There IS Something About Bernie – He’s Losing

As I’ve noted repeatedly in several posts during the current election cycle, the media loves them a horserace, and they are not above fabricating one if necessary to attract readership. This is particularly true when the clear front-runner is yesterday’s news – as is the case with Hillary Clinton. In newsrooms across the nation, nothing provokes more concern than the specter of writing stories month-after-month about how Clinton is crushing the competition. To forestall this, we’ve seen two narratives take root in the popular press this past week. The first is that Clinton’s support is softening. As evidence, journalists are citing the rise in her unfavorability ratings, as captured in this Gallup poll:

As the graph shows, Hillary’s favorable ratings have plummeted from the high 60% to the low 40%, while her unfavorable ratings have inched back up to where they were before she became Secretary of State.  Of course, no one expected Clinton to maintain those high ratings as she transitioned from Secretary of State to presidential candidate, but still…. . Similar stories are told in Iowa and New Hampshire, where Clinton’s favorables/unfavorables are also underwater.  Why is this bad news? Because, as Chris Cillizza reminds us, “Presidential politics tends to be dominated by personality and how people perceive their candidate choices.” The plain fact is that Clinton is not very likable.

Then there is the ongoing email saga. In the most recent development, the inspector general of the intelligence community found that some of the emails provided by Clinton included classified information, although there is some dispute regarding whether those items were classified at the time Clinton sent the emails. No matter – this latest tidbit fits nicely into the prevailing media narrative that the Clintons can’t be trusted because they see themselves as above the law. As a result, we have a spurt of recent news stories with headlines like “Is Clinton’s Tide Shifting?”,  “Worrying Numbers for Clinton In Last Week of Polling” and “Four Poll Numbers That Should Unnerve Hillary Clinton”.

To be fair, all these articles are laced with the usual caveats about how Clinton is still ahead in the polls, etc., but the undeniable message is the same: the Democratic race for the presidential nomination is closer than that it should be – and it could very well tighten some more. Of course, it takes two candidates to make a horserace. This is where Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders comes in. As Clinton’s political stock falls, at least in the prevailing media narrative, if not among voters, his goes up, the better to sustain the horserace narrative. In a fawning Atlantic piece that came out today Molly Ball gushes, “There’s something about Bernie.” She notes his huge crowds, his ability to draw campaign donations (in small bills!) despite not holding fundraisers and, not least, the fact that he possesses something Clinton does not: “An ideology.”

Her conclusion? “In the biggest surprise of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, this thoroughly implausible man, Bernie Sanders, is a sensation.” Yes, midway through the article Ball includes the usual hedges – Clinton is still leading in the polls, Bernie’s a longshot – but then there’s this: “Every Sanders crowd is full of die-hards like Bailey [a Bernie-supporter Ball interviewed], passionately committed to their unlikely hero. Every Clinton crowd, on the other hand, is full of lukewarm rank-and-file Democrats who will not hesitate to tell you they have some qualms about supporting her.” Ouch! To those on the Left, particularly those disappointed in what they see as Obama’s lukewarm embrace of progressive ideas, Bernie is a man whose time has come. As my colleague Bert Johnson points out, if you look at Bernie’s stump speeches from the early 1990’s you will find them interchangeable with what he is saying now about corporate power and economic inequality. What has changed is that Bernie’s message has now found a willing audience. Or so the prevailing media narrative would have one believe.

The problem with both these narratives is that they run up against stubborn facts. One is that candidate likability, Cillizza’s pronouncement notwithstanding, isn’t a very important influence on the vote, a point I’ve made multiple times before. Favorable/unfavorable ratings may be slight more indicative, but as Brendan Nyhan points out (see the chart above), her “favorable/unfavorable ratings at the national level have not changed as drastically as the coverage suggests. They averaged 47 percent favorable/45 percent unfavorable in January and are at 44 percent favorable/48 percent unfavorable now — a relatively modest shift given the onslaught of negative coverage” she has received of late.

Moreover, if you unpack the trajectory of Clinton’s favorable/unfavorable ratings, you will see that her rising negatives are almost entirely rooted among Republicans and independents. Among Democrats she is both better known and viewed more favorably than any other Democratic candidate, including Sanders.

On the other side of the narrative, Sanders may be a “sensation”, but he continues to trail Clinton in both Iowa and New Hampshire according to the polls – and these are the two states that seem demographically among the most favorably disposed toward him. (In a transparent bid to lower expectations, the Clinton campaign is openly suggesting Bernie could win both states.)  Once the campaign moves south, particularly on Super Tuesday, Bernie is going to be traversing decidedly less favorable terrain. As this chart from RealClearPolitics shows, many of the delegate-rich Super Tuesday primaries will be held in the South, in states with heavy African-American or Hispanic populations.  As I’ve discussed elsewhere, Bernie has, so far, elicited less-than-robust polling support among nonwhites.

Before my twitter and blog feed is inundated with negative comments from the #feelthebern crowd, let me remind my readers that I’m analyzing where the candidates stand right now, and not expressing a political preference regarding an outcome. As a longtime Bernie-watcher, I’m thoroughly enjoying his time, however brief, on the national stage, and I sincerely hope his run lasts beyond Iowa and New Hampshire if for no other reason than to see Bernie scowl one more time at another inane horserace question from Chuck Todd. Bernie is raising important issues – including concerns about the intersection of race and income inequality – that need to be discussed at the national level. But it is also the case that his “surge” in the polls is much more about pollsters dropping Elizabeth Warren’s name from their list of potential candidates as it is any discernible shift in support away from Clinton. It fits the media horserace narrative to speculate about the possibility, however improbable, that Clinton will stumble and Sanders will step in to steal the nomination.  As of today, however, the facts say that is not going to happen.  Bernie trails Clinton in all the important indicators; national polls, early state polls, fundraising and party endorsements.

Is there something about Bernie? Yes. Right now, he’s losing.


  1. Man From – Thanks for the comment. Several people have emailed me making the same point. At this time in 2007 Clinton led Obama in the RealClearPolitics aggregate poll by just less than 13%: 38.3-25.7. Today, she leads Bernie by 40%: 57.5%-17.5. Keep the faith, but don’t ignore the fact that 2016 is not 2008 and Bernie is not Obama. Sure, it’s early – Clinton might still get caught in a scandal. But I don’t premise analyses based on non-predictable events. So, don’t shoot the messenger!

  2. An early Clinton supporter…and still a possible/probable supporter……if Hillary continues to NOT say YES or No re the West gas pipe line (she got hammered in the Times today….by her fans!!) she WILL LOSE…..her attempt to hide behind this and that is exactly what Trump is all about…tell us what you think/believe……..Hillary is starting to look like and sound like good old Bob Dole and we all know what happened to Bob Dole.

  3. ” But I don’t premise analyses based on non-predictable events. ”

    Isn’t that exactly what you’re doing? It is still way, way too early to make any kind of definitive statement about who will win as anything could happen.

  4. Sanjuro,

    You are right that polling this early is not nearly as reliable as some would have you believe. And, like most political science research, my assessments are probability-based. It is true, as you claim, that “anything could happen.” But some outcomes are more probable than others. Based on what we know of state demographics, Hillary’s past electoral record, likely voting blocs, indicators of electoral success including money raised, and endorsements – I am confident in saying that Bernie is behind Clinton and that there is no reason to think as of today that he will catch up. However, that does not preclude the possibility of a singular event – say a sudden widening of the Clinton email scandal – changing the political context in Bernie’s favor. But this would be a singular event, the likelihood of which is nearly impossible to predict.

  5. Bruce – Just to be clear, my assessment of Hillary’s chances pertains to her nomination fight against Bernie – not to the general election! All the early signs indicate she’s going to have a fight on her hands against almost any one of the Republican candidates.

  6. If you check out FiveThirtyEight’s fun endorsement calculator the difference between Bernie and Hillary is pretty striking, Hillary has already racked up dozens of current governors, senators, and house members. Bernie has, well none. Indeed on the Democratic side the the runner up in the invisible primary is…Martin O’Malley! Bernie may have a lot of media coverage and a passionate base of activists, but huge swaths of the Democratic coalition have already written him off and gotten on the Hillarytrain:

  7. Longwalk: I didn’t cite the specific numbers of endorsements for both Clinton and Sanders, but probably should have. Thanks for pointing out the disparity for me. Sides and Vavreck have been good at updating the endorsement data as well.

  8. Meh. It’s still far too early in the game to predict an outcome. Bernie has a far better track record on Civil Rights, against racism, and for the Latino community. He has plenty of time to make inroads to make Super Tuesday competitive.

  9. The key phrase being, “right now.” It’s an uphill battle, to be sure, but nobody thought it would be easy.

  10. Here is a link from July 2007 showing that after three debates, Obama was at 22% and HRC at 54%. We have had no debates this time for the Democratic Party candidates and Bernie’s not as well known as Obama was, especially with Obama’s machine and his prominent speech in 2004 and later victory as Senator from a relatively major state, Illinois, with Chicago of course being one of the top cities in the US.

  11. Hi Mitchell,

    Generally speaking it is a good rule of thumb to rely on polling aggregation, rather than any single poll, in assessing public opinion at any particular time. This strategy tends to reduce the impact of polling outliers and give a more reliable polling picture. Thus my reference to Clinton’s smaller margin over Obama in my post. But your broader point – one made by others as well – that it is still very early in the race and that Sanders is not well known among a good deal of the electorate is certainly valid.

  12. “As my colleague Bert Johnson points out, if you look at Bernie’s stump speeches from the early 1990’s you will find them interchangeable with what he is saying now about corporate power and economic inequality. What has changed is that Bernie’s message has now found a willing audience. Or so the prevailing media narrative would have one believe.”

    Comment: What has changed is that Bernie’s stump speeches from the early 1990’s have come to fruition. Hence the willing audience.

    “The problem with both these narratives is that they run up against stubborn facts.”

    Comment: Fact today, fiction tomorrow. That is the nature of dynamic elections. Articles like this are more likely to ensure that Bernie doesn’t advance, IMHO. If we want to break the broken political mold, as far as I’m concerned Bernie is the best candidate.

  13. Hi Bella,

    Thanks for the comment. As previous commenters have noted, it is early in the campaign cycle, and it may be that Bernie’s support will pick up as more people hear his message which, as you note, is probably a bit more relevant today in the aftermath of an economic recession and a very slow, and uneven, recovery. As I’m sure you can appreciate, however, my job is not to enhance (or retard) Bernie’s chances, but instead simply to interpret the data as of today in the context of what political scientists think they know about presidential elections. And while I appreciate your concern that in so doing I may be hurting his chances, I suspect that my post will have almost no impact on whether someone does or does not support Bernie. After all, it didn’t impact your decision, did it?

  14. Thank you for the reply. If we have any hope for lessening the certain impacts of human caused climate change, it seems to me it is with a radical attack on the corporate/military control of the nation. Bernie is the only one who appears to be speaking the truth and willing to reveal the man behind the curtain. Fifteen years from now, it will likely be so warm with weather extremes that life for humans will likely be tenuous.

    That is what we need to talk about since nothing else will really matter. Think tanks, media, universities -everyone – should make that the decision criteria for any policy, economic or political decision. Even at the expense of jobs because without life on the planet, there won’t be jobs.

    I don’t see Trump or Clinton going far enough to move edge the nation in that direction. Bernie is. I’m 53 so have less to ‘lose’ personally than younger people. My greatest heart break is for other animal species on earth caught in the human destructive path – cruel testing labs, on our plates, in our factories, warehouses, sexually assaulted, over harvested, poisoned with chemicals and our diseases, used as bait for other animals, shot from a remote website hooked up to a gun, and now, complete destruction of their habitat.

    Everyone should have skin in this game and throw of the mantle of ‘science’ and ‘objectivity’. Your statistical analyses and review of poll numbers could certainly be prefaced with some analysis of where each candidate stands on this crucial issue since your personal and institutional survival depends on it.

    Your article is important. Every article is. We all need to get real and change the discourse and the rules of discourse.

    Thank you for responding to me and for posting my comment. We are suffering from unbearable and abnormal heat here. In June, our rainforest was on fire. Our salmon are dying in the streams because the water is so hot.

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