Monday, June 1, 2015

Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton and the 2016 Democratic Presidential Nomination

FHQ has neglected the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination process to this point. With such a logjam on the Republican side, it is hard not to. But in following along with the close of the Nevada legislative session in my Twitter feed last night (no action on the presidential primary bill, but fantastic work by Jon Ralston and Ray Hagar), there were a number of tweets interspersed about Bernie Sanders' crowds and poll position.1 To FHQ's eye, many seem to be overstating what exactly Sanders' emergence means.

Let's take those indicators one at a time:

1. David Bernstein posed a question this morning about studies examining crowd size and the correlation that holds with success in early primaries. It is an interesting question, but no one on an ad hoc panel of three political scientists could come up with any research that had dug into the question. Anecdotally, it is reminiscent of the similar connection that was drawn from the level of Romney crowd enthusiasm during the home stretch of the 2012 presidential (general) election. It just does not seem to be a good indicator of success in (presidential) elections.

2. But why were there 3000 or more people there to greet Bernie Sanders on a Sunday afternoon in late May 2015 in Minneapolis of all places? That has to say something, right? Yes, it does. But let's look at what it means from a slightly different angle.

Political scientists will often tell you to "ignore those polls". And that is absolutely correct in the instance of presidential primary polls this far out from when the Iowa caucuses kick off the presidential primary season. However, there has been a consistency to the polling of the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination race. Clinton has been at or around the 60% mark since 2013. That is a few data points. One could obviously counter that that is just name recognition driving that. A large part of it probably is. Survey respondents know Clinton better than they know Sanders or O'Malley or Chaffee or Webb or whomever. Let's focus not on that 60% but instead zero in on the remaining 40%.

That is a pretty significant chunk of Democratic primary voters. A chunk that would prefer someone else to Hillary Clinton. A chunk that can be enthusiastic about that preference. But that could also be a faction of Democratic primary voters who still only comprise 40% of the total primary electorate. That may yield some primary or caucus victories -- if there is a clear alternative to Clinton behind whom that faction nearly unanimously backs -- but it still is not likely to win the Democratic nomination.

As FHQ and others have often pointed out, polling is but one indicator at which to look in the context of a presidential nomination battle. There are also fundraising and endorsements. FHQ has often drawn a parallel between Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Al Gore in 2000. It may be splitting hairs, but perhaps the better 2000 comparison is George W. Bush. Like Clinton in 2015, Bush had huge polling, fundraising and endorsement leads in 1999. Even with those advantages, Bush still lost a handful of early contests (New Hampshire, Michigan, Arizona in February and a handful of northeastern states on Super Tuesday in early March) to John McCain. An insurmountable lead does not necessarily prevent primary or caucus losses for the frontrunner, but it does present a very steep climb for any challenger for the nomination.

Clinton can and perhaps will lose a primary or caucus here and there during 2016. And if one wants to look at where enthusiastic crowds can or will matter look to the same group of contests that bedeviled the 2008 Clinton campaign: caucuses. In those lower turnout elections in states like Iowa, Minnesota, Colorado or Nevada (or Kansas, Maine and Nebraska), a small enthusiastic group might be able to overwhelm the process in a manner similar to the way the Obama campaign did in 2008 or the Paul campaigns have done in 2008, 2012 and hope to replicate in 2016.

There are a couple of things that run against that hypothesis for Clinton in 2016. First, the institutional memory within the Clinton campaign is not that short. They will, no doubt, work to prevent a similar caucuses collapse in 2016. Secondly (and perhaps because of the memories of 2008), those seven caucuses states listed above are the only caucuses states scheduled (or likely scheduled) before March 22. The remaining seven caucuses states begin the caucus/convention process on or after March 22. That is a point on the calendar where the field will have been significantly winnowed if not winnowed to just Clinton.

Look, ask anyone -- Democrat, Republican, independent or political junkie -- and they will tell you that they would rather see a real race for the Democratic nomination than something like 2012 when President Obama was seeking renomination or like 2000 when Vice President Gore easily handled a challenge from former New Jersey senator, Bill Bradley. But wanting the Democratic nomination to be competitive or as competitive as the Republican nomination race probably is is not realistic. There will likely be an attempt made to read a McCain in 2000 scenario into the 2016 Democratic nomination race, but what we may get is that scenario similar to the Romney/not-Romney dynamic in 2012.

...but with those, in this case, not-Clintons rising and falling during 2015 and peaking in the polls far below where Clinton is established. FHQ would urge folks not to jump to conclusions on all of this.

1 It seems that there is some effort to manufacture a contest on the Democratic side without really scrutinizing it in the same way that the Republican race is being covered. Is there any reason to suspect that Sanders would not enjoy the polling (and enthusiasm?) bumps, post-announcement, that some of the Republican candidates have seen after they threw their hats in the ring?

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