It's no time to panic: Ignore the national polls and the Democratic tensions — none of it matters (yet)

Right now, it seems there's a lot for Democrats to be worried about; here's why they can calm down

Published May 25, 2016 9:59AM (EDT)

Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton   (Reuters/Rick Wilking/Aaron Bernstein/Photo montage by Salon)
Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton (Reuters/Rick Wilking/Aaron Bernstein/Photo montage by Salon)

A quiet panic is spreading among Democrats. Two national polls were released Sunday, one by ABC News and the other by NBC News. In the former, Trump edged Clinton 46 percent to 44 percent. In the latter, Clinton retained a 46 percent to 43 percent lead. As a result of the latest shifts, Trump passed Clinton in the RealClearPolitics average.

At the same time, tensions between Clinton and Sanders are rising, as Sanders digs in for the final primary battles. He even implied over the weekend that a potential Trump-Clinton match-up amounts to a “lesser of two evils” election. Although he won't win the nomination, Sanders continues to suggest he can, to the chagrin of Clinton staffers. “I don't think he [Sanders] realizes the damage he's doing at this point,” a Clinton ally told The Hill. “I understand running the campaign until the end, fine. But at least take the steps to begin bringing everyone together.” “It [Sanders's presence in the race] holds her back from controlling the narrative,” said another Clinton supporter.

The worry is that by extending the Democratic race to the convention, Clinton is forced to wrestle with Sanders while Trump defines himself as a “normal” or credible candidate. “I do not want Americans, and, you know, good-thinking Republicans, as well as Democrats and independents, to start to believe that this is a normal candidacy,” Clinton told Chuck Todd on MSNBC's “Meet the Press.”

The polls and the Democratic in-fighting make for interesting headlines, but none of it matters – not now, at least. Clinton put it well on Sunday: “polls this far out mean nothing.” A glance at history confirms it: In 1980, Carter was beating Reagan by 8 points in May. At the same point in 1988, Dukakis was roughly ten points ahead of George H.W. Bush. In May of 1992, Bill Clinton was trailing both Bush and Ross Perot. And during the last week of May in 2008, registered voters preferred McCain to Obama by 5 points.

It's early, in other words. The GOP race was over weeks ago. Trump's surge is likely a result of Republicans uniting behind their presumptive nominee. The general election hasn't begun. When it does, polls will be instructive. Until then, they're useless.

The concerns about Sanders are similarly overblown. Yes, he's still campaigning aggressively. Yes, his rhetoric is a bit unhinged at times. But he's stated his mission clearly enough: to acquire as many delegates as possible and use that as leverage at the convention. Sanders can do arithmetic; he knows he's already lost. However, you can't admit that while you're lobbying for votes on the stump.

The time to evaluate Sanders' orientation to Clinton will be after the last ballot is cast. Then we'll have a much clearer view of his intentions. Sanders suggested this week that the convention could be “messy.” This sounds more threatening than it is. The convention will be what it ought to be: a heated debate about what the party stands for.

Sanders' tough talk is a negotiating tactic, which is already paying off. Politico reported yesterday, in fact, that the DNC has already agreed to give him additional influence over the committee responsible for shaping the party's agenda. Expect more concessions in the future. This is what Sanders wants, and he's earned the right to be heard. As long as the DNC acknowledges that, the party will be fine.

If the Democrats are divided in August and Trump's numbers are holding, then it's time to panic.

By Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at

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Bernie Sanders Democratic Party Donald Trump Editor's Picks Elections 2016 Hillary Clinton