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Eye On Candidates
August 19, 2015

Sanders Still Gaining on Clinton; Can He Appeal to Trump Fans?

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has drawn closer to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the Democratic nomination contest, according to a new CNN national poll showing the frontrunner holding a 47–29 percent lead over her nearest rival. Politico provides the details:

Poll: Clinton losing ground to Sanders

Hillary Clinton’s advantage against Bernie Sanders among Democratic voters continues to evaporate, according to the latest CNN/ORC national poll released Wednesday morning. And in a general election matchup with Donald Trump, who has led GOP polling for the last month, Clinton leads by just six points.

Among 358 registered voters who identified as Democrats or leaning Democratic, 47 percent said they would vote for Clinton in a primary, while Sanders picked up 29 percent. Vice President Joe Biden, who has not made his intentions known about a run, grabbed 14 percent. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley received 2 percent, and former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb earned 1 percent.

In the same poll last month, Clinton picked up 56 percent to Sanders’ 19 percent, another indication that the “drip, drip, drip” of the email scandal is taking a toll on her presidential campaign.

Despite the obviously good news for the Sanders campaign, there is some question about whether he can grow much further. Nate Silver at recently wrote that Sanders may have peaked, at least momentarily:

Not long ago, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders was surging. In just a few months, the Vermont senator halved Hillary Clinton’s lead in Iowa and moved to within shouting distance of her in New Hampshire. But it’s probably time to change the verb tense. No longer is Sanders surging. He has surged. From now on, picking up additional support will be more of a slog….

 Sanders is maxing out on gains simply because of increased name recognition….

This phenomenon can be seen when we compare Sanders’s current position to where Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren were polling in April. As I wrote when he got into the race, Sanders had the potential to pick up a lot of Warren supporters; the two have nearly identical voting records in the Senate. Their supporters can be defined as the anti-Clinton left. The combined vote percentage for Sanders and Warren in the April UNH survey was 33 percent — just about the level of support that Sanders alone had in the July UNH poll. In other words, Sanders has won over the liberal flank of the Democratic Party and hasn’t grown much beyond it.

If Silver is correct – and given his track record, he probably is – it appears Sanders’ national numbers are catching up to his support in the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire, and the current Sanders campaign is close to reeling in just about all the support it is capable of, at least given the current message and strategy.

So where can he go to garner new voters, who might get him closer to the frontrunner? David Russell Jr., a business consultant, has an intriguing piece in The Hill suggesting a shift in strategy for Sanders that might get him new voters: Trump supporters.

A little far-fetched perhaps, but Russell makes some interesting points about how many of the Republicans supporting Donald Trump are focused on “the failure of national leaders to provide the public with anything more than gridlock, the failure to enact election promises, the undue influence of money in politics, the revolving door of crony capitalism and the extensive intrusion of government into every aspect of the public's life,” and suggests Sanders has been an effective member of Congress during his time in Washington in terms of providing government services to his constituents.

This, Russell believes, “should translate into support from anyone who questions the need for a more responsive government.”

So how does Sanders use this to appeal to Trump voters?

Sanders's standard stump speech vilifying billionaires, raging against oligopoly, creating decent jobs, paying a living wage and railing against bankers — all are overlapping themes. The principle difference is perception. Seventy-five percent of American voters have only the vaguest of ideas as to what these issues are about, and over half of that number screens their information through a filter of partisanship….

The difficult job of reaching these folks is to understand that their “ideology” has created blinders because of other issues, the principle one of which is tied up in “opposition to federal government.” Government for Republican ideologues means overregulation, money to the undeserving, deficit spending, crony “dishonest” politicians, denial of the Horatio Alger imagery or unresponsive or indifferent institutions….

It probably won't change many of these minds, but it is really important for Sanders to alter his message to “Government can work!” His mantra should include, “I have served for 40 years in government. Despite what they call me, I have delivered. So can government, if people like me are in office!”

His message on income inequality needs refining so that it penetrates the partisan filter. An appropriate line might be, “Do you think it is an accident that your buying power hasn't increased in the past 30 years? Government made it possible for business to play tricks with your work hours, your benefits, your vacation time, your salary and your ability to get ahead — your entire life, in other words!”

Urging Sanders to go after Trump voters seems like a stretch, and it seems a little dubious to suggest that going to Republicans with a message that “Government can work!” will draw much support. But the most important takeaway is that Sanders is going to need to refine and expand his message if he hopes to mount a credible challenge to Clinton. Otherwise he probably risks repeating the fate of fellow Vermonter Howard Dean, who in 2004 succeeded in securing a fervent base of support among staunch anti-war Democrats but then did little to broaden his appeal to those in his party who, while agreeing with his view on the Iraq invasion, placed a higher priority on other issues that Dean failed to cultivate.