Bernie just might pull this off: What the latest poll numbers really mean

While the media fixates on Trump's every utterance, the Vermont senator has pulled neck and neck with Hillary

Published December 16, 2015 8:00AM (EST)

  (AP/Charlie Neibergall)
(AP/Charlie Neibergall)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

AlterNet With the mainstream media fixated on Donald Trump and the GOP’s gyrations over his widening lead, it’s easy to overlook the fact that the Democratic race has become a tightening contest between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.

The Des Moines Register and Bloomberg Politics' latest detailed poll tracing that contest showed both Clinton and Sanders were strong candidates with much that appeals to the state’s liberal Democratic base. Overall, Clinton has the support of 49 percent of Caucus-goers compared to 39 percent for Sanders. Only 4 percent back Martin O’Malley.

Not surprisingly, Vice President Joe Biden’s backers have mostly lined up with Clinton, the poll found. Twelve percent of caucus-goers picked him as their first choice before he dropped out of the race. Analysts, including David Axelrod, who led President Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, said Iowa was Clinton’s to lose—but would come down to caucus night turnout. Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ campaign manager, agreed in a statement.

“With big leads among young people and voters who would be first-time caucus-goers, our job is to do all that we can to make certain that voter turnout is high among less traditional voters,” Weaver said. “Clearly we have also got to make certain that seniors in Iowa understand that no one in Congress has fought harder to defend Social Security and Medicare, and as president Bernie will take on the pharmaceutical industry.”

Weaver’s comments are telling because they are partly aimed at seniors, a group the poll said were lining up for Clinton. “Clinton draws support from 64 percent of those 65 or older, while Sanders draws support from 58 percent of those younger than 45,” they report, adding that her candidacy means a lot to women. “Clinton also leads by sizable margins with women (54 percent to 35 percent) and the highest income group, earning $100,000 or more (55 percent to 30 percent).”

But there’s a big silver lining in the Register-Bloomberg poll for Sanders because overall he is seen as positively as Clinton. She has an 82 percent rating and he has an 80 percent rating. Obama has an 87 percent rating—which reveals Iowa Democrats are fairly liberal.

Where the poll gets more intriguing is identifying their relative strengths and weaknesses. Sanders is stronger that Clinton on: “will do the most to rein in the power of Wall Street” (57 percent); “will fight the hardest for the middle class” (56 percent); “is most honest and trustworthy” (52 percent); and “cares most about people like you” (49 percent). His theme of “breaking up the large Wall Street banks” remains very popular, backed by 78 percent. Another 62 percent backed Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran; 61 percent support legalizing marijuana; and 53 percent support “a single-payer health care plan.”

Clinton is stronger than Sanders on: “can best combat Islamic terrorism” (60 percent); “has most appropriate life experience to be president” (60 percent); “would be best at dealing with Vladimir Putin” (56 percent); “knows most about how to get things done” (56 percent); would make best commander in chief (55 percent); “would be best at managing the economy” (51 percent); “has best temperament to be president” (49 percent); “would work most effectively with Congress” (45 percent); and “has best stance on gun control” (36 percent).

Other Sanders campaign themes, such as raising the top income tax rate to more than 50 percent, did not have majority support. Only 43 percent liked that idea. Only 34 percent opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement and more recent Pacific rim deal. On the other hand, only 23 percent agreed with the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, which Clinton voted for as a U.S. senator from New York.

The Register’s analysts, including Axelrod, who helped Obama win a come-from-behind victory against Clinton in 2008, said Sanders needs to win in Iowa and his neighboring state of New Hampshire to create the momentum to challenge Clinton in the states that follow. However, Axelrod also said that Clinton, as former Secretary of State, is benefiting the most from “voters’ growing concerns about international problems, including the rise of ISIS terrorists.”

Sanders now leads Clinton in New Hampshire by 5 percent. Pollsters at the University of New Hampshire said in a policy brief issued Monday that the state's Democrats were very similar to those in Iowa with "liberals outnumbering moderates/conservatives. ... Given these data, one could speculate that for Democrats, a victory in Iowa for either Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton could give the winner a boost in New Hampshire."

Shifting Terrain, Shifting Dynamics

There will be a series of other important polls to look for this week as the presidential campaign moves into a higher, more closely scrutinized orbit. On the GOP side, there have been early contest state polls (Iowa) and nationalpolls putting Trump and Ted Cruz at the top. Apart from the horse-race aspect of the contest, it appears that the Paris and San Bernardino attacks have caused the voters to shift from economic issues to security concerns.

On the Democratic side, at least one Iowa poll (Quinnipiac University) and one national poll (Monmouth University) are due to be released this week. Patrick Murray, spokesman for the Monmouth polls, said Monday that nationally, Democrats are mostly concerned with economic and domestic issues. What he will be looking for, among other things, is evidence that Democrats are making up their minds on Clinton versus Sanders.

He also said that voters who self-identify as independents tend to be former Republicans, and most of them are lining up behind Trump. “What they like about Trump is he is the quintessential anti-establishment guy; he makes the Republican leadership squirm.”

In other words, Sanders is not seen as the most radical presidential contender by any means. His support is solid and positive among the party’s base. Whether it will be enough to beat Clinton remains an open question.

By Steven Rosenfeld

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, the American Prospect, and many others.

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Alternet Bernie Sanders Des Moines Hillary Clinton Iowa New Hampshire