The Donkey in the Room: What Might Bernie’s Momentum Tell Us?
The outcomes of early primaries and caucuses expedite the winnowing phase of the presidential nomination process. Candidates who meet or defy expectations in these contests benefit from media momentum and the glimmers of electoral viability, while those who fail to impress often find themselves forced into a dark corner of irrelevance—a place where campaigns meet a quick but painful death. This year, Iowans determined the fate of Democratic hopeful Martin O’Malley, whose efforts to leap from the Maryland governor’s mansion to the White House failed to resonate among the hearts of voters and the wallets of donors. But what can we take away from the early demise of O’Malley, the continued victories of Bernie Sanders, and the struggles of Hillary Clinton thus far?
For one thing, perhaps we should no longer dismiss the appeal of Sanders. The visionary from the Senate has inspired a passion among progressives that has translated into concrete dollars and delegates, as the past two weeks have shown. Sanders raised $20 million in January alone in the form of mostly small donations, and an impressive $6.3 million within twenty-four hours of his New Hampshire landslide. States allocate Democratic delegates proportionally based on the percentage of the vote won by each candidate, making his near-victory in Iowa matter—at least, if he can generate similarly strong showings in states to come. The candidacy of then-underdog Obama took off in 2008 after his unexpected Iowa win, and a savvy delegate-getting strategy of targeting friendly enclaves within Clinton-allied states allowed him to ultimately triumph over the apparent colossus candidate.
Votes cast by pledged delegates at the Democratic National Convention depend on the ballots cast by ordinary citizens in state primaries and caucuses, but party insiders have a say in nomination outcomes as well. At this point in time, Clinton has a tremendous advantage (362-8) in terms of support from superdelegates—the 700+ elected officials and party leaders whose candidate allegiance can shift before the July convention voting. Since superdelegates switched their loyalty from Clinton to Obama back in 2008 once the latter proved viable, it is not entirely impossible for the same scenario to unfold for Sanders if his momentum continues—just highly unlikely.
The first contests of the primary season offered friendly terrain to Sanders, but demographic factors may stall him in states to come. In Iowa and New Hampshire alike, more than 90% of voters were white. A state like South Carolina, where black voters are expected to constitute up to 55% of the electorate, might yield starkly different results for Sanders, who is trailing significantly behind Clinton among non-white national survey respondents. National polls cannot tell us how either candidate might fare at the state-level, though, and short-term factors could always influence voters. Although Clinton has secured a crucial endorsement from the Congressional Black Caucus PAC, Sanders has sought to enhance his appeal among minority voters from the bottom up rather than from the top down, having recently released an ad featuring the story and support of Eric Garner’s daughter, for instance.
If demographic considerations remain unclear at this point in time, ideological factors and questions of demeanor seem more certain to hinder Sanders in the end, just as they have for previous candidates who struck similar chords of discontent among the public. Running for the Democratic nomination in 2004 as the anti-war candidate, Vermont governor Howard Dean served as the frontrunner for most of 2003, but his demise became apparent after poor performances in the early states. An unhinged moment from the candidate on the night of the Iowa caucuses went viral and reinforced perceptions that he was not presidential enough to warrant support, though the governor’s fate had in a sense already been predetermined.
Dean reflected on his 2004 loss this past month on a Huffington Post Candidate Confessional podcast, sharing, “People don’t want an insurgent as president. They love insurgents, because they’re always mad at the government, but at the end of the day, if you’re going to be president, you’ve got to look like one, and I could never bring myself to do that.” While the Dean campaign differs from Sanders’s in terms of organization, context, and vote-getting ability, it is hard not to imagine these same words resonating for the Vermont senator in months to come.
Establishment Democrats might not have initially rallied around Obama in 2008, just as they have failed to gravitate toward Sanders in 2016, but it is important to remember that the seventy-four year old democratic socialist, in more ways than one, is not the charismatic one-term senator from Illinois with a broadly appealing vision and the chance to make history as the first black president.
A telling indication of the differences between Sanders and Obama lies in an exit poll question asked in Iowa and New Hampshire in recent years: “Which one of these four candidate qualities mattered most in deciding whom to support today?” Back in 2008, those who chose viability in the general election as their motivating priority in Iowa voting were closely split between Clinton and Obama, with 30% opting for the former First Lady and 23% choosing the former community organizer. Contrastingly, of those who indicated the same answer in 2016, an overwhelming 77% voted for Clinton in Iowa, and a similar 79% opted for her in New Hampshire. Despite the fact that only a quarter of voters in each of these states ranked this candidate quality as most important this year, that proportion of voters will likely increase in the more moderate states to come.
Yet we must still keep in mind that Sanders is not the same as Howard Dean, either, given his continued success in the race in the absence of support from party insiders. As Dean’s former campaign manager explained recently, “Sanders, like Dean, is raising millions not from the establishment donors of the party but from small donors online. The party establishment can't stop that. We are seeing the same loss of control on the GOP side. It doesn't mean the establishments of the parties won't win, but it does mean they will no longer be able to stop every challenge.”
What Sanders’s early momentum might really tell us, then, is that a window did exist this primary season for an alternative to Clinton to prevail—even if Sanders cannot occupy that space in the long-run.
Mixed levels of support among progressives for eight years of Obama administration policies could be making it far more difficult than expected for the president’s clearest successor, former secretary of state Clinton, to persuade voters that she holds their best interests at heart. As was the case in 2008, perhaps a more viable challenger to Clinton could have had a decent shot at the Democratic nomination this year, had they chosen to enter the race. Or, perhaps the former governor who best embodied executive potential but never gained traction could have been this candidate. O’Malley could not stay in the race long enough to find out if his moment would come in 2016, given the fundraising difficulties that ended his campaign—maybe because of his message, maybe because of his gubernatorial record, or maybe because Sanders simply stole the spotlight that could have been his.
The possibilities remain unknown—as does the journey that lies ahead as the summer nears. For now, we are left to wait and wonder, and to see what the twists and turns of the primary calendar continue to bring us.
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