Hillary vs. Bernie just got very interesting: How the Dem primary went from an afterthought to a grudge match overnight

Hillary was supposed to be a sure thing, the only Dem who was certain to beat a Republican. A lot has changed

By Conor Lynch
Published January 13, 2016 10:57AM (EST)
  (Reuters/Mary Schwalm/Brian Snyder/Photo montage by Salon)
(Reuters/Mary Schwalm/Brian Snyder/Photo montage by Salon)

After rocketing onto the national stage in the summer and climbing steadily in the polls, Sen. Bernie Sanders’ numbers remained largely stagnant during the final months of 2015, at about 25 points on average behind the front-runner, Hillary Clinton. For a while, it seemed as though the Sanders phenomenon had cooled; and that, while the Vermont senator would certainly make the Democratic primaries more interesting, and had done something special in bringing “democratic socialism” into the mainstream, Clinton had little to worry about.

Then, with a comfortable and steady lead in the polls, the Clinton camp became somewhat complacent, and began moving back to the political center, after putting on a show of pragmatic populism during the summer. And not for no reason: She and GOP front-runner, Donald Trump, are neck and neck in most general polls. Thus, with Sanders' primary numbers at a standstill, Clinton once again became the “inevitable” Democratic nominee, and began positioning herself for the general election.

As the new year kicks into gear, however, recent polls show that the Sanders phenomenon is not quite over yet. According to new NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist College coordinated polls, Sanders and Clinton are neck and neck in both Iowa and New Hampshire.

But that's not the worst of it for Clinton. Per the New York Times:

A survey from Quinnipiac University found that 49 percent of likely Democratic caucusgoers in Iowa are planning to back Mr. Sanders while 44 percent support Mrs. Clinton. The results represent a shift from a month ago, when the former secretary of state was leading Mr. Sanders by 11 percentage points. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus four percentage points.

[...] A separate survey from Monmouth University, released on Tuesday, shows Mr. Sanders leading Mrs. Clinton by a margin of 53 percent to 39 percent. The poll has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus five percentage points.

When shifting over to national polls for the Democratic primary, a similar story presents itself. 

Suddenly, the inevitability argument is not so convincing. If Sanders was to pick up both Iowa and New Hampshire, the entire race could open up for him. Clinton’s dismal favorability ratings, particularly among independents, as well as her vulnerability against leading GOP candidates, does quite a bit of damage to such a case. And don't forget that this has long been probably the most persuasive argument for Clinton when it comes to winning over  progressives. As Doug Henwood writes in his sharp anti-Clinton polemic, "My Turn":

“The case for Hillary boils down to this: she has experience, she’s a woman, and it’s her turn. Even ardent supporters seem to have a hard time making substantive political argument in her favor.”

She is the lesser of two evils, and Sanders, who is a fringe “democratic socialist,” wouldn’t stand a chance against a Republican -- even Donald Trump, who has the most atrocious favorability rating of all the candidates. This is the standard argument.

recent ad from the Clinton camp says as much openly: “Think about it. One of these Republicans could actually be president,” asserts a grave voice over footage of Republican candidates. “Enacting their agenda. They’re backward, even dangerous. So ask yourself, who's the candidate who can stop them? Hillary Clinton. Tested and tough. To stop them, stand with her.”

Sanders responded to this claim with actual numbers. “My opponent says this is an important issue; she is the person who can win the general election,” he said. “I respectfully disagree. Look at which candidate is doing better against Donald Trump. Look at the last national poll and you find that Bernie Sanders is beating Donald Trump by 13 points, Hillary Clinton by 7 points.”

True, general election polls are notoriously unreliable this far out. (Although 2012’s election polls were very accurate one year before, with an absolute error of just 1 percentage point.) But to say that only Clinton can take on a Republican is, at this point, nothing more than establishment propaganda. There are many reasons to believe that Sanders would have a better shot at stopping Republicans, even if conventional wisdom would suggest otherwise. Beyond his performance in the polls, he also has the best favorability rating among all candidates, according to the most recent national Quinnipiac poll. The same survey found that Clinton has a lower trust rating than Donald Trump, at 59 percent to 35 percent “not honest and trustworthy.” Sanders, on the other hand, had the highest trustworthy rating in Quinnipiac’s previous national poll, at 59 percent to 28 percent trustworthy.

If Sanders were to get the Democratic nomination, we can be sure that a smear campaign focusing on his “socialist” background would permeate the airwaves, and corporate America would go on a spending spree to stop him. However, in American politics, individual personalities have become just as important, if not more important, than actual policy. In a clever HuffPost/YouGov poll done back in September, it was found that many American’s policy opinions depend largely on the politician endorsing them. (For example, Republicans were much more likely to support Obama’s policies when they were told Donald Trump supported them.) And the general population -- particularly independents -- has a positive view of Sanders.

As Sanders’ pollster, Ben Tulchin writes:

“Sanders enjoys the most positive profile of any 2016 contender and would begin a fall campaign with room to grow.”

Furthermore, Clinton is one of the most polarizing figures in politics, for reasons both reasonable and not. Her close ties to Wall Street and corporate America, the email scandal, the Clinton Foundation, her support of the Iraq War -- all of these things, which have played out on a national stage over the course of the past two decades, result in a figure far more divisive than her Vermont rival.

Now, I wouldn’t want to leave the impression that if Sanders did become president, the establishment wouldn’t steamroll him. They most certainly would. The idea that one person, elected to the highest office of the land, could single-handily transform the political system from above is nonsense, and the Obama administration is all the proof you need. This is what makes Sanders call for a “political revolution” from the grass-roots level so important. After decades in Washington, he understands the sheer influence of special interests and the tribalism of party politics. Without a mass movement demanding change, Washington will remain corrupt and isolated from the concerns of average Americans.

Electing Bernie Sanders would go a long way toward transformative change. An avowed democratic socialist becoming president of the United States would be truly remarkable, and it would signal an end to the neoliberal era.

Conor Lynch

Conor Lynch is a writer and journalist living in New York City. His work has appeared on Salon, AlterNet, Counterpunch and openDemocracy. Follow him on Twitter: @dilgentbureauct.

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Bernie Sanders Elections 2016 Hillary Clinton The Democratic Primary