© Josh Sager – July 2015
For the last several years, it has been the beltway “common knowledge” that Hillary Clinton is the unassailable Democratic nominee for the 2016 presidential campaign—her name recognition is near-universal, her campaign is extremely well-funded, and her support in the Democratic establishment is unrivaled. Many have assumed that the 2016 Democratic primary would reflect this inevitability and simply involve several minor Democratic “challengers” scrabbling for a foothold while Hillary focuses on the general election.
Unfortunately for Hillary, this “common knowledge” appears to be deteriorating, as Bernie Sanders (I-VT) is rapidly becoming a serious contender in the race. Bernie Sanders campaign events have drawn crowds that have shocked even Sanders himself (ex. 10,000 supporters at a campaign even in Wisconsin, 8,000 supporters in Maine and over 5,000 in both Minnesota and Colorado; to put this into perspective, Hillary only had 5,500 at her official announcement event) and the response to his speeches have been overwhelmingly positive. This support has appeared across the nation and not just in affluent, educated, and young regions that were expected to support a Sanders presidency.
While Hillary is still ahead in the polls, her leads are shrinking at incredible speeds. For example, in Iowa, Hillary lead has decreased from 45 points in May, to 19 points (52-33) in July. Similarly her lead in New Hampshire has shrunk to just 8 points (43-35), all the way from 38 points (51-13) in June.
If these trends continue, Hillary has significant reason to worry. After all, she was also the presumptive nominee in 2008, before a dark-horse candidate on her left flank named Barack Obama (maybe you’ve heard of him) was able to defeat her with a combination of progressive rhetoric and populism. At minimum, it appears that Hillary will have to actually fight during this primary, and will not simply be able to coast to the nomination on the momentum that comes from the front-runner status.
10,000 people at a Bernie Sanders campaign stop in Madison, Wisconsin
Why is Bernie Sanders Surging?
I attribute Bernie Sanders’s recent success to three primary factors:
First, the simple fact is that Sanders supports policies that are OVERWHELMINGLY supported by the American people. He has posted a 12-point list of different ideals (ex. infrastructure investment, protecting entitlement, increasing the minimum wage, taxing the rich and corporations, making higher education affordable, etc.) that he supports, most of which line up with the preferences of the American people. Additionally, Sanders has a consistent history of promoting policies that advance these ideals, even when they were not “mainstream” positions with large amounts of public support.
Recently, Bernie Sanders submitted legislation that would make 4-year public higher education free, stood up to the Democratic establishment against the TPP, and proposed an expansion of Medicare that would open the plan to every American (single payer). These proposals, in addition to Sanders’s other rhetoric, are virtually impossible for Hillary to fight against if she wants to continue calling herself a progressive—this puts her in the uncomfortable position of having to sign onto most of Sanders’s policies, while trying to convince the American public that she actually believes in them more than the man who has dedicated decades to the cause.
Second, Sanders is tapping into the anti-establishment ideals that have driven politicians on both sides of the aisle to defeat incumbents and more “establishment” candidates in recent years. Like her or not, Hillary is the Democratic establishment’s candidate while Sanders is the insurgent (despite the fact that he currently hold elected office while she doesn’t).
The American people are pretty fed up with the government (public trust of government is at a historic low of 24%), see the establishments as corrupted by money (accurately), and want “change” without knowing exactly how to achieve it. Sanders promises this change with a radical shift towards a more progressive government, while Hillary represents a continuation of the Clinton/Obama doctrines of center-right triangulation, appeasement of the GOP extreme, and incremental change.
Third, Hillary’s recognition advantage is faltering as Americans are introduced to Bernie Sanders and his policy views. Unless you live under a rock, you know who Hillary Clinton is, while Bernie Sanders has been, until recently, largely unknown to the American people. Most progressives know who Sanders is, but the public at large is just starting to learn who Sanders is and what he supports.
Put simply, a lot of Hillary’s power comes from the fact that politically-disconnected Democrats (ex. the blue-collar worker who only pays attention to politics every four years when the presidential ads start playing or when a scandal breaks and takes up the news cycle) know her name and will support her by default. They recognize her and are willing to vote for her over an unknown candidate, even if it would be easy for them to take some time and research her opponents.
As Bernie Sanders gains traction (never mind if he gains an early primary victory in New Hampshire or Iowa), more people will recognize his name and Hillary will start to lose her status as the default Democratic nominee. This will erode her support and could very well turn the primary into a real fight.
Hillary Clinton’s campaign is clearly worried about the rising support for Bernie Sanders—here is what Jennifer Palmieri, a campaign communications director for Hillary, said about the Sanders threat on MSNBCs Morning Joe:
“We are worried about him, sure. He will be a serious force for the campaign, and I don’t think that will diminish.”
I predict that Hillary is planning on following the old adage “if you can’t beat em, join em” during the primary contest against Sanders. She has staked out rhetorical positions that mimic many of those held by the Bernie Sanders/Elizabeth Warren wing of the Democratic Party and will almost certainly continue this over the entire primary. Basically, she will try to argue that progressives should support her because she would govern like Bernie Sanders, yet is also a woman (giving Democrats the historic honor of being the party that elected the first black president and the first female president), and has a far larger campaign operation in place (thus has a greater chance of winning the primary).
I think we all remember how this fight ended in the story.
Honestly, I still think that Hillary will end up the nominee for the Democrats—she simply has so much money and establishment support (ex. media proxies, the inherited Obama grassroots network, etc.) that Sanders will likely be defeated at the end. While Sanders isn’t likely to win, I think that he will put up a real fight and will end up with about 40% of the primary vote (depending upon who else enters the race).
Personally, I am truly rooting for Bernie Sanders and will vote for him over Hillary Clinton during the MA primary. He is a true progressive (and self-identified democratic-socialist) anti-corporatist and would present a credible case for a whole host of left wing programs. In addition to supporting all of the right programs, Sanders is skilled at simplifying complex issues and is a fighter who absolutely doesn’t care what other politicians, pundits, or right-wing activists call him or accuse him of. These characteristics would make Bernie Sanders an extremely effective president who would use the office to push reform.
From a purely political and electoral perspective, the possibility of a Sanders candidacy actually has some interesting ramifications.
The GOP primary would be completely upended if Bernie Sanders became a more credible candidate. They are focusing heavily on attacking Hillary (BENGHAZI!!!!!!!!) as the prospective Democratic nominee, while largely ignoring Sanders. This means that Hillary is facing attacks from both her left and the right flanks, while Sanders is only facing push-back from the Clinton camp.
Ironically, while the GOP likely prefers Sanders to Clinton because they think that he is easier to beat in the general election, their plan is almost certain to backfire. If Sanders become the “alternative Democrat” to Hillary and actually wins the primary, the GOP will face a general election against a candidate who has announced his positions largely unopposed and who promotes policies that are incredibly popular. This forces the GOP into a policy debate that they simply cannot win on an even footing, against a candidate with enough of a public profile to nullify much of their fundraising advantage. Just to make matters worse for the GOP, their longstanding efforts to discredit or smear Clinton would be meaningless against Sanders and they would have to completely shift their messaging to account for a change in opponents.
I, for one, will be supporting Bernie Sanders and pushing for truly progressive representation in the White House. While it may be too much to hope for a day when President Sanders confers with Senate Majority Leader Warren and Speaker of the House Grijalva on passing free, universal, healthcare and college education, efforts at moving towards this day will help pull the political spectrum back towards the left. A Sanders candidacy will force Hillary to talk to her base and establish progressive positions, instead of just pandering to what she thinks of as the center of the country and expecting progressives to fall in line out of the fear that the only alternative is a Cruz, Trump, or Bush III presidency.