The conventional wisdom a year ago was that it was a foregone conclusion that former Senator and Senator of State Hillary Clinton would glide to the Democratic presidential nomination. She was the acknowledged frontrunner, had the best fundraising operation, the name recognition, and until the New Yorker with the bad hair showed up on the Republican side, overwhelmingly commanded the media attention. There was also the weight of the historic possibility of her candidacy; the election of the first woman President. Things began to look a bit different when the Democratic-Socialist from Vermont, Senator Bernie Sanders, jumped in the race; not immediately but Sanders gradually began to make inroads and build grassroots support. Now, though Clinton still commands the ‘favored’ status, Sanders is making a solid run, building up a formidable base of support, and raising money the old fashion way – by receiving small contributions from individual donors.
Despite the common reporting on the race, the two Democrats are engaged in a very close and complex competition to be their party’s standard bearer in November. When reporting the ‘earned’ delegate count most outlets routinely add super delegates to Senator Clinton’s tally. The super delegates are party insiders, elected officials and DNC honchos, who are free to align with the candidate of their choice. Senator Clinton will obviously secure the most commitments from super delegates though Sanders will pick up a few along the way too. Though by adding super delegates to the candidates’ columns, it distorts the real picture of regular voter support that has been secured by each individual.
The primaries also are not an accurate reflection of each candidate’s public support as they are usually engaged by a narrow band of partisan voter. In addition, some primaries are ‘open,’ meaning votes can be cast without identifying one’s party, or they can be ‘closed’ to only members of the designated party. The electorate looks a lot different in November than it does during the string of party primaries. The party primaries are just that; insular balloting that generally awards the candidate with either the deepest party connections, and thus the best infrastructure, the most cash, or the strongest name recognition. Sanders ability to score victories against the party machinery is perhaps the most significant sign that the 2016 Democratic presidential nominating process has the potential to go off script.
A recent poll (released March 23) conducted by Quinnipiac University paints a very different picture than the one being projected by most newspapers and across television news networks. The poll shows that while Senator Clinton fares well in primaries, she receives 50 percent of the vote against Sanders’ 38 percent, those numbers shift for the general election. Sanders runs best among all Democratic voters, 52-38 over the GOP’s leading candidate Donald Trump and 50-39 over Republican Senator Ted Cruz. Senator Clinton leads Trump, 46-40 percent and 45-42 percent over Cruz. In both scenarios she fails to crack 50%; a troubling sign for the party. Both Senator Sanders and Senator Clinton lose to Ohio Governor John Kasich, a Republican; Clinton losing 47-39 percent and Sanders 45-44 percent.
In addition, Senator Clinton, along with Republican Donald Trump, have a large number of detractors. For Clinton, it is par for the course given her long political history, the association with her controversial husband, and gender bias. The last point is evident in the difficulty she is having convincing white male voters to support her candidacy. The Quinnipiac poll confirms this. The polling data indicate that as 43% of voters say they “would definitely not” vote for Senator Clinton, only 27% express the same sentiment toward Senator Sanders. According to the poll, 56% of voters have an unfavorable opinion of Senator Clinton and 39% view her favorably. Just 37% of voters had an unfavorable opinion of Senator Sanders and 50% view him favorably. There is a clear ‘likeability’ factor in Senator Sanders favor.
Among Democratic voters, the picture of each candidate’s base of support is clear. Clinton has better support among voters who identify as conservative, women, are nonwhite, those with a college degree and voters 44 years and older; including senior citizens. Sanders has the support of voters who identify as liberal and voters 18-44. The two candidates pretty much draw even among white men (47-43 percent, Clinton) and whites in general (47-45 percent, Sanders). Thus, African-American voters are critical for Senator Clinton, and to win in November she must have a high Black voter turnout. The Latino vote is the unknown factor in this election and could loom large.
It is true that this poll, and any poll, is only a snapshot of a specific time and that circumstances could change. However, the poll does suggest that Sanders could be a viable candidate. “Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton may have the overall leads among primary voters, but there is not a lot of love in the room as a big percentage of Americans say of the front-runners they could take ‘em or leave ‘em,” said Tim Malloy, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University poll. “Though short on delegates and short on time, Senator Bernie Sanders and Governor Kasich can hang their hats on the fact that if folks went to the polls today, they’d fare better than the other candidates.”
There are some irrefutable facts concerning the current Democratic contest. The first is that Senator Clinton remains the favorite of Democratic Party insiders, including President Obama. The former First Lady also enjoys a favored status among most of the nation’s major daily newspapers and television news outlets. The deference given Senator Clinton is obvious when surveying press coverage and noting that even when Senator Sanders performs well, the storyline is still written as a victory in the face of an inevitable loss. The second fact is that while Senator Clinton enjoys strong support among the over 35 voter population, most women and African-American voters, the under-35 crowd, including women and voters of color, are gravitating toward Senator Sanders. Third, Senator Sanders is struggling with gaining traction among older African-Americans who demonstrate more party loyalty than their younger counterparts; and this is particularly the case in the south where the Clintons have a regional connection. Fourth, while the mainstream media has portrayed Sanders’ political beliefs as out of step with mainstream voters, that analysis is being disproved by his success in primaries. Many in the media portrayed Sanders as a candidate with high negatives due to his socialist identity but Clinton’s negatives are higher and her political past, and her husband the former president, are a motivating factor for the opposition, within and without the Democratic Party. Lastly, Sanders success in raising funds is allowing him to keep a high profile and, if he continues to show well in the remaining primaries, might be sufficient to carry him through to the Democratic National Convention this summer in Philadelphia.
With so much attention being given by the mainstream news media over the bloodletting within the Republican Party and the spectacle that Donald Trump has created, what has been lost in the media translation of this election year is that there is just as significant institutional strife among Democrats. What has come to light is the generational and regional divide within the party, and the leftward direction millennial voters would like the Democratic Party to take. This divide is likely not temporary and could have a profound effect in November if there is resentment or disillusionment among this group. The traditional “rally the troops” strategy after the nominating convention could conceivably hit a brick wall. Though Trump is projected as the ‘bogey man,’ young voters seem to be digging their heels in this primary season and not wavering on concerns like police brutality, gun violence, student debt, income inequality, discrimination and environmental justice. The mood of these voters suggests that party solidarity is less of a concern than supporting a candidate with a voice that echoes their own. Millennials appear focused on systemic change and are impatient over incremental efforts to address inequality in our country.
As the primaries continue, the Democrats face the dilemma of a possible nominee that cannot secure the base vote and whose unfavorable ratings could drive up the vote of any Republican in November as white males abandon her candidacy. No matter the delegate count, Senator Sanders will walk into the Democratic convention with tremendous leverage given his hold on young voters and his ability to raise campaign funds from a large base of individual voters. The challenge to the Democratic Party might extend from holding onto the White House to avoiding a lasting fissure within the party.