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Eye On Candidates
September 10, 2015

Sanders Isn’t the Democrats’ Plan B

The momentum for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders may have slowed, but he continues to build support for the Democratic nomination while former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton steadily watches her lead in the polls erode. This morning’s news only adds to this storyline, as Sanders has now snagged the lead in the Iowa caucuses, according to a new poll:

Bernie Sanders overtakes Hillary Clinton in Iowa

Bernie Sanders leads the former secretary of state for the first time among Iowa Democrats likely to caucus in February, according to a new Quinnipiac University poll unveiled Thursday morning — the latest in a string of surveys that show a tightening race in the Hawkeye State.

The Vermont senator's advantage is within the margin of error — he took 41 percent compared with Clinton's 40 percent — and another 12 percent said they would support Vice President Joe Biden, who has yet to declare his 2016 intentions. (Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley picked up 3 percent, while no other candidate registered above that mark, and 3 percent were undecided.)

But the shift is a significant one, coming on the heels of polls showing Sanders edging Clinton in New Hampshire, too. Together, the results suggest a candidate reeling from the controversy over her emails and struggling to put down a rebellion on her left flank.

The poll results come out on the same day The Washington Post reports that the Sanders campaign hosted a nationwide conference call yesterday for labor union members and drew 70,000 participants:

The Democratic presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders said that 70,000 labor union members across the country participated in a conference call Wednesday night meant to rally rank-and-file workers supportive of the Vermont senator.

During the call, participants were repeatedly asked to “push 1” to commit to be a volunteer for Sanders, who has emerged as a far more serious challenger to Hillary Rodham Clinton than most anyone expected. The number of participants on the call could not be independently verified, and the campaign did not immediately say how many volunteers it had enlisted….

Sanders has acknowledged that one of the challenges his campaign faces in harnessing the energy of supporters into more lasting roles. In late July, his campaign hosted more than 3,500 gatherings around the country on a single day in an effort enlist [to] supporters and donors. More than 100,000 people were said to have participated.

It isn’t yet clear how successful the Sanders campaign has been turning large audiences into volunteers and donors, but it seems likely they’ve able to do so often enough to build an organization capable of competing for the nomination.

Further growth in support for Sanders will likely hinge on whether he can convince people that he can actually win the Democratic nomination. Bloomberg had a story this morning on “Phase II” of the Sanders campaign, with veteran Democratic strategist Tad Devine explaining how Sanders planned to do it:

In a phone interview, Tad Devine, Sanders’s top adviser, explained the campaign’s plan for converting the early-season excitement into concrete votes, and victory. “It begins by winning, and not losing,” Devine said. “If you lose, that’s very different than if you win. The coverage that you get, the way people look at you, the way the press covers you—it’s just a fundamentally different situation.” 

Devine said he’d seen first-hand the difference between winning the New Hampshire primary and losing it. “Having worked for the guy who won New Hampshire in ’88, Mike Dukakis, and having worked for the guy who lost New Hampshire in ’84, Walter Mondale, I have seen up close what the impact of winning the New Hampshire primary is on the later states,” Devine said. In 1984, Gary Hart’s campaign against Walter Mondale—the better funded, more widely endorsed candidate—received a much needed boost when he pulled off an upset victory in New Hampshire. Still, Mondale went on to win the nomination.

“If we can succeed in New Hampshire, and I think all the polls would suggest right now that we’re on a very successful course there, we can come out of there with tremendous momentum, and I think that, more than any other single other factor, is going to affect what happens,” he added. 

The difference between Hart, who beat the front-runner in New Hampshire, and Sanders is that the latter plans to avoid the former's mistakes. “He did not put in place a mechanism to receive the nomination,” Devine said. “He put in place a mechanism to gain momentum, but he didn’t put in place a mechanism to take advantage of that momentum. He didn’t satisfy the requirements for ballot access everywhere, the delegate slating process. He didn’t really get people in those later states familiar with him and his story. We’re not going to make that mistake.” 

It’s a reasonable enough strategy, and given Sanders’ ability to draw significant crowds outside of the early states he seems well positioned to pull it off. As The New York Times reported this morning, this apparently has some in the Democratic Party worried and searching for a plan B in case Clinton is unable to turn Sanders away:

If Hillary Rodham Clinton’s new apology for her private email server fails to reassure jittery supporters, it could amplify the chatter among some Democrats who have been casting about for a potential white knight to rescue the party from a beleaguered Clinton candidacy.

Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., Secretary of State John Kerry, Senator Elizabeth Warren, former Vice President Al Gore: Each has been discussed among party officials in recent weeks as an alternative to Mrs. Clinton if she does not regain her once-dominant standing in the 2016 presidential field and instead remains mired in the long-running email controversy, with its attendant investigations….

It is not just Mrs. Clinton’s weakness in the polls that has generated talk of other alternatives, but also the strength of Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who is routinely drawing huge crowds at campaign events. That has been disconcerting to Democratic officials who believe that Mr. Sanders, a socialist, is so liberal that his presence at the top of the party’s ticket in 2016 would be disastrous.

Biden is still contemplating a run, and the continuing troubles of Clinton could easily draw him in, while Warren has done all she can to squelch the notion of her running but could still be lured in if Clinton collapses and Biden opts not to enter the race. Gore and Kerry have run before and lost, of course, and it’s unclear if either of them would even be interested in running again – the Times article seemed to suggest neither of them is, but things can change rapidly in politics, especially when the White House is involved.

Bloomberg may be right that Phase II is about persuading Democrats he can actually win the nomination and even the general election next year, but somewhere on his to-do list should be convincing party leaders that at the very least, a Sanders loss in November 2016 wouldn’t be catastrophic for other Democrats on the ballot. So long as that perception is out there, Sanders will never be seen as an acceptable plan-B alternative, and the party leaders' wandering eyes will continue to look elsewhere.