Who is Bernie Sanders? (Part 2)

To catch up, read yesterday’s Part 1, which teased the popular analogy of the Sanders 2016 and Obama 2008 primary campaigns. However:

Bernie Sanders is not Barack Obama 2008

Without question, there are some nice comparisons to make here. The primary opponent for both was Hillary Clinton. Both attacked her left flank. Both fundraised incredibly well; in fact, at the end of the third quarter, Sanders was raising money at a faster rate than Obama had in 2008. Both toured the country like rock stars and touted massive crowds.

But do the comparisons extend much further? The sheer optics of a young, black candidate compared to a white septuagenarian suggest that Senator Obama always had a higher ceiling for buzz. This summer piece from the Washington Post examined Sanders’s insurgency and recalled that there has almost always been a progressive charge from the left wing of the party, but the only time it actually worked was Obama 2008. Sanders, in other words, is unlikely to be the second candidate struck by lightning. Admittedly, however, that’s merely conjecture, so let’s get into the numbers.

I’m running this post on December 8. Of the national polling from eight years ago, the closest ones to December 8 were two polls released on December 9 and one on December 6. They said:

  • 12/3-6 Rasmussen: Clinton 33, Obama 26, Edwards 15 (Clinton +7)
  • 12/6-9 Rasmussen: Clinton 38, Obama 27, Edward 13 (Clinton +11)
  • 12/6-9 CNN: Clinton 40, Obama 30, Edwards 14 (Clinton +10)

Obama was running much closer to Clinton compared to Sanders today, where the average margin is 27 points and the last 24 straight polls have her with leads of 15 to 33. Moreover, the 2008 field had John Edwards as a solid third candidate whose youthful, anti-poverty progressivism was splitting the anti-Clinton vote with Obama. Obama still had room to grow by pulling from Edwards supporters, to say nothing of supporters of the handful of other candidates. Now, however, Sanders has every anti-Clinton vote already supporting him with little room to grow, and he’s stuck at only about 30 percent of the party.

Now let’s look at eight years ago in Iowa, where Sanders is currently trailing by an average of 13.7 points and climbing. Obama was usually leading Clinton eight years ago. In a 12-poll stretch from late November into mid-December, Obama led eight of them, one as high as nine points, and was tied in another. Clinton led 3 polls by 3, 3, and 2. At no point in the 2008 primary did she ever poll higher than 35 in Iowa. Today, in contrast, she has camped out in the 50s ever since Biden declared he wasn’t running. Again we see a significantly stronger Clinton and little room for Sanders growth.

There’s also the establishment factor. We are 54 days before Iowa 2016. Fifty-four days before Iowa 2008, Barack Obama had 64 “endorsement points” (via FiveThirtyEight) in the Democratic Primary. Sanders currently has two. At this point in 2008, Clinton had a little more than double the endorsement points as Obama. Today, compared to Sanders’s 2008 total of 2, she has 452. In so many ways, it’s a different race.

The strongest arrow in the quiver of Sanders-Obama comparisons is the fundraising. Sanders, like Obama before him, only barely trailed Clinton in fundraising for the third quarter, thanks to small donors which greatly outnumber Clinton’s. This is taken as a sign of this otherwise undetectable movement that Sanders is more popular than Clinton and he’s on Obama’s trajectory.

However, one again a closer look at the numbers reveals a different dynamic than in 2008. Third quarter fundraising in 2007 showed Clinton fundraising only about 38 percent of the Democratic total. Obama raised 30 percent, which means they raised 68 percent between them. There was still a third of all donations to win over as the field thinned and candidates like Edwards dropped out of the race and had affairs while their wives had cancer (okay, maybe that was just Edwards). Obama gradually gobbled up those supporters and donations. Now, however, the field is already gone (apologies to Martin O’Malley), and Clinton is still winning most of the money.

Finally, there’s the argument that the establishment and big donors don’t elect a candidate, the people do. Fair enough. But we can’t depart from the Obama-Sanders comparison without looking at the constituency that gave us the first African-American president:  African Americans themselves, a huge part — about a quarter — of the Democratic electorate. In 2008, Obama did incredibly well with black Democrats, and yet he only barely defeated Clinton and in fact lost the popular vote. Remove blacks from the equation, however, and the NY Times shows us in these telling maps that he would have been “crushed.” Is it not safe to assume Bernie Sanders won’t approach Barack Obama’s support among African Americans?

In short,  at this stage eight years ago, not only was Obama solidly outperforming Sanders in national and Iowa polling (New Hampshire analysis tomorrow), but both in polling and fundraising he had a lot more room for growth to boot.

Bernie Sanders is not John Kerry 2004

Four years before the Obama comeback was the Kerry comeback. In 2003, Howard Dean was considered the front-runner for the Democratic nomination. A December 2003 CBS News national poll had Dean at 23 percent to Kerry’s 4, while December Iowa polling showed Dean leading Kerry 26 to 9. Kerry ultimately won Iowa and almost all of the country, so can’t Sanders do it, too?

Again, that was a divided field. There was not only Dean and Kerry, but we experienced John Edwards and Dick Gephart’s spirited runs, to say nothing of Al Sharpton and Dennis Kucinich’s hilarious ones. Dean’s numbers in the mid-20s are half of what Clinton’s are today. Plus, Kerry was the establishment candidate and Dean the progressive darling. It’s apples and oranges.

So he’s not Kerry, Obama, Rubio, Cruz, Trump, or Hillary Clinton. The question, then, still remains. Who is Bernie Sanders?

Part 3, the answer and conclusion, tomorrow.

Part 3

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