundits to make the race for the Democratic nomination appear closer than it really is. But I haven’t seen anything in the last couple of week to suggest that anything has altered the fundamental dynamics driving this race from what I predicted this past summer, which is that Sanders’ two strongest states are likely to be Iowa and New Hampshire.
So where does that leave us heading into tonight’s debate? Both Sanders and Clinton are likely to sharpen their respective attacks, with Clinton targeting Sanders’ plan for single-payer health and his past record on gun control. In an effort to preempt that attack, Sanders has said he will support current legislation designed to rescind portions of the 2005 law granting gun manufacturers and dealers broad immunity from lawsuits resulting from gun deaths. Sanders has also recently released a policy proposal to move toward a single-payer health care system. For his part, I expect Sanders to continue to attack Clinton for her ties to Wall St. And, in an effort to tout his electability, he will likely reference recent polls showing him doing better than Clinton in head-to-head matchups with different Republican candidates.
The debate begins at 9, and airs on NBC. Keep in mind that there’s a third Democrat still in the race: former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, who is languishing in the polls in both Iowa and New Hampshire. This represents his best remaining chance before Iowa to change those dynamics.
I’ll be back on shortly before 9.