How Much Should BlackLivesMatter to Bernie?

By now, most of you have heard of the recent effort by members of the BlackLivesMatter (BLM) movement to disrupt a Bernie Sanders’ campaign event in Seattle. For those of you still caught up in Deflategate, here’s a video of the interruption – jump ahead to the 2:40 minute mark to see the point at which the protesters walk on stage which, eventually, prompts Bernie to leave.

This disruption follows on the heels of last month’s confrontation at Netroots Nation between the BLM activists and the more economically-oriented progressives that are the core constituency in the Sanders camp. The ongoing disruptions have attracted more than their fair share of media coverage as journalists try to gauge the implications of this apparent split in the progressive wing of the Democratic party for the Sanders presidential campaign. In responding to journalists who have asked me about this, I have tried to make two points. First, to a certain extent Sanders is a victim of his own success, a point Clare Foran addresses in her National Journal piece on Bernie. The decision by the participants in the BLM movement to target Bernie’s campaign events are surely influenced by the tremendous crowds he has been attracting in recent days – crowds that are predominantly composed of Bernie’s core constituency: educated, affluent white liberals whose views the BLM movement is targeting. As Bernie gains more media attention, the payoffs to the BLM crowd for disrupting these events becomes proportional bigger.

My second point is that we should not be surprised that Bernie and his supporters are, to a certain extent, somewhat miffed about the BLM disruptions and, in part because of this, were somewhat slow to react in a positive manner. As Colin Daileda notes in this Mashable piece, members of the BLM movement aren’t necessarily Bernie’s natural allies – something that I suspect initially puzzled Sanders, particularly given his civil rights record. From Bernie’s perspective, the types of issues that he has championed, from repealing Citizens United to raising the minimum wage to pushing for single-payer health care system are precisely the issues that, if implemented, would disproportionally help lower-income voters, particular African-Americans who are suffering from among the highest unemployment rates of any voting bloc. How useful can it be to disrupt the campaign events of the one candidate who is doing the most to advocate on your behalf?

For those in the BLM movement, however, Bernie’s focus on economic issues does not address the racial justice concerns that are of particular importance to the leading activists in this movement.  As Van Jones, a former White House adviser to President Obama, argues in a particularly scathing criticism of the Sanders’ campaign, “Our economic problems include an unemployment rate that is double that of whites, racially biased policing and court systems, predatory lenders who deliberately target black neighborhoods and public schools that expel black children at staggering rates for minor offenses.” For the BLM movement, these issues of racial justice are different from and transcend what they see as the Sanders’ campaign more narrow focus on economic inequality.

To his credit, after walking off the stage in Seattle, Bernie has made a pointed effort to find common ground with the BLM activists, with issues of racial justice now figuring prominently in his speeches, and on his social media sites. But, as this Charles Blow opinion piece indicates, there likely are limits to how far either side is willing to go to accommodate the concerns of the other. This should not surprise us. Movements like Bernie’s economic populism and BLM tend to attract ideologues who are convinced they are advocating for the most important issue facing the country right now. While it might seem practical for activists in the economic and racial justice camps to join forces in a broader progressive movement, that is anathema to the true believers in each movement who are wedded to the sanctity of their particular cause. With apologies to Barry Goldwater, purists on both sides of the divide believe that “Moderation in the recognition of the other guys’ issue is no virtue; extremism in the defense of our issue is no vice.”

So where does this leave Bernie? The Sanders’ campaign is struggling to broaden its appeal beyond the aging hipsters, college students and left-wing professors to attract support from more moderate and conservative Democratic voters that right now are supporting Clinton and who typically constitute about half the Democratic nomination electorate. It’s not clear how having to respond to disruptions from BLM movement is going to help Sanders accomplish this goal if the effect is to highlight views not shared by those more moderate Democrats. On the other hand, as I have noted repeatedly, Sanders is going to need to attract some support from minority voters if he hopes to compete with Clinton outside of Iowa and New Hampshire. To date, however, Clinton continues to hold a commanding lead in the polls among nonwhite likely Democratic voters. The key for Sanders, then, is to effectively fuse his message of economic justice with the BLM’s concern for racial justice in a manner that appeals to more moderate Democrats as well as racial minorities. But this is easier said than done, particularly when issue activists in both camps express reluctance to subsume their own views on behalf of a broader cause. In this vein, it’s worth remembering that those $50 campaign contributions the Sanders’ camp is proud of citing aren’t coming from Joe and Jane Sixpack – they are flowing in from ideological purists who expect Bernie to spread the gospel of economic progressivism. And they want to get what they paid for.

Meanwhile, I expect Sanders to continue to “shamelessly pander to voters who want to hear the truth”, as “political strategist” Harland Dorrinson reminds us (hat tip to Shelly Sloan for sending this piece by humorist Andy Borowitz* along!):

“Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is gaining legions of new admirers by shamelessly pandering to voters who want to hear the truth, critics of the Vermont senator say.

According to those critics, Sanders has cynically targeted so-called ‘truth-based voters’ to build support for his Presidential bid.

‘People come to Sanders’s rallies expecting to hear the truth, and he serves it up to them on a silver platter,’ the political strategist Harland Dorrinson said. ‘It’s a very calculated gimmick.’

But while Sanders’s practice of relentlessly telling the truth might play well in states that are rich in truth-based voters, like the early primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire, critics say that his campaign could stall in states where the truth has historically been less important, like Florida.

‘At some point in this campaign, voters are going to get truth fatigue,’ Dorrinson said. ‘Right now, the novelty of a politician who doesn’t constantly spew lies is grabbing headlines. But after months of Bernie Sanders telling the truth, voters are going to start wondering, Is that all he’s got?’

Dorrinson is just one of many critics who is eagerly waiting for the Sanders phenomenon to come down to Earth. ‘Telling the truth may be working for Bernie Sanders, but it shows a serious lack of respect for the American political system,’ he said.”

Because, as we all know:

*My apologies for not linking to the Borowitz piece in my original post, and thanks to those who pointed this out.

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.