Inevitable, Indeed

Bernie Sanders is on the rise. Hillary Clinton is on the attack. And every two-bit pundit with a five-cent microphone is spreading the word: it’s 2008 all over again. Just as then-Senator Barack Obama erased a considerable deficit in his uphill climb to upend Clinton’s “inevitable” coronation, Sanders has drawn even with Clinton in Iowa and pulled ahead in New Hampshire. Considering the meteoric rise in Obama’s polling following his upset win in Iowa, many critics now contend that the Clinton camp’s reliance on her strong numbers nationally and in other early states is equally tenuous to the one she held the last go-round. “Sure,” they seem to say, channeling Michael Scott: “That’s what she said (eight years ago).”

There’s just one problem with this emerging narrative: it is pure fantasy (but not a fairy tale!). Sanders is nowhere close to equaling Obama’s foothold in late 2007 and early 2008, while Clinton has institutional advantages far outstripping those from eight years ago. Many people felt comfortable making this exact point last Fall, well before the recent Sanders surge. Harry Enten at Five Thirty-Eight, for instance, persuasively documented that “[t]he best data we have — polling, endorsements and fundraising — says Clinton is in a much stronger position now than she was at this point in the 2008 cycle.” Yet now that the latest Iowa polling average has Sanders 0.2% ahead of Clinton (46.0% to 45.8%) and 13.8% ahead in New Hampshire (53.1% to 39.3%), everyone seems ready to carelessly analogize this race to the Clinton-Obama contest of 2008 without considering the many ways it bears little resemblance to that last great Democratic battle. Four key differences, in particular, make Clinton’s chances of victory this time nearly unassailable: (1) her level of party support; (2) her high favorability ratings among all Democrats and within key Democratic constituencies; (3) her superior ideological positioning; and (4) the absence of additional candidates to amplify attacks and divert important voting blocs.

First, and most importantly, the Democratic Party is squarely behind Clinton’s candidacy to an unprecedented degree. According to Five Thirty-Eight’s endorsement tracker, Clinton has the backing of twelve Democratic Governors, thirty-eight Democratic Senators, and 148 Democratic members of the House of Representatives. Sanders, in contrast, has attracted the support of a mere two members of Congress—Representatives Keith Ellison of Minnesota and Raul Grijalva of Arizona. Those two Congressmen also happen to be co-chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus of which Bernie Sanders is the only Senatorial member. To say Clinton has the support of her party would be a considerable understatement.

Such overwhelming party enthusiasm for a non-incumbent has not been seen in the modern era of presidential politics. Although Clinton’s ill-fated “inevitable” campaign in 2008 also racked up an early endorsement lead, that advantage pales in comparison to her overwhelming position today. In 2008, Senators Obama and John Edwards also received noteworthy congressional and gubernatorial backing in the run up to Iowa. More importantly, to a much, much greater extent than exists today, many elected officials waited patiently on the sidelines prior to the Iowa Caucuses before announcing their support. One indication of a party’s indecision or willingness to accept more than one candidate as the nominee is the degree to which leaders make their choice known in advance of the first votes. For instance, although Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio are the only Republicans attracting more than token support in Congress right now, that most Republican Party actors have remained neutral thus far tellingly indicates that many are waiting to see which candidate will emerge as the strongest challenger to Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.

In 2008, Clinton’s endorsement lead before Iowa was large, but it existed with only a fraction of the input voiced today. Many of the party’s most important leaders waited carefully from afar until the January 2nd caucuses passed. It became clear after Iowa that Obama’s potential base of party support was much higher than reflected in the initial numbers. The most recent party standard-bearer, 2004 presidential nominee Senator John Kerry, endorsed Obama just days after his loss in the New Hampshire primary. Liberal lion Senator Ted Kennedy quickly jumped aboard the Obama bandwagon after South Carolina, aiming pointed rhetoric at Clinton as he did so. All told, in January 2008, with the nomination contest still very much in doubt, Obama added the endorsements of an additional six Senators (including Kerry and Kennedy), three governors, and sixteen representatives. Clinton increased her support by only three governors, one senator, and a mere six congressmen. Clearly, many more elected officials were partial to Obama than appeared at first blush, so long as he demonstrated he could win. Today, however, there are hardly any prominent Democrats left that have not endorsed a candidate. Of the forty-four Democrats in the Senate, only six have yet to pick sides (Sens. Merkley, Menendez, Reid, Tester, Warren, and Wyden), while just six of the eighteen Democratic governors remain uncommitted (J. Brown, K. Brown, Bullock, Edwards, Ige, and Tomblin).

The party’s overwhelming, early commitment to Clinton matters. Should Clinton run into trouble, there will be well-respected, popular politicians in every state ready to drive home her message. Already, moderate Midwesterners Senator Claire McCaskill and Governor Jay Nixon of Missouri have launched broadsides against Sanders’s electability as a socialist, an argument that would be politically difficult for Clinton herself to make. Moreover, Clinton’s party support constrains the lines of attack available to Sanders if he wants to retain his status and seniority in the Democratic caucus should he return to the Senate. Indeed, Sanders has shown a complete unwillingness to attack Clinton on non-policy grounds even as the race has tightened. From chastising the media at the first Democratic debate for obsessing about Clinton’s “damn emails,” to rejecting discussion of Bill Clinton’s sexual past, to refusing to engage on Ms. Clinton’s role in the increasing destabilization in Libya and perceived hawkish foreign policy, Sanders has passed up some of the most biting and newsworthy potential critiques. Ross Douthat wrote about this very dilemma on the eve of the last Democratic debate in Charleston on January 17th:

For much of the campaign, [Sanders has] seemed acutely aware of his crusade’s likely limitations — aware that Hillary is regarded very warmly by her party even if independents are more skeptical, aware that most of his voters will be not only willing but eager to vote for her in November, and aware that if his campaign seems more anti-Hillary than it is high-minded, he could lose the very thing that many liberals like about him…But can Sanders sustain that high-mindedness if it suddenly seems as if victory, not just adulation, might be within his grasp? And can he sustain it if — as seems to be happening already — his rising poll numbers (or even an Iowa victory) inspire the Clinton campaign to turn sustained fire on him?

Perhaps Sanders will eventually go the scorched earth route. But the fact that he’s avoided any attacks that would draw an actual rebuke from party leaders suggests that even he does not see a plausible path to victory.

Second, unlike in 2008, Clinton is wildly popular with the Democratic base. Sanders supporters, for the most part, like Clinton and would be happy to vote for her. The recent Des Moines Register Iowa poll that shows growing Sanders support (42%-40% Clinton lead) nonetheless also found Clinton to have an 86% favorability rating among Iowa Democrats. More importantly, Clinton does not face the inexorable demographic dilemma that propelled Obama to victory despite early deficits. As Nate Silver first identified as an anonymous blogger at the blog Daily Kos, Obama’s vote percentage could be more accurately predicted by underlying demographic factors than the actual polls in a particular state. Silver noted that African-Americans and the highly educated were the backbone of Obama’s primary support, a tandem that proved unbreakable despite Clinton’s best efforts. Indeed, even after striking a surprise comeback in the New Hampshire primary, Obama waxed Clinton 55% to 27% (with Edwards at 18%) in South Carolina on the back of the Illinois Senator’s stunning 78% draw from black voters.

Sanders, however, has no similar advantage with minority groups within the Democratic coalition. In fact, the opposite dynamic has developed. Clinton now derives her strength from many parts of the so-called “Obama coalition”—in particular African Americans and Latinos. The recent national poll from Monmouth University gave Clinton a 15-point advantage over Sanders, a similar spread to her lead over Obama in December 2007. Among Blacks and Latinos, however, Clinton holds a dominating 71% to 21% advantage. Clinton now maintains a forty-point lead in the South Carolina polling average, and in the most recent poll of the Palmetto state conducted last month, Clinton held a 67% to 31% advantage with a whopping 78% to 19% lead among African-Americans. Without minority support, Sanders is missing the second half of the magic formula that elevated Obama above former liberal darlings Gary Hart, Bill Bradley, and Howard Dean. As in 2008, Clinton holds leads among committed Democrats and moderate and conservative voters; now she holds strength in most other Democratic Party constituencies besides white liberals. An Obama-like Iowa surge in turnout might lead to a Sanders victory there, but it will do nothing to remake the race when it turns to more diverse, more working-class, and more moderate states throughout the country.

Third, lost in the often inspirational and cathartic Sanders message to elevate the working class and take down the big banks is his undeniably radical agenda. Forget the emphasis the media has given to his self-affixed Democratic-Socialist label; the actual policy proposals he’s put forth—single-payer health care, a variety of financial transactions taxes, and a 52% top tax rate—are far outside even the Democratic mainstream. That may be what his voters like about him, but it also means that core Democratic voters are likely to reject his agenda when they become aware of it. Already, liberal policy analysts from Paul Krugman to Ezra Klein have attacked Sanders’ plans as politically infeasible as well as deceptive about the most unpopular features. Whatever their merits, the tax increases Sanders has proposed are truly unprecedented. Clinton has thus far avoided attacking Sanders from the right, but if she needs to, the attacks should be effective even among Democratic primary voters.

Fourth and finally, Clinton’s 2016 task, to defeat a single well-financed and popular candidate, involves a far more straightforward strategic objective compared to the one she faced in her previous race, with a deep and talented field of rivals. Yes, by Super Tuesday and all throughout the long slog to the final votes on June 3, 2008, the Democratic race was a simple slugfest between Obama and Clinton. But at this point in the race eight years ago, Clinton had to contend not only with the formidable Obama candidacy and his potential to unify educated white liberals with African-Americans; she was also flanked on the left by Edwards and his appeal to liberals and working-class whites. Moreover, although they ultimately received little support, the early race was also complicated by a handful of other high-profile candidates, including New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and Delaware Senator Joe Biden.

The deep field presented Clinton with greater challenges. The early national polls gave significant support to both Edwards and Obama, so that even though Clinton’s lead over Obama individually was significant, there was always a danger her lead could be fleeting as the field narrowed. Indeed, as Obama began his meteoric rise in the national polls, Hillary’s support was largely unchanged. Instead, other candidates’ supporters and undecided voters broke sharply for Obama. At the same time, the multitude of candidates meant that Clinton was exposed from different political angles. For instance, even after it became unlikely Edwards could win, he still siphoned off moderate white voters from Clinton who otherwise would have been in her camp. In Iowa Edwards began as the clear frontrunner and maintained a lead in the polling there throughout much of 2007 on the back of his strong, second-place showing in the 2004 presidential race. In addition, until he dropped out, Edwards posted strong results among white men, costing Clinton a chance in South Carolina. Edwards received 40% of white voters there—the most of any candidate. The vote by race and gender was starker; Edwards handily won white men, Clinton dominated among white women, and that split allowed Obama to ride black support to win the overall primary by twenty-eight points. Perhaps even more wounding to Clinton were the debate assaults from a range of candidates, all seeking to knock off the frontrunner. Edwards and Obama often simultaneously attacked her at debates, as they so memorably did at the January 5th, 2008 event at St. Anselm College in New Hampshire.

Put all of this together and Clinton’s hold on the nomination today is far more secure than her position against Obama heading into the first voting in 2008. Sanders may ride liberal enthusiasm to victories in Iowa and New Hampshire. But even then, the momentum that a candidate normally gains after achieving such a feat will face the strong headwinds of party backing, demographic advantage, and ideological positioning. It is worth remembering that even when Obama pulled off his unexpected upset, he won only 48.1% of the overall national primary vote to Clinton’s 48.0%; Clinton won 1640 pledged delegates from primary contests, to Obama’s 1763. In addition, as detailed in Obama campaign delegate specialist Jeff Berman’s book The Magic Number, Clinton’s defeat may well have resulted from her campaign’s strategic failure in delegate math. Obama’s large delegate accumulation in the often byzantine rules of the lower turnout caucus states more than offset Clinton’s wins in most of the country’s most populous states—including California, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas—and may have been the most important factor in his triumph. In other words, it took the confluence of the many factors identified above along with an exceptional candidate and a superior campaign apparatus and Obama still barely won. A sober analysis of Sanders’ challenge reveals, conventional wisdom be damned, that Clinton is more likely to right the ship in Iowa and New Hampshire and sweep all fifty states than she is to lose the nomination. If Sanders does win the first two nominating states, as looks increasingly possible, the media will be quick to anoint Sanders the frontrunner. Don’t listen. Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee.

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