Bernie Sanders' Early Polling Numbers Are Climbing, But How Do They Compare To Past Elections?

The Democratic dark horse candidate may be catching up to Hillary Clinton in New England, but Bernie Sanders' early polling numbers aren't yet cause for celebration. The self-titled democratic socialist senator from Vermont has experienced a surge in popularity in his home state. Sanders is also enjoying a swell of support from early polls, having finished just 10 points behind Clinton in New Hampshire in mid-June, and more recently narrowing the gap in Iowa.

Newest surveys say that Sanders is polling at 33 percent in Iowa compared to Clinton's 52 percent— which seems like a wide gap, if it weren't for the fact that Sanders has risen by 18 points in just a month. This is the first time that Clinton has dropped below 60 percent during this campaign cycle. Sanders' quick rise might have Clinton supporters starting to feel nervous, especially those who remember that Clinton, after taking an early lead, came third in the 2008 Iowa caucus.

These numbers aren't too surprising when you consider that New Hampshire borders Sander's home state of Vermont, where he currently enjoys a 75 percent approval rating. But the Sanders camp shouldn't start celebrating yet. There's still a long way to go until November, and Clinton is dominating national polls, pulling in 57 percent of Democratic support, compared to Sanders' 14 percent.

Despite the gap in his own party, Sanders is polling better than all the Republican candidates, except for Jeb Bush (who is currently sitting at 19 percent). No other Republican candidate enjoys more than 12 percent of GOP support currently, but granted, that might be because there are just so many Republicans running for president in the first place.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Could these polls and a sudden surge of support indicate bright things for the Sanders campaign? It's too soon to say definitively, but it seems like Sanders may be fighting an uphill battle. A recent poll indicates that 97 percent of voters (across political affiliations) would vote for a female candidate — in this case, the two options are Clinton, or Republican Carly Fiorina (who sits at less than 3 percent of the Republican polling data). Compare those high numbers to the fact that only 59 percent would be willing to vote for a socialist candidate, and the road looks grim for Sanders.

But early polls don't always indicate who will win the nomination or the presidency. In July 2007, Clinton was dominating the polls, and the dark horse candidate in that race was our now president Barack Obama. In August 2007, a Gallup poll indicated that 48 percent of Democrats would give her the nomination, compared to the 26 percent who were Obama supporters.

By the following summer, those numbers were switched. Obama pulled in 52 percent, compared to Clinton's 40 percent. Obama went on to win the primary, as well as the presidency, showing that Clinton's early popularity did not guarantee a win.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

However, similarities between Clinton's 2016 run and George W. Bush's 2000 campaign may be troubling for Sanders. Like the Vermont senator, Bush enjoyed high approval ratings in his home state. But, like Clinton, enthusiasm for his upcoming bid far preceded his official campaign. At the time, Bush was polling higher than any other Republican potentials. And, like Clinton, he brought in large donation sums early on in his campaign.

But sometimes coming in as the candidate from (far) left field is a winning strategy. In early 1991, then-Gov. Bill Clinton was polling at just 1.7 percent. Among the 19 possible Democratic candidates, he was ranked at number 13. As Rick Santorum pointed out, if the same Fox News debate rules planned for the upcoming August debate were used in 1992, Clinton wouldn't have even been able to step up to the podium.

It's important to point out, though, that in June 1991, Clinton hadn't even declared candidacy yet. Almost no one had. The nine candidates polling ahead of him didn't even run, which automatically put him fourth. And Clinton scored well in favorability and likability polls, the same polls that his wife currently dominates.


Sanders' success in New Hampshire and Iowa is laudable and is certainly cause to keep an eye on his upcoming campaign. But though these states are largely thought to be the first indicators of presidential outcomes, they haven't fared very well at determining nominations.

Consider previous candidates who had high popularity in early polls, like Clinton currently does. According to FiveThirtyEight, the top five candidates with the highest early polls were Ronald Reagan in 1980, George H. W. Bush in 1988, George W. Bush in 2000, Bob Dole in 1996, and Al Gore in 2000. Every candidate but Gore lost the New Hampshire and Iowa primaries. And three of the five candidates went on to win not only their party nominations, but the presidency.

So what does this mean for Sanders? Frankly, not much. The gap between Sanders and Clinton is still formidable. And though his current polling in New Hampshire and Iowa is good, a win or loss there does not a nomination make. Considering Clinton's record-breaking fundraising and endorsements, it seems unlikely that Sanders' small (but fierce) base will aid him against the Clinton political machine.

Images: Getty Images (3)