Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders appears to be rapidly closing the gap with the presumed frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The virtual tie in Iowa, as the Sanders campaign refers to the caucus results, may be only the beginning of the self-described democratic socialist’s path to erasing Clinton’s advantages and perhaps even taking the lead.
Time magazine reported yesterday something few might have predicted, at least at this stage of the campaign: Sanders raised more money in January than Clinton:
Hillary Clinton’s campaign on Thursday afternoon announced it raised $15 million in the month of January, significantly lagging behind the insurgent Bernie Sanders’ $20-million fundraising haul over the same period.
Of the $15 million Clinton raised, 95% came from donations under $100, a figure the campaign points to as a reflection of grassroots support….
Sanders too raised his $20 million total in January almost entirely from small-dollar donations, with an average contribution size of $27. While Clinton’s campaign has received contributions from 670,000 individual contributors, Sanders has raised cash from some 1.3 million individual contributors.
According to FEC reports filed at the end of January, Clinton entered 2016 with about $10 million more cash on hand than Sanders, roughly $38 million to $28 million. At this point it’s impossible to know how much either spent during January, but Sanders’s $5 million edge in fundraising for the month could go a long way towards erasing Clinton’s cash advantage.
Last night the Democrats held another debate, this one the first that only had Clinton and Sanders on stage. Partisans of both candidates are of course claiming victory, but the view of most observers seems to be that it was a draw. Mark Halperin at Bloomberg Politics gave them both a grade of A-minus, with the following comments:
Delivered her realistic-change-agent message, sometimes with a pert smile, other times with an effective scowl. Tried to outfox and intimidate Sanders as in earlier debates, but found a more energized, fluid opponent who has honed his skills. Went for a moment of high indignity over Sanders’ attacks on her financial ties to the establishment, only to see him laugh it off and deliver a cutting response. Was nicked on her Goldman Sachs speeches and support for trade deals. Still striving to claim her version of the progressive mantle, while reconciling the inconsistency of accusing Sanders of being too liberal. Articulate, energetic, serious, on-message, and largely error-free, but was facing a man on a mission.
Intense and full throated, calling for a revolution. Continuing to strengthen as a debater: increasingly self-assured, even one-on-one against pro Clinton, and more adept at flaunting his smarts. On friendly terrain for much of the debate, discussing campaign finance reform and special-interest influence. Showed extraordinarily good judgment and instincts about when to pick fights and when to agree with his rival. Less comfortable on foreign policy, but, at last, managed to mostly hold his own. Typically grim and gruff, but offered a few flashes of rollicking humor. Catnip galore for his current fervent supporters and likely gained some converts, but the map beyond New Hampshire awaits, likely unchanged by this debate.
In politics, generally speaking, ties go to the challenger for over-performing while frontrunners generally are damaged for under-performance. Glenn Kessler at Politico had several observations on the debate, including the following:
[Clinton’s] answer on paid speeches is still lame-o. It is one of the great puzzles of 2016 that Clinton, who can be so hard-headed tactically, is simply incapable of formulating a straightforward, sympathetic explanation for her speaking-circuit cash-grab that included the infamous $675,000 bump from the universally-reviled Goldman Sachs.
On Wednesday, a fumbling answer on the subject (“That’s what they offered”) overshadowed an otherwise excellent showing at a candidate forum – a glib, disingenuous response that evoked a group ugh from the audience at MSNBC’s debate in Dunham, NH. It seemed to reflect the same sort of self-protective self-destructiveness of her too-cute response to a shouted question about scrubbing her private server a few months back (“Like with a cloth or something”).
Sanders has also managed to hold onto and possibly expand a very large lead in New Hampshire, as CNN reports:
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders continues to hold a wide lead over Hillary Clinton among likely New Hampshire primary voters, according to a new CNN/WMUR tracking poll conducted entirely after the Iowa caucuses.
Sanders stands at 61% support, up slightly from the 57% he held in a late January CNN/WMUR poll conducted before he and Clinton divided Iowa caucusgoers almost evenly on Monday night. Clinton holds 30%, down a tick from the 34% she held before the caucuses….
A tie in Iowa and a blowout win in New Hampshire only go so far, of course, given the Clinton lead in national polls. According to RealClearPolitics.com, Clinton has held a steady 13-15 point lead in national polls for the last three weeks, narrower than they were throughout 2015 but still a decent lead. Except that this morning Quinnipiac University released its poll showing Clinton with only a two-point lead over Sanders, 44-42.
Clinton retains real strength in the Democratic nomination fight, particularly her much better – so far, at least – ability to appeal to non-white voters, something Sanders has struggled with to date. But today’s planned endorsement of Sanders by former NAACP President Benjamin Jealous surely can’t hurt, and it gives him a respected advocate in seeking African-American votes, as The Washington Post reports:
The backing of Jealous, 43, who was the youngest leader of the civil-rights organization, provides a potential boost for the Vermont senator, who has struggled to connect with African American voters in his race against Hillary Clinton.
African Americans will be a key constituency in the Democratic contest once it moves beyond New Hampshire, which is predominantly white, much like Iowa, where Clinton narrowly prevailed Monday in the first-in-the-nation caucuses.
Jealous’ support could help Sanders in South Carolina, which has a large African-American population that votes in the Democratic primary. Clinton has held consistently large leads in South Carolina, according to RealClearPolitics.com.
Sanders has one other potential boost to his campaign: Nevada. While Republicans head to South Carolina after the New Hampshire primary, on the Democratic side the next contest is in Nevada. And Nevada is a caucus state, where often it is the more progressive candidate who is able to prevail on the Democratic side (just as it tends to be the more conservative candidate who prevails in Republican caucuses).
There doesn’t appear to be much in the way of polling in Nevada for the Democratic caucuses to be held on Feb. 20, and media coverage has been sparse as well. Back in early January Politico offered the following report on Nevada:
Hillary Clinton has been on the ground in Nevada since last April. Bernie Sanders only began building up his organization here late in the fall.
But the state that’s been touted as Clinton’s firewall against the Vermont senator in the event he generates any momentum out of the whiter and more liberal states of Iowa and New Hampshire is suddenly looking like it’s in play, potentially opening another unexpected early state front.
Sanders is playing catchup — and fast.
He has now hired almost twice the number of staffers on the ground in Nevada — 40 to Clinton's 22, as of July. The campaign would not provide an updated number of paid staffers on the ground. And he has opened nine field offices across the state compared to Clinton’s six (the campaign said it is opening its seventh office, in Elko, on Thursday).
Sanders also has invested heavily in ad buys on English- and Spanish-language television and radio, spending $767,539 to date compared with Clinton's recent $162,490 ad buy.
The lack of polling makes it difficult to get a sense of where the race stands between Clinton and Sanders in Nevada, but recent local coverage does seem to lean toward the belief that Clinton remains the frontrunner. From the Reno Gazette-Journal two days ago:
Current polling shows Sanders ahead in New Hampshire by a large margin, but Nevada and South Carolina are often considered strongholds for Clinton, who has a large organization and has been in the Silver State for nearly a year. There’s no recent polling to indicate how support is lining up in Nevada, but state Sen. Tick Segerblom, D-Las Vegas, said Sanders faces an uphill battle.
“As soon as he wins New Hampshire, then we’re the tiebreaker and also a showdown,” said Segerblom, a Sanders supporter. “On the other hand, this is a scenario she’s played out for a long time and built a really good firewall here. It’s not like Bernie’s on an even playing field in Nevada.”
However, Precious Hall, a political science professor at Truckee Meadows Community College who specializes in political behavior, said Sanders’ close showing in Iowa could provide some momentum, making Nevada a closer race than previously expected.
“Even though Bernie Sanders came in second place, it’s a win for him,” she said. “He’s really shown himself and legitimized his candidacy even more by almost beating Hillary Clinton, who was favored or is favored as the frontrunner.”
Sheila Leslie, a former state senator and Clinton supporter, said she also expected a tight race and thought it was good for the party since it spurs excitement – and potentially turnout. But Nevada plays another critical role because of the predominantly white populations in Iowa and New Hampshire, she said.
The Las Vegas Sun reflected similar sentiments in its article earlier this week:
With former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders neck-and-neck in Iowa and Sanders pulling ahead in New Hampshire, winning Nevada could make a big difference.
“Clinton was here early, she’s the known candidate here, and she’s done a nice job reaching out to minority voters in particular,” said UNLV political science professor David Damore. “Sanders got here late, he’s had some staff turnover. But you look in the rurals, at millennial voters, they’re allowing same-day registration — those might help him a little bit.”
The bottom line is that Clinton is still the frontrunner and favorite to win the Democratic nomination, but in the past week several things that Sanders needed to remain competitive have broken his way: He tied Clinton in Iowa and appears to have done just as well in the most recent debate; he’s caught up with Clinton in at least one respected national poll; he beat her in fundraising for January; and he seems likely to trounce Clinton in New Hampshire’s primary next week. The Nevada caucuses represent his next big opportunity, and a win there would probably cement the growing narrative that, at the least, Sanders has a realistic chance of winning the Democratic nomination.