If presidents were chosen by the size of their campaign crowds, Bernie Sanders would be poised to claim the White House in 2016. Roughly 28,000 people showed up to hear him speak in Portland, Ore., on Sunday night, and 27,500 more in Los Angeles on Monday. That’s vastly more people than any other candidate is attracting at this stage.
What is more, a poll this week from New Hampshire showed Sanders seizing the lead in that state. So far, that poll is an outlier, but other recent surveys show Sanders close on Hillary Rodham Clinton’s heels, suggesting that perhaps he can turn this passionate following into broader electoral success.
And yet, by most every other indicator, Sanders remains well behind in the Democratic primary race. Clinton has a sizable advantage in the political prediction markets, a 35-point margin in the national polls, and an overwhelming lead in the race for endorsements.
The trouble for Sanders is that, in politics, a passionate but limited following isn’t enough. To host big rallies and post solid poll numbers, you can rely on the fervent support of 10 million or 20 million Americans. But to actually win, you need an additional 50 million votes. It’s not yet clear whether Sanders — or Republican front-runner Donald Trump, for that matter — can build a winning coalition atop his base of support.
How popular is Bernie Sanders?
The liberal senator from Vermont has an incredibly fervent following, as evidenced by the tens of thousands who’ve been showing up at his campaign rallies — not to mention his more than a million followers on social media.
Back in March, only around 20 percent of Democrats nationally had a favorable view of Sanders. But his vociferous calls for workers’ rights, a fairer economy, universal health care, and an end to super PACs and corporate-funded politics have pushed that number closer to 40 percent, a remarkable improvement in a very short time.
And yet, Sanders’ 40 percent favorability still pales compared with Clinton’s 75 percent among Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters. When pollsters ask primary voters nationwide whom they support, roughly 20 percent say Sanders — and more than 50 percent say Clinton.
Given these statistics, it’s hard to argue that Sanders’ rise reflects deep misgivings about Hillary Clinton. If anything, she seems more popular than he is.
Can Sanders win the nomination?
The best indicators say no. It’s true that Clinton’s polling numbers have flagged a bit lately, and that Sanders’ have grown. But early polling isn’t a great predictor of electoral outcomes.
Endorsements have historically been a much better predictor. Clinton has amassed endorsements from more than 100 prominent national political figures, including sitting governors, senators, and members of Congress. Sanders has no prominent national figures on his side.
Clinton also has a well-organized and 2008-tested field operation, with a legion of loyal Bill and Hillary ex-staffers and longtime volunteers ready to do the thankless but essential work of managing campaign operations, knocking on doors, and making sure supporters become voters.
Sanders has been a national politician, in both the House and the Senate. But he has only run for office in Vermont, meaning he has no existing campaign infrastructure to reach the 99.8 percent of Americans who live outside his home state.
Put all this together, and the smart money is still on Clinton. That’s not just a metaphor. There are betting markets, like PredictIt.org, that let you wager real money on who you think will win the nomination. The value of these markets is that they cut through the spin; it’s easy to talk about who you think will win, but wagering real money requires real confidence.
Right now, the odds of a Clinton win on PredictIt.org and betfair.com are set around 75 percent, compared to roughly 20 percent for Sanders. That doesn’t mean the primary is a done deal, in the eyes of these prognosticators, but it’s not a sign of great strength for Sanders.
Even if he can’t win, can Sanders make a difference?
In many ways, it looks like Sanders already has made a difference.
A number of Clinton’s early policy proposals seem to track Sanders’ major themes. Now, that could be coincidence, or it could be part of Clinton’s broader effort to appeal to left-leaning voters. But it has brought her into a kind of implied debate with Sanders, with her offering her own, more moderate responses to some of his sweeping proposals.
Her first big economic address last month included a long discussion of Wall Street excess, echoing a central focus of the Sanders campaign. Likewise, her new plan to reduce student debt and make college more affordable picks up another key motif of the Sanders campaign, debt-free college.
It’s not that Clinton is embracing Sanders’ more radical positions, like a living wage or resistance to free trade. But to some degree, he seems to be setting the terms of the Democratic debate.
In that sense, he belongs to a long line of transformative candidates who didn’t have to win in order to make change. Jesse Jackson’s run for president in 1988 drew its own big crowds (though not as big as Sanders’), and cemented the idea of a “rainbow coalition,” a diverse alliance of minority groups, gay and lesbian groups, and labor unions that has become the backbone of the Democratic Party. On the Republican side, Ronald Reagan ran two unsuccessful campaigns in 1968 and 1976, which not only elevated his national stature but helped shift the Republican Party to the right on foreign policy and economics.
Is Trump in a similar position to Sanders?
Things look a bit different on the Republican side, because the race is more of a scrum. Also, it’s not clear whether Trump’s goal is really to shift the conversation. Certainly, he has drawn attention to what he considers the scourge of illegal immigration, but beyond that his candidacy is as much about charisma and controversy as it is about policy.
Still, he has at least this much in common with Sanders: a rocky path from popularity to victory. As yet, he has no “ground game,” no campaign infrastructure to turn his polling numbers into turnout and votes.
But Trump is popular, maybe even more so than Sanders in their respective primary races. He may not be attracting the big crowds, but his favorability is actually higher, and his base of support seems broader. He is the Republican front-runner among moderates and members of the Tea Party movement, men and women, young and old.
Will Sanders’ momentum continue?
We should know, quite soon, just how far Sanders can go, because at this point the low-hanging fruit is gone.
A large chunk of Sanders’ gains have come via consolidation of left-wing voters. He hasn’t been picking off Clinton loyalists so much as gaining the support of people who were previously agitating for Elizabeth Warren.
With those voters mostly sewn up, it will be hard for Sanders to mount a further push without help from the moderate middle.
One approach would be to attract more African-American voters. For now, Sanders remains little known among black voters, with favorability ratings in the 20s. He has become a target of the Black Lives Matter movement, which broke up his rally last weekend in Seattle as part of an effort to turn his attention from economic issues to racial justice.
Strategically, Sanders’ best chance may be to mount a campaign of slow-building momentum, something like the Jimmy Carter strategy from 1976.
He doesn’t need much minority support to win New Hampshire or Iowa, since those states are overwhelmingly white. A few early victories could raise his stature among minority groups, possibly leading to further victories. But he’ll have a tough time in the South Carolina primary, which usually has heavy black turnout. It’s why some have labeled the Palmetto State as Clinton’s “firewall.”
Of course, with Clinton holding the endorsements, much of the money, a tested campaign infrastructure, and a big advantage in the national polls, Sanders may well come up short in the end.
But between the large crowds and passionate supporters, he could still succeed in mobilizing a new force in the Democratic Party, one that is unafraid of the “socialist” moniker Sanders himself wears proudly and is eager to bring more radical solutions into the mainstream of American politics.
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