It is far too early to predict the outcome of the Democratic Party primary. Personally, I like both of the candidates and will support whichever one is selected to run in the general election. Both candidates have strong reasons to vote for them, and each candidate has their own “electability” issues. I vote on March 1st, and have not yet decided whom to vote for.
Why would I start out an essay, an essay that is meant to be an objective analysis, with that statement? Because the validity of a statement, opinion, or analysis of the current primary process is inevitably evaluated in terms of the leanings of the source. I have found that when I say (or, more likely, post on Facebook) something that favors one candidate, some supporters of the other candidate assume that I have formed an opinion, and they go on the attack. In the extreme, I have been told that I am not being truthful about my uncommitted and undecided status. To that, I say this: when I have decided which candidate to support, there will be no mistaking my position and I will be fierce about it.
With that aside, I have a few thoughts on what may happen over the next few days as the Democratic Nevada caucus (February 20th, Saturday) and the Democratic South Carolina primary (February 27th, Saturday) play out; about the overall race within the Democratic Party; and a few observations on the differences between the candidates. I’ll also point out an analysis by my friend Shawn Otto, who wrote one of those things that when I read it, I think, “Damn, why didn’t I think of and say these smart things, that’s brilliant.”
The Nevada Caucus: who will win and what will it mean?
Polling shows a dramatic recent shift in the standing of the two candidates in Nevada, though there have not been a lot of polls. Last year, Clinton held a strong but variable lead in various polls, ranging from as little as 16% to as much as 45%. I know of no polls from January, but polling conducted in February shows the two candidates nearly neck and neck, with Clinton up by no more than 6% in the poll favoring her the most.
One of those polls, actually reported by Real Clear Politics (which is a handy but not unbiased, and often inaccurate) source for polls, showed the two candidates in a tie, but we have learned since the poll was done that it was probably biased, some claimed a fake. Of this poll, Jim Newell at Slate says:
It was commissioned by the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative publication that exists largely to terrorize Hillary Clinton. The poll was conducted by TargetPoint Consulting, a conservative firm stocked with Republican operatives whose clients in 2012 included Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, Mitt Romney’s super PAC, and Karl Rove’s super PAC. This is either a solid poll or it’s a well-conducted effort to stoke the “Clinton in disarray!” narrative swirling around the Clinton campaign following New Hampshire. We will know more soon.
Despite the questionable nature of that poll, other polls such as a recent CNN/ORC poll, show the two candidates in a statistical tie. The CNN/ORC poll indicates that Clinton was ahead late last year by about the share claimed by Biden, suggesting (maybe) that Biden supporters broke for Sanders. This poll also indicates that the percentage of respondents who are undecided has dropped significantly, but 25% are still “trying to decide.”
I’ve written before about the Ethnic Effect, which is important this year for a number of reasons. I’m looking to both Nevada, with a lot of Hispanic voters in the Democratic party, and South Carolina, with a lot of African American voters in the Democratic party, to inform us, at least initially, as to how this is going to play out.
In Nevada, voters concerned with “race relations” favor Clinton by a strong majority. Related, voters who are concerned with immigration strongly favor Clinton. These observations indicate a strong diversity effect favoring Clinton over Sanders, as has been repeatedly suggested by expert commentarians.
According to the CNN/ORC poll, almost everyone in Nevada is “white” and few are “non-White” (suggesting that Hispanic voters are conflated with non-White Hispanic), and thus, this poll provides no information for us to evaluate the Ethnic Effect. I suppose we will learn more after the event, with exit polls. The pattern of men favoring Bernie and women favoring Hillary is extant in Nevada, according to this poll.
There are three answers to the question of who will win in Nevada.
1) Can’t tell, polling is too close.
2) Both, because it will be a statistical tie, though maybe not as close as Iowa, and thus, Nevada will be sending the Iowan message to Democrats: “You have two good candidates here, carry on.”
3) Sanders, because the trend has been for Clinton to slowly leak support while Sanders slowly adds support, and Clinton was way ahead before. So, Sanders will likely squeak past Clinton, and this will be viewed as a big win for the insurgent candidate.
The South Carolina Primary: who will win and what will it mean?
Clinton has been ahead in the under-polled state of South Carolina all along. Recently, Sanders has shown some increased support there, and Clinton has lost some support there, but this change is well within the range of what we expect to see as campaigns evolve and background effects such as name recognition come into play. There is no apparent Sanders Surge happening in South Carolina. This means two things.
1) Clinton will win this primary, affirming her hold on the African American constituency.
2) Sanders needs to do better than expected to a certain degree in order to make South Carolina a bellwether of his future success.
The NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist Poll (Clinton: 60%, Sanders 32%) released today (Feburary 19th) looks at ethnicity. As summarized by NBC News,
In the current poll, Sanders leads Clinton among white Democrats, 51 percent to 46 percent. But Clinton crushes him among African Americans in the state, 68 percent to 21 percent.
Even among African Americans under the age of 45, Clinton is ahead of Sanders by 17 points, 52 percent to 35 percent.
I’m not sure what percentage of the South Carolina vote Sanders has to get to show that he is eating some of Clinton’s lead. Clinton is up by an average of about 24%. But the most recent polls show her closer to 24%. Taking out the uncommitted, Sanders is expected to get about 35% of the vote between the two candidates. It seems to me that if he gets 40% or more, that is big.
What does all this mean?
The Democratic race is evolving in two ways. First, Sanders is simply picking up support among his base. Those new voters, millennials, as well as a lot of regular Democrats, but more men than women, and mostly white, are joining up. At the same time, Clinton is holding her position, and possibly expanding a bit, among African Americans, women, and traditional Democrats.
The “electability” argument is most often used these days against Sanders, but has traditionally been used against Clinton. I’m reminded of the joke of how fast you have to be to out run a lion on the African Savanna. (I take this personally having been in that situation a number of times.) The answer is, of course, faster than the one you are with. The common culture seems to assign more unelectability to Sanders than to Clinton, but this culture forgets that Clinton has always borne this burden. In any event, I think the electability argument is starting to fade as we are told by the primary voters that we have two good candidates, move on to the next state. I suspect this will continue to happen over the next eight days.
Who will win the nomination, and how will they win the presidency?
Both campaigns require a surge of support in order to win the general election.
As Bernie Sanders himself noted the other day in Saint Paul, when voter turnout is low, the right wing wins. When voter turnout is high, progressives and liberals win.
But each candidate may have a different subset of voters who will turn out. Sanders has the young, the millennials, the doods. This subset of voters is among the most unreliable when it comes to showing up at the polls. Can they be counted on?
Clinton has women, who are good at showing up at polls, and African Americans, who are traditionally thought of as a weak voting block, but who have in fact been strong over the last couple of election cycles. So for Clinton, the question is, were African American voters so involved only, or mainly, because they were supporting the first African American candidate, and if so, do they not constitute an important part of Clinton’s path to the White House?
The details of the South Carolina primary, and the collection of primaries and caucuses on March 1st, Super Tuesday, may answer that question.
There is a reason to say that Sanders will win the nomination.
This is the first time I’ve said anything like this, on behalf of either candidate, but I have reason to say this now, provisionally, as a working hypothesis and nothing more. As I noted at the start of this essay, we simply don’t know at this time, and it is way too early to say. But there are a couple of reasons for the Clinton campaign to worry.
First, look at these two graphs from Real Clear Politics. The top graph shows the march of polling results during the entire 2008 primary. The second graph shows the current polling results to date. See the pattern? Is is possible that the Clinton-Sanders race is mirroring the Obama-Sanders race of 2008?
A second, related (not independent) reason supporting this pattern recognition exercise is the simple fact that Sanders seems to exceed expectations and Clinton seems to not meet expectations. Again, this is too early to say, but if that pattern continues in both Nevada and South Carolina, then there might be something to this.
The third reason, which is more fundamental and explanatory and less reliant on seeing patterns in the data, is that proposed by Shawn Otto in a recent essay at Huffington Post, called “What the Clinton Campaign is Missing.”
In this essay, Otto, who is an astute political observer (and author of Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America), notes that the effectiveness of a campaign is partly tied to the effectiveness of that campaign’s story.
As a touchstone to the deeper concept, Otto reviews and critiques the various campaign slogans.
On the Republican side…
Carson: Heal + Inspire + Revive
Christie: Telling it Like it Is
Cruz: Reigniting the Promise of America
Fiorina: New Possibilities. Real Leadership.
Kasich: K for US
Rubio: A New American Century
Trump: Make America Great Again!
Bush’s slogan says nothing beyond emphatically asserting his first name, suggesting a lack of purpose in his campaign beyond entitlement that is completely at odds with an otherwise thoughtful man. Carson’s is obtuse and intellectual… Christie’s and Fiorina’s were both full of corporate-style bravado but said little beyond bluster, while Kasich’s is opaque and too cute for prime time. The only candidates who are telling voters stories about why they should be elected are Cruz, Rubio, and Trump…Trump has the stronger and more emotional narrative…
On the Democratic side we see the following:
Clinton: Hillary for America
Sanders: A Future to Believe In
Here, Clinton’s static, self-referential message isn’t telling a story that connects with voters’ lives in a meaningful way, and much of Sanders’ rise can be attributed to the fact that he is. … Voters will connect deeply and passionately even with a grumpy old socialist if he tells them a story that intersects with their lives…
Read that essay for a much more detailed analysis.
Finally, I’m going to make an observation about the difference in style between Clinton and Sanders. I’ve seen Clinton speak (in person) twice, and Sanders once, but I suspect these observations are accurate.
When Sanders speaks, he speaks in bullet points, each internally well worked out, and each delivered with roughly equal levels of rhetorical energy. When Clinton is at the podium, the entire speech as a whole has a larger pattern. She begins by making personal connections to her audience, and to others who have been on the stage before her. She moves from this introduction to historical context and backstory about her own experiences, and then eventually moves on to the key issues of the day. As this happens, the rhetorical crescendos start off small and infrequent, then strengthen, and eventually merge into a short but powerful set of rallying cries that gets everyone on their feet.
It is not the case that either of these approaches is newer or more traditional. Bernie sounds like the old timey liberal activists that I remember getting to know back when I was a teenager working on my first campaigns. Indeed, he sounds like an old fashioned socialist. Hillary sounds like a traditional fire-and-brimstone orator, reminding me of Ted Kennedy and, actually, his brothers. Both methods are good.
There may, however, be an unintended consequence of these two rhetorical styles. Clinton is a great novel or an engaging TV series with the cliffhanger in the last episode of the season. Sanders is a series of eye-catching facebook posts or compelling tweets. Even in the debate context, Sanders hits the points again and again with each arm-waving opportunity to speak, while Clinton weaves a narrative across her speaking opportunities. Sanders jabs and jabs and Clinton plays rope-a-tope and eventually lands the uppercut. Sanders is a football team driving down the field, making third down conversion after third down conversion, while Clinton is a baseball team wearing down the other pitcher and stacking up men on base for the grand slam. Sanders is the insurgent rebel force hitting target after target, Clinton is the big army strategically moving all the troops into place and then closing down the enemy’s options. If someone does not stop me now, I’ll probably think of metaphors in the areas of evolution, education, and housecleaning.
If Shawn Otto is right about story, this difference between Sanders and Clinton may be a difference in the structure of the story, how it is delivered to the reader. If so, this may be a factor in the difference between the two candidates in who supports them, as categorized by age and maybe sex.