The One Reason Bernie Sanders Should Not Be Underestimated
Despite doing well in recent polls, Sen. Bernie Sanders is still not being treated as a serious contender for the Democratic nomination or the general election. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has adopted the refrain that she is the candidate that can beat a Republican in the general election, and GOP candidates largely ignored Sanders during their last debate, referring to their competition as Clinton almost exclusively. One of the very few mentions Sanders garnered during the last GOP debate was when Gov. John Kasich said that Sanders could never win:
We're going to win every state if Bernie Sanders is the nominee. That's not even an issue. And I know Bernie. And I can promise you he won't be president of the United States.
Update: As of Tuesday, Real Clear Politics polling averages has Clinton is leading Sanders by an average of 13.2 percent nationally, and in Iowa by 4.0 percent; Sanders is leading Clinton by 11.4 percent in New Hampshire.
Sanders' status as the underdog candidate could be reversed over the next few weeks. If he wins the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary, or just wins one and does decently in the other, the momentum that comes with these victories (or a near-victory) could put him in the position of front-runner. Writing for Politico back in 2008, Ryan Grim described "the bandwagon effect," which is the idea that a candidate's increasing popularity itself moves more voters to his or her side. "The original bandwagon theory is that people don't want to miss the party," political scientist Samuel Popkin told Grim. But Popkin questioned that theory:
I think what's more likely is if you see a poll that says people in your congressional district have changed, you're going to say, "What's going on?" ... [Y]ou think, "I better double check. What have I missed?"
It's easy to conclude that Sanders stands little chance of winning these early primaries if you only look at one or two polls. For example, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll from Jan. 13 showed that Clinton had a 25-point lead over Sanders nationally. Real Clear Politics put that result in the context of other polls from January, the averages of which show Clinton in the lead by 12.7 points for the Democratic nomination. That's nothing to sneeze at.
But there are other polls well worth paying attention to, since their results undermine Clinton's insinuations during the last two Democratic debates that she is more likely to win against a Republican in the final race, along with the GOP's general stance that they will not be facing Sanders after the primaries.
We need to consider polls in Iowa and New Hampshire to gain insight into the feasibility of Sanders cinching the Democratic nomination in the first place. These results are extremely close; Clinton has a 4-point lead over Sanders in Iowa, averaging results from six January polls, and Sanders is ahead in New Hampshire by 6.7 points, averaged from four polls.
Then consider polls that ask participants who they would vote for if the general election were held today. Gathering averages from polls conducted between Dec. 17 and Jan. 13, Real Clear Politics found Clinton beat out Donald Trump by an average of 2.5 points, whereas the same number of polls conducted between Nov. 16 and Jan. 13 found Sanders ahead of Trump by 5.3 points.
And then there are the polls that show Sanders to be the more competitive candidate against other Republican hopefuls as well. An NBC News/Wall St. Journal/Marist poll from this month asked Iowans who they would vote for in the general election. Clinton lost to both Sen. Marco Rubio and Sen. Ted Cruz (though by small margins), whereas Sanders beat Cruz with a small margin and tied with Rubio. The same poll conducted among New Hampshire residents yielded more stark results: Clinton losing to both Cruz and Rubio, and Sanders beating both Republicans by between 9 and 19 points.
So, no, we do not have reason to believe that Clinton is a more competitive candidate against the Republicans than Sanders.
Sanders is slated to do well in both the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary, and he's likely to win the latter. This is exactly what the Sanders campaign needs: to reach more voters, particularly those who are undecided or who typically abstain from politics. Wins (or a win and a near-win) in Iowa and New Hampshire could give Sanders greater name recognition, media coverage, and credibility, and the bandwagon effect means Sanders could beat Clinton in the primaries and could beat a Republican in the general election.