There’s a good reason we don’t spend much time on this site talking about the Democrats’ nomination fight for 2016: it’s not very interesting. Sure one candidate is, literally, an avowed socialist who hasn’t switched his Party registration to Democrat and the other is facing a criminal investigation by the FBI, but, honestly, for a lot of viewers (myself included), watching a sexagenarian argue with a septuagenarian about how to best spend the hard-earned money of people who are still working for a living is cringe-inducing. Quite frankly, long-shot candidate Martin O’Malley is the only Democrat on stage to have held a non-elected job (he was a lawyer before being Mayor of Baltimore and Governor of Maryland) within the last few decades (ok, I guess Hillary had some role in the Clinton Foundation, but you better believe that she’s not going to be bringing up the millions of dollars that passed through the Foundation to less-than-savory recipients abroad).
There’s also another good reason not to talk too much about the Democrats’ presidential choices: people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. The GOP side of the race for the White House isn’t exactly an insider’s choice for the strongest ticket to take back the nation’s top job (and maintain the Senate while defending 24 seats). There is, honestly, more than enough commentary material on the Republican side of things to talk about (and it’s, frankly, far more interesting).
These points aside, I found myself watching the Democrats’ fourth Presidential debate last night. You know this is the last one before both Iowa and New Hampshire? The GOP has one before Iowa and one more between Iowa and New Hampshire. Kind of seems like the Democrats’ leadership doesn’t like to put stumbling blocks in Hillary Clinton’s path to the nomination.
As an aside here for a second: if you are a Democrat, you should be pretty mad about the fact that your Party’s leadership is basically stifling debate on who can be your nominee. Look, I get it, “it’s Hillary’s time because [whatever reason],” but I think that Bernie Sanders (despite the fact I think his ideas would be catastrophic from an economic perspective) has tapped into a real, populist, anger on the left that the Party is sweeping under the rug. Even Martin O’Malley, who I certainly thank for getting Marylanders fed up enough to elect a Republican to replace him, should have more of a say. I get it, Marty may not be a great candidate, but as a two-term governor with significant liberal policy experience, he really stood to benefit from a vigorous debate. To break it down more, O’Malley’s Maryland ended the death penalty, gave in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants, legalized gay marriage years before Obergefell, raised taxes, spent on education, and introduced gun control. Regardless of your Party affiliation, O’Malley was effective at legislating his vision for Maryland (it helped that the General Assembly had his back). It stands to reason that Hillary Clinton, whose career at the State Department is mired in scandal and, as a Senator, supported the Iraq War and was uninterested in changing her opposition to marriage equality, should fear an ongoing debate with individuals like Martin O’Malley (ok, maybe not O’Malley himself, but there are other Democrats out there whose progressive bona fides would outshine Hillary’s by miles). So, why is it that the Democrats (and by this, I mean the Democrats’ leaders) decide to put debates on weekend evenings during playoff football and weeks out of the first votes being cast? Far be it from me to say that the system is rigged, but if I were one of the 30%+ of Democrats supporting Bernie Sanders or the 60% who have significant concerns about Hillary’s temperament and honesty, I’d be concerned.
The foregoing aside notwithstanding, what are the odds that Hillary Clinton will fail in her second attempt to be President of the United States? Are the rumors true that her campaign is in crisis mode? If she loses in Iowa and New Hampshire, is she really looking at a cascade failure?
The fact is, it looks like she will make it out of the nomination fight bruised but not beaten. Hillary Clinton lost in 2008, the memory of that loss is informing almost every part of her campaign apparatus. Yes, Bernie Sanders has more youth engagement. Yes, Bernie Sanders will likely win New Hampshire. Yes, Bernie Sanders is making a run at Iowa. But: Hillary Clinton has a fifty state strategy and Bernie Sanders is not Barack Obama.
One of the major reasons that Obama was able to get the momentum to get the Democrats’ nomination in 2008 was that he mobilized traditionally underserved communities and brought a message that got people energized and registered to vote. The Obama team’s voter mobilization, especially among African Americans and Latinos was extraordinary. Especially in the South, Obama picked up significant support (he won MD, VA, NC, SC, GA, AL, MS, and LA). While Hillary was able to win in traditionally Democrat-friendly states (and, likely, won the popular vote—there was an issue in the primary with counting delegates from Florida and Michigan), she, ultimately, was unable to bring her message to people who were looking for a fresh, new perspective.
Let’s remember that the 2008 primary was not a landslide for Obama. Rather, Obama got 2285.5 delegates and Hillary received 1973. The “superdelegate” (DNC officials, governors, interest group members, etc.) breakdown was something like 246.5 for Clinton and 478 for Obama and 99 uncommitted.
The math is more Clinton-friendly at the outset of the 2016 race. Already, Clinton (according to the Associated Press’ survey in November, 2015) has secured the endorsement of 331 of 713 Democrat superdelegates compared to Sanders’ 11.
Current polling shows Sanders ahead in New Hampshire (likely outside of the margin of error). This shouldn’t be surprising. Sanders is one of the Senators from neighboring Vermont and has focused on a hard-left agenda that is likely to resonate in the Granite State. Sanders and Clinton are polling in a statistical dead heat in Iowa. For some Clinton supporters, this raises the specter of 2008. However, on January 18, 2008, the polls had Hillary at 41.3% and Barack Obama at 33.1%. Today’s Real Clear Politics average has Hillary at 51% and Sanders at 38.3%. While this 4.5% net difference between leads may not seem like a significant margin, note that if Clinton can maintain over 50% support, she could effectively win the nomination with (an albeit slim) majority.
We should note that Hillary’s poll numbers have declined significantly recently and Sanders’ strong performance with millennials and fundraising numbers are making him appear more formidable than his campaign may actually be. A loss in both New Hampshire and Iowa would be a significant blow to Hillary’s ambitions, but it remains to be seen whether Sanders can actually galvanize voters in the same way Obama was able to do in 2008.
The important takeaway from the current state of the Democrats’ nomination fight is that Hillary Clinton is being forced to tack to the left in order to get to the nomination. Ideally, especially given the Republican Party’s apparent desire to either nominate Donald Trump or to abandon the Buckley Rule in favor of Ted Cruz, Hillary wanted to appear like a moderate who would rein in some of Obama’s overreaches while being a stabilizing presence abroad. Instead, Clinton is being forced to the left, especially on economic issues, where the general election populace is more in line with policies put forward by the GOP. These policy positions, while they will probably help her fend off Sanders, may, in turn, be significantly damaging to her chances in November (depending on who the GOP puts forward).
The other interesting conclusion we can draw from the discussions going on among Democrats is that the “populist sentiment” that has given rise to a desire for outsiders on the Republican side, is alive and well among Democrats. While Republicans seem to be expressing this desire as a “no more Republicans in name only” or “we need real conservatives,” the Democrats appear to want their own version of ideological purity regarding Wall Street and social justice.
The ultimate test of this election may be the relative strength of both the Republican and Democrat’s establishment to control and utilize populist desires. While the GOP seems completely out of their depth with respect to Donald Trump, there are still months left in the nominating cycle for the insiders to make their play. On the Democrats’ side, it seems like the establishment, in the form of scheduling debates and superdelegate allotments, is controlling dissent in a far more effective way: give the radicals in the base their 30% candidate and then everyone comes together after a “spirited” discussion to unite behind Hillary.
However, if the poll numbers in both the Republican and Democrat early primary states are any indication, both sides may have misjudged just how fed up their respective bases may be with “the establishment.” As expressed above, a Democrat watching the institutional marginalization of Bernie Sanders (and others) in favor of an easy primary for Hillary Clinton may just be galvanized enough against the insiders controlling the system to make waves for real change.
If last night’s debate was any indication, there is a strong and growing segment of Democrats who are not content with the Party elites deciding on Hillary Clinton as the nominee. While Clinton has a strong plan to get to the DNC convention, Sanders is a significant and growing roadblock. Now we watch to see if the Party insiders on the left have enough power to prevent a derailing of their plans.
I’m not going to criticize Democrat leadership for failing to curtail dissent, but I will grab some popcorn, happy in the fact that at least a little bit of the drama of this cycle isn’t on my side of the aisle.
The views expressed by Matt McDaniel in this article are his own and are not made in furtherance of his Baltimore City Council campaign. You can learn more about that race here.