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?


The Case For Bernie: He Will Beat Trump!

Our local (and much beloved) public radio station VPR just posted a story on its website trumpeting a recent Quinnipiac poll that shows Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders beating Donald Trump 45%-37%.  The poll, according to the author, indicates that Sanders is “gaining ground in his presidential campaign.” As evidence, the story quotes Tim Malloy, assistant director of the university’s polling center, who observes that Sanders “is coming up in the world. He’s got the attention of a lot of people. And he’s got the attention of a lot of young people. ” Not surprisingly, the finding that Sanders would defeat Trump in a head-to-head matchup got more than a little favorable play in the twitterverse among Bernie’s supporters.  Berniementum lives!

The problem, of course, is that the poll does not indicate Bernie is gaining ground on Hillary. As the VPR report notes very early in the story, the Quinnipiac poll shows Hillary Clinton with a decided advantage over Bernie among Democrats nationwide (including Democratic leaners), leading him by 55%-17%. This is virtually unchanged from the last Quinnipiac poll released two months ago, which had Clinton beating Sanders 57%-15%. Rather than gaining ground, Sanders is at best holding his own, and this despite the rather substantial negative news coverage Clinton has endured during this period. Even among the most liberal Democrats, his natural constituency who constitute about 11% of Democrats polled by Quinnipiac, Sanders still loses to Clinton by 46%-31%. He does worse among moderate and conservative Democrats.   Moreover, she does better than Sanders against Trump – and against Jeb Bush and Scott Walker too, both of whom would beat Sanders according to the Quinnipiac poll.

My point here is not to declare the race for the Democratic nomination over.  As I noted in my response to a couple of commentators yesterday, polls this early are subject to change. More than one of you pointed out (see comments) that Clinton was leading Obama in national polls at this point in the race back at a comparable point in 2007. (For what it is worth, she was up on Obama in the RealClearPolitics aggregate poll by less than 13%, at 38%-25.8% on July 31, 2007. As of today, Clinton is ahead of Bernie by about 40%, 58%-18.2%.)

It is true that at this point, Bernie is an unknown quantity for most Americans. It is possible that as he gains exposure, and his message becomes more widely disseminated, he will actually gain ground on Hillary. Locally, Bernie supporters remain convinced that this is what will occur. As Middlebury College student Lizzie Weiss put it in her story on Bernie that came out in the local Addison Independent yesterday, “Yet while Americans from Brooklyn, N.Y., to the Bay Area of California begin to rally behind Sanders and political pundits grapple with his campaign, there is a sense here, in his home state, that the rest of the country is just now beginning to learn what Vermonters have already long understood.”
His strongest supporters, then, are convinced that in time Bernie’s message will begin resonating with a growing segment of the American public. As evidence of his grass-roots support, they point to the roughly 100,000 Bernie supporters who turned out in a series of “house parties” at some 3,000 locations on Wednesday night.  (This article gives a sense of what went on at a typical house party.)

In the meantime, they are not averse to criticizing anyone who might question the reality of #berniementum, as a sampling of these twitter and other online comments responding to yesterday’s post indicates:

“[–]VerySeriousBananaTennessee 9 points 3 hours ago
Yeah, you would expect a challenger to be losing for a while against a much higher in the polls frontrunner early in the campaign. Change doesn’t happen overnight… Plus, most of the Super Tuesday states the misguided author highlighted actually are some of the most Hillary-hating areas of the country, lol.”

And this:
“[–]vegetablesoup007 [score hidden] 1 hour ago
Yeah, but he’s losing less and less all the time….”

And my current favorite:
“Svetislav Meandzija ‏@Cokan2015 50m50 minutes ago
@MattDickinson44 @BernieSanders it’s always funny when a looser calls someone a looser”

You get the picture. I may be a “looser”, however, at the risk of repeating myself (and fully understanding that it won’t mollify the true-blue Bernie tie-diehards) I’m not taking sides in this fight. What I am doing is taking issue with efforts by the national media in particular to create the semblance of a horserace for the Democratic nomination where – as of today – none really exists. (I’m giving the local media outlets a pass, since they are publishing in the heart of Bernie country.) That may change. Rest assured that when I see evidence that it does I’ll be the first to blog about it. In the meantime, I hope all you ardent Sanders’ supporters continue to #feelthebern! Alas, in my role as non-partisan blogger (it says so right in the title of my blog!) I’m wearing SPF 50+ SunBern blocker, so I can’t feel anything. Which may be too bad, since it appears to be doing wonders for Bernie: