Feel The ‘Bern’

The Briefing, Vol. III, Issue 26

This week:

  • The unthinkable — can Bernie do it?
  • Sanders exciting for progressives, but looks like a general election dud
  • Challenges for Biden — a short timetable and invested Clinton donors

President 2016

What about Bernie? To most conservatives, Bernie Sanders doesn’t exactly seem like like presidential material. Intuitively, he shouldn’t pose that much of a threat to Hillary Clinton in a Democratic primary. But circumstances have changed significantly from when Clinton was on a walk to the nomination.

Clearly, Sanders’ campaign is where all of the energy is on the Left right now. He is drawing massive crowds – bigger than any other candidate and by a long way – and for the first time he is beginning to look like a real force in the polls.

His situation and Clinton’s are not unrelated to one another. He becomes more attractive as her electability becomes more doubtful. This is especially so as long as there is no viable third alternative in the race – which at the moment there just isn’t.

Clinton’s scandals have done a real number on her in the polls, both nationally and in the swing states. A local news poll of Michigan has her trailing Marco Rubio by 9 points – yes, Michigan. Various other state polls have shown her trailing Rubio and other GOP candidates in Florida, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. In one (perhaps dubious) North Carolina survey, she even trails Donald Trump, the only other candidate whose net unfavorability ratings are in the same ballpark.

And bear in mind when you see these polls that she isn’t the typical candidate, who can be expected to rise a bit when people learn more about her. Everyone knows Hillary Clinton, and their minds are pretty much made up one way or the other. Considering how far she is from 50 percent in most of these surveys, it is a mistake at this point to think of her as a general election frontrunner.

Not everyone realizes this yet. And she remains the frontrunner in the primary, even if by less than before. Panic has not yet overtaken the Democratic rank and file. Even some among the liberal elite remain confident. Chris Matthews was so bewildered by someone’s suggestion that she might drop out of the race that he actually said on air he would cancel his MSNBC show if it happened.

Even so, some Democratic elites are getting scared. If it hasn’t already reached the point where Republicans are the ones most eager to see her win the Democratic nomination, then that point is certainly nearing.

Assuming that Clinton stays in the race for now – a reasonable assumption – the alternatives are limited by the party’s bench, which is as weak as it has been in decades. It probably isn’t worth taking Al Gore or John Kerry too seriously at this point, even if their trial balloons are interesting or indicative of something. The Obama wing of the party is far more likely to embrace Joe Biden if it comes to that.

But what if Biden’s “perpetual trial balloon” is just hot air? Or what if he gets in? More on that below.

In the meantime, back to Bernie Sanders – the man who, if anyone can, could beat Clinton chiefly through grassroots enthusiasm and on a shoestring budget. The Democratic Party has moved perceptibly leftward in the Obama era. There are many left-wing Democrats out there who watched Obama’s rise and will not easily cede their party back to the Clinton family. This is where Sanders’ hopes lie.

Where does Sanders stand right now in the polls? He’s come a long way already without spending much more than it takes to send mailers and go places and talk to crowds. The latest nationwide FOX News poll has him down by only 19 points – 49 percent for Clinton to 30 for Sanders. But interestingly, Sanders leads among white Democrats (43 to 37 percent) and among male Democrats (41 to 38 percent). Sanders can build on these strengths, although he remains weak with black voters – Clinton takes 65 percent among blacks, and the potential exists for a sharply racially divided primary.

In New Hampshire, a recent Boston Herald poll actually gave Sanders a seven-point lead. Back in March, the same poll gave Clinton a 36-point lead over Sanders. (There is a chance that Sanders could be denied a place on the Granite State primary ballot, but any attempt to sink him this way would surely backfire on Clinton.)

In Iowa, the latest CNN poll, conducted August 7 to 11, has 50 percent for Clinton, 31 percent for Sanders. But again, look to the crosstabs: Democratic men only prefer Clinton by one point, 38 to 37 percent. (Iowa is too overwhelmingly white to get a sufficient polling sample for non-white caucus-goers.) To whatever extent Clinton’s female support (at 58 percent) is based solely on her sex and the opportunity to elect the first female president, she might find it shallow and fickle as her troubles deepen and Sanders becomes better-known.

The Iowa caucuses are worth a special mention here, as they help explain why Iowa is just the sort of state where a candidate like Sanders (like Obama before him) can outperform expectations and even win. Participation in the caucus is far less convenient and far more difficult than voting in a primary. Unlike in primaries, participants must show up at a particular point in the day. With the rules of the Democratic caucus especially, they can expect to spend their entire evening there – two hours or more, depending on how many viable candidates there are. This requires a lot of dedication that the average voter lacks, which magnifies the advantage of candidates whose voters are especially passionate.

Sanders would probably have to win both Iowa and New Hampshire in order to succeed, because he is sure to lose in South Carolina, where black Democrats could well cast a majority of the votes and Clinton is (for now) a heavy favorite.

The bottom line: Clinton will face a very tough slog in the primary, even if Biden does not enter the race. If he does, it obviously changes the equation.

And Sanders? In a general election, there’s not much to say except that he’d be doomed. He is simply too far to the left for America, especially given that he lacks the unique qualities (not just skin color, but also youth and novelty) that helped Barack Obama in 2008. There is every reason to believe that he will not outperform the high-30s-to-low-40s general election poll numbers that he posts in most places. He trails every candidate except Donald Trump in every recent swing state poll, and in many cases he trails by double digits.

A Sanders nomination remains unlikely, but Republicans would probably welcome the opportunity to compete against him.

Biden: The clearest sign that Vice President Joe Biden is serious and will actually run was the obviously Joe Biden 2planted leak of his meeting with Elizabeth Warren at his official residence on Saturday. The meeting was clearly designed to keep the trial balloon floating – and maybe it was even a legitimate meeting about his candidacy. Of course, it had the desired effect even if all they discussed was the Boston Red Sox.

Recall that Biden – per the book Double Down – was busted by Obama’s political team scheming and meeting with potential donors during the 2012 election cycle to talk about 2016, even though President Obama’s re-election was by no means a sure thing. (They were not happy about it.)

So the will is clearly there, and has been there. But is there a way at this point?

The answer would surely be no if not for Obama’s (at this point still tacit) support. But even with that in hand, it isn’t easy to scrape together a presidential campaign starting just a few months before the Iowa caucuses. It’s not common for successfully candidates to wait much later than this. Al Gore and George W. Bush both announced much earlier. John Kerry waited until Sept. 2, 2003 to announce his bid, but even so his exploratory committee had been up and running for nearly a year by then. Barack Obama announced in February 2007.

You have to go all the way back to Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 bid to find a nominee who waited until October of the year before to announce– and that occurred under very different circumstances than the ones that now prevail. (Iowa was uncontested that year, the New Hampshire primary was a few weeks later than it will be this year, and there was no 800-lb. gorilla Democratic frontrunner for him to upend or chase out of the race.)

Biden has reportedly been making some preparations in secret – just in case. But Clinton’s current precarious state is a relatively new development. Assuming (pretty safely) that the window is open for Biden to begin this process in earnest, it has not been open for very long.

One challenge for Biden is that things might have to get a lot worse for Clinton before her backers will simply drop her and change allegiances. They are heavily invested, having given her $45 million in primary money as of June 30 and probably that much again in the time since. They’d really have to be convinced to write off $90 million — although at the rate her scandal and poor response have been moving, that should not be considered impossible.