The Vermont Senator has vaulted ahead of Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire in a recent poll, but at this point that doesn’t mean a whole lot.
Is Bernie Sanders now the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination for the presidency? Well according to the enthusiastic response a recent Franklin Pierce/Boston Herald poll received on my social media feeds that had Sanders up 44% to 37% over Hillary Clinton, he is. Don’t get me wrong, Bernie becoming front runner would certainly make for an interesting fall campaign, but unfortunately for Sander’s supporters though these sorts of polls mean very little at this point in a nomination cycle. And yes Hillary Clinton will almost certainly be the Democratic nominee.
The reason this latest Sanders surge doesn’t mean a whole lot is pretty simple; most voters just aren’t paying attention at this time. So while polling numbers like this make a for a great news story, they aren’t very good indicators of what voters “think” at this point in a presidential campaign. Instead they really reflect name recognition (which we can see in Donald Trump’s recent surge in polling on the Republican side) and overall media coverage in general. Bernie Sanders has been in the news a lot recently and so it’s not that surprising that his numbers would go up.
But don’t expect this surge to last between now and the New Hampshire primary. As Jonathan Bernstein put it last winter, the campaign environment between now and then will shift dramatically:
But by themselves early polling numbers are almost useless. Voters aren’t engaged this early. The surveys are measuring only name recognition and, to a lesser extent, vague impressions of the candidates who are well known.
Caucus-goers in Iowa next winter will have been subjected to an intense campaign from all the remaining candidates (a group that will probably be very different than it is today, especially on the Republican side). They will also have received signals from party opinion leaders, pushing them toward the candidates party actors support and away from those who appear to have no chance. Voters in New Hampshire will not only have that to go on, but also the blast of publicity for the winners in Iowa…
…So the early polling on presidential nominations mainly matters if it affects what party actors will do over the next several months. Other than that, they’re probably only good predictors to the extent that they reflect the opinions of important party actors. Wait until late fall and start paying attention to Iowa polling, but until then you should follow high-profile endorsements and signs that the candidates are gathering resources from within the party.
That’s exactly right. And if you go check out FiveThirtyEight’s fun endorsement tracker the difference between Bernie and Hillary is pretty striking, Hillary has already racked up dozens of current governors, senators, and house members. Bernie has succeeded in getting, well no endorsements from those sorts of politicians. Indeed on the Democratic side the runner up in the endorsement primary is…Martin O’Malley!
Moreover this massive endorsement deficit is just the beginning of Bernie’s problems. Remember he may be running for the Democratic nomination, but he is actually an independent who simply caucuses with the Democrats in the Senate. And the Democrats haven’t given their nomination to a nonparty member since at least the Civil War. Moreover the Democratic Party is a big tent coalition, and while Bernie might be doing well with white progressives, he seems to be struggling to connect with other groups like racial minorities, more conservative Democrats, and southerners. Hillary has nailed down endorsements from significant leaders in all those groups.
To be sure in politics “anything can happen”, but that would basically require everything we know about how presidential nominations work to be basically wrong. I suppose that’s possible, but it’s far more likely that the “Berniementum” we’ve seen of late is just a product of intense media coverage during the dog days of summer.
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