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Bernie Leads In New Hampshire! (Or Does He?)

Bernie Sanders may be getting trounced in the national polls by Hillary Clinton, but you wouldn’t know it judging by his followers’ media presence. I was up yesterday on Los Angeles radio station KPCC’s AirTalk with host Larry Mantle (shortly before their segment on best dive bars in L.A.!) to discuss still another well-attended Bernie event, this one taking place in L.A. the night before, when about 25,000 people attended either in person or watched outside the LA Sports arena in which Bernie spoke. Every caller to the radio show was a Bernie supporter, and almost all raved about Bernie’s “electric” presentation to his passionate supporters.  I have written and talked previously about the fact that Bernie’s support among Latinos and African-Americans still lags relative to Hillary’s. Here’s a chart put together by Philip Bump based on Gallup polling that shows the relative favorable/unfavorable numbers of the various candidates among African-Americans.

Bernie has attracted large crowds before, of course, but they were in places like Portland, Oregon; Seattle, Washington; and Madison, Wisconsin – bastions of white liberalism that are not exactly cross-sections of the more diverse Democratic electorate. However, several of the callers to Mantle’s show took pains to point out the racially diverse composition of Bernie’s Los Angeles’ audience. This may be the hopeful among the #FeeltheBern crowd looking at the audience through rose-tinted glasses, of course, but it is clear that Bernie is making a concerted effort to reach out to non-whites in anticipation of competing in the contests beyond Iowa and New Hampshire. It is important to remember that although Bernie has lower favorable ratings than Clinton among African-Americans and Latinos, it is also the case that 60% or more of these groups don’t really know who he is. When you look only at those who express a favorable or unfavorable view toward Bernie, his percentage of favorable support comes closer to matching Clinton’s.

It will be interesting to see how much ground Bernie can gain among these voters in the months to come.

Meanwhile, in a reminder that no good deed goes unpunished, my last post cautioning readers to be wary of drawing conclusions based on one poll has been drawing its fair share of criticism in light of a more recent Boston Herald/Franklin Pierce poll that has Bernie leading Clinton 44%-37% in New Hampshire among 442 randomly selected likely Democratic presidential primary voters. The survey was in the field August 7-10, and has a margin of error of +/-4%.  Since I received a few emails after my last post asking me to clarify the difference between a “statistical tie” and what the New York Times mistakenly (in my view) called a “dead heat”, I thought it might be useful to present the latest poll results visually, using a nifty app developed by Nicholas Neuteufel that graphs the polls results, including the margin of error.

sanders tied

Once again, as the graph suggests, we can’t discount the possibility, given the margin of error, that Clinton and Bernie are tied, or that Clinton might even be slightly ahead. At the same time, however, based on this one poll, the odds are greater that Bernie is now ahead of Clinton in New Hampshire.  But, of course, as I reminded readers in my last poll, we shouldn’t rely on only one poll.  Not surprisingly – and my caution notwithstanding – Bernie supporters seem convinced that this latest poll is an accurate barometer of the current state of the Democratic primary race New Hampshire. Note, however, that both the RealClearPolitics and aggregate polls continue to have Hillary holding a slim lead over Bernie in the Granite state. Here’s the aggregate polling chart:

Nonetheless, the latest poll result ought to give Sanders’ supporters an additional reason to flood the airwaves, not to mention castigating wayward bloggers who have the temerity to focus on the data, as opposed to #FeelingtheBern. So, at the risk of inciting more ire, let me raise two more cautionary flags for Bernie supporters. The Boston Herald poll also indicates that the race in NH remains very fluid with fully 60% of respondents saying they could change their mind, and only 30% saying they are following the race very closely. As I found out in my stint on Mantle’s show, Bernie supporters are out in force this early in the race.   It remains to be seen how support plays out as more people begin paying attention to the race an attitudes begin to firm.  It may be that questions of viability will loom larger in the polling. Most of the respondents – 65%, to be precise – to the Herald poll still believe Clinton is going to win the Democratic nomination. Remember, Bernie’s big electoral test of viability is not going to be New Hampshire or Iowa – it’s going to be South Carolina, Nevada and the more racially diverse states that come later in the nominating process. In that vein, I was on the phone with a reporter today discussing why Bernie has yet to gain traction with the #BlackLivesMatter crowd. I’ll have more to say about that in a later post. For now, keep those critical comments coming but, please, don’t shoot the messenger!  And for Bernie supporters, I leave you with this image:


Are Bernie and Hillary in a Dead Heat in New Hampshire?

As the political pundits parse last night’s Republican debate – a topic I will tackle later – I want to return to a story that attracted quite a bit of media play earlier this week. Three days ago New Hampshire television station WMUR in conjunction with CNN released a poll that showed Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in a “statistical tie” in New Hampshire. Not surprisingly, the poll generated quite a bit of media coverage, with The New York Times headline for its story on the poll proclaiming that Clinton and Sanders were in a “dead heat.”  Other news outlets, citing the same poll, made similar claims.  In fact, the survey, which was in the field during the last week of July, showed 42% percent of likely Democratic primary voters saying they will vote for Clinton, with 36% saying they are backing Sanders. How can the New Hampshire race be a “tied” when the poll shows Clinton with a 6% lead? The answer is that because the two candidates’ numbers fall within the poll’s sampling margin of error (a measure of how confident pollsters are in their results), one can’t discount the possibility that Sanders is actually tied, or perhaps even ahead, of Clinton. Remember, surveys are simply estimates of the sentiments of an underlying population – in this instance, likely Democratic primary voters in New Hampshire – and one’s confidence in the results depends in part on how many people are surveyed and what confidence level we are willing to accept in evaluating the results. In this case, the WMUR poll’s margin of error at the 95% confidence level for the Democratic nominating race is +/-5.9%. In describing the race as a “statistical tie”, then, the WMUR pollsters are acknowledging the possibility that despite Clinton’s 6% lead, Sanders’ actual support might be at the upper end of the margin of error, and Clinton’s at the lower end. (Of course, it’s possible their support lies outside the margin of error, but this is even more unlikely.) Hence, WMUR’s decision to label the race a “statistical tie.”

At the risk of nitpicking, however, I would argue that a “statistical tie” is not the equivalent of a “dead heat”, The Times’ headline notwithstanding. To understand why, one should also ask: what is the probability that a purely random sample of 274 likely Democratic voters (the size of the WMUR poll on the Democratic side) would show Clinton ahead by 6% if in fact there is no difference in polling support between Clinton and Sanders in the underlying population – that is, that they really are tied? It turns out that it is not very likely – in fact, a simple test of the difference in survey sample results suggests there is a less than 10% probability that the race is actually tied, given the survey findings showing Clinton ahead by 6% (and making certain other assumptions about how the WMUR poll was conducted.) So, it is true that we can’t be sure that Clinton is ahead, at least not using the conventional 95% uncertainty level. But it is much more likely, given these poll’s parameters, that she is leading Sanders than that they are in a true dead heat. My quibble with most of the media stories reporting the WMUR poll is that they don’t make the difference between a “statistical tie” and an actual tie very clear.

“Fine,” you respond. “At least I can take comfort in knowing that Bernie is closing the gap with Hillary.” And, in fact, the first line of The Times story notes that “Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont continues to tighten the race with Hillary Rodham Clinton in New Hampshire, according to a poll released on Tuesday.” As evidence, the author notes that a previous WMUR/CNN poll of likely Democratic voters that was in the field from June 18 to 24 found Clinton leading Sanders by 43%-35% (with a margin of error of +/- 5.2%).  Based on these two polls, then, it appears that Sanders has gained 2% on Clinton – evidence that, according to the Times, “Mr. Sanders continues to gain momentum after months of negative publicity about Mrs. Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of state.”

Well, maybe. Again, it is useful to put this claim in proper context too. If you parse the polling numbers, the one-month change from a 43%-35% Clinton lead in early July to 42%-36% margin this week comes out to approximately a handful of respondents expressing a preference for Sanders rather than Clinton this month compared to last month. Now, this might reflect an actual change in the sentiments of the underlying population. Or, it might just be the result of picking up a couple more Bernie supporters in the random sampling process, even though there’s been no actual change in voter preferences. The bottom line is that we should be cautious about extrapolating that Sanders is gaining on Clinton based solely on a 2% change in the WMUR polling results across a one-month period.

This doesn’t mean Bernie hasn’t gained ground on Hillary in New Hampshire. As this poll aggregation shows, if we widen our time horizon it’s clear that Bernie has closed the polling gap, particularly when Elizabeth Warren’s name was dropped from the survey options.

But there hasn’t been a lot of recent polls in New Hampshire. A NBC poll in late July had Clinton up by a larger margin, at 47%-34%, while a recently-released Gravis poll has it 43%-39% in Clinton’s favor. (I haven’t looked closely at the internals of either poll.) Right now the aggregate Pollster polling has Clinton up 43.3%-38.8%. RealClearPolitics, which uses a slightly different aggregating algorithm, has Clinton with a more substantial lead over Bernie, at 44.8%-31.6%.

The bottom line is that rather than a “dead heat”, Clinton is probably leading Bernie in New Hampshire, and that it is not even clear, despite an abundance of recent negative news coverage for Clinton and Bernie’s well-attended campaign events, that he has gained all that much ground over the last month. Alas, for a media with a vested interest in seeing a competitive race for the Democratic nomination, that narrative is probably a lot less interesting, even if it is likely to be a bit more accurate.

Are Democrats Biden Their Time For The Last Hurrah?

Two developments this weekend in the presidential race help illustrate the themes regarding how the media covers campaigns that I’ve been highlighting in recent posts. First, I tuned into the morning talk shows this Sunday to find multiple phone calls with Donald Trump occurring simultaneously. Both Chuck Todd on Meet the Press and Jon Karl on This Week started their shows with telephone interviews with The Donald. And, true to form, they both managed to conduct almost an entire interview with the GOP frontrunner with almost no effort to elicit his stance on key issues. Instead, Karl asked Trump about his views regarding Vice President Joe Biden entering the race, how he might do in Thursday’s debate among the Republican candidates, what he thought of Hillary’s character and whether he’d run as a third-party candidate. Todd covered largely the same issues. In short, the focus was primarily on campaign process and candidate personalities – not on the policies Trump would pursue as president. (To be fair, Karl did ask Trump if he would bring back waterboarding – but I suppose that drives home my point.)

I’ve said it before but it bears repeating: if journalists continue to treat Trump as a carnival sideshow by trying to elicit controversial statements, rather than as a serious candidate for the highest office in the land, he’s going to maintain the support of the populist faction of Republicans who already think the media is out of touch with reality. Despite much media speculation that Trump’s support would erode after recent highly publicized controversial comments regarding Mexican migrants and Republican politicians, the latest polls show him holding steady with the support of about 20% of those surveyed, ahead of his chief rivals Jeb Bush and Scott Walker.

The other big story, one that lit up the twitterverse yesterday and is the subject of countless stories today, is speculation from the usual unnamed sources that Vice President Joe Biden is thinking about throwing his hat into the presidential campaign ring. Again, as I have discussed repeatedly, the thought of several months covering Hillary’s inevitable coronation slog to the Democratic nomination has newsrooms across the country desperate to create the illusion of a real race. From this perspective, the Biden rumors are manna from heaven. The reality, however, is that Biden is a 72-year old man who ran for president twice before, in 1988 and 2008, and lost badly each time. (In 2008 he dropped out after drawing less than 1% in the Iowa caucus, far behind Hillary’s third-place finish.) It’s possible that eight years as Vice President gives him a certain gravitas that he lacked before, as well as instant name recognition. Reflecting that name recognition, most polls give him about 10% support already even though he’s not a declared candidacy.

But it also means that if he runs he automatically makes Hillary the candidate of change (albeit not much change!) Even though their stances on most issues do not diverge markedly (foreign policy is a notable exception), it is not hard to envision Hillary portraying Biden as a candidate of the past. Of course, his candidacy would be buoyed by a media desperate to create the fiction of a competitive Democratic contest. Already the initial media reports are hinting at friction between Biden and the Big Dawg Bill Clinton, and they are framing a Biden candidacy in terms of the contrast between his strong ratings among voters on honesty and likability versus Clinton’s negative ratings on those characteristics. A Biden candidacy, goes the media narrative, would rescue the Democratic Party from the slow drip-drip of negative news stories about Clinton’s emails, money, and general lack of credibility, particularly among independents, that weaken her chances against Republicans. It would also fulfill the deathbed wish of Joe’s son Beau – another bonus in terms of media coverage. As evidence, read this tear-jerking account by Maureen Dowd (who apparently can read Joe’s mind) about Beau’s effort to get his father to run: “My kid’s dying, an anguished Joe Biden thought to himself, and he’s making sure I’m O.K.”

But while a Biden candidacy will undoubtedly draw favorable media coverage, it is important to remember that, among registered voters, he is not viewed much more favorably than is Hillary.

Moreover, most people already have an opinion of Uncle Joe, so those ratings aren’t likely to change that much. And, as with all vice presidents, Joe will have to confront the difficult task of separating himself from the Obama presidency without seeming to repudiate the President’s policies. This could lead to some awkward policy statements (see Clinton on the Keystone pipeline!) from a candidate who is already well known for his verbal miscues that have made him a Youtube favorite.

Nor is it likely that Joe is going to siphon much support from Sanders’ progressive coalition. In short, a Biden candidacy will undoubtedly generate quite a bit of media coverage, much of it initially positive, from a grateful media corps, but there’s no evidence right now suggesting that he could beat Clinton. At best, the current evidence indicates a Biden candidacy might create the semblance of a competitive nomination fight and push back the timetable for Clinton to clinch the race. The question remains whether that prospect is enough to persuade him to enter the fray. The answer may depend on whether Joe is willing to relinquish his time in the political spotlight, or whether, like Frank Skeffington, he wants one more shot at center stage.  Will a presidential campaign be Joe’s Last Hurrah?