He’s first with the independents

Bernie Sanders & the November election

Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the Democratic nomination was always going to be a long-haul fight. And while many pundits would prefer to declare the contest over, Sanders is winning enough states, raising enough funds and attracting the volunteers he needs to keep it an open race. In 31 states (with more than two-thirds of the delegates), voters are still making up their minds.

In February Sanders raised $43 million, far outpacing the $30 million raised by Hillary Clinton. (And most of Sanders’ funds come from small donors, while most of Clinton’s money is from large contributors giving the legal maximum of $2700.) With Sanders so far winning eight states to Clinton’s eleven, he continues to have a real shot at the nomination.

But which one, Sanders or Clinton, would be the stronger candidate in the general election? Who has the best chance of defeating the Republican nominee? A clear-eyed look at the evidence suggests that Sanders not only could win, but may be the better bet for November — thanks in particular to his strength among political independents. Sanders’ support among independents has been robust and consistent, both in opinion polls and in actual voting to date.

Sanders has won the support of independents by lopsided margins in the Democratic primaries and caucuses held so far. One-fifth of those who took part in Iowa’s Democratic caucuses were registered independents: Sanders won their support 69% to 26%. In New Hampshire, independents made up two-fifths of those voting in the Democratic primary: they went for Sanders by 72% to 27%. This was repeated in Nevada (where Sanders won independents 71% to Clinton’s 23%) and South Carolina (where he carried independents 53% to 46%, even as Clinton swept the state overall).

The pattern continued on Super Tuesday, when Sanders outperformed Clinton among independents in every state except Alabama and Georgia. Bernie drew two-thirds of these votes or more in states like Oklahoma or Massachusetts, and around 55% in states like Tennessee or Arkansas.

Of course, these results are from independents who chose to vote in a Democratic primary race. But it’s still remarkable that Sanders would outperform Clinton with this group — the opposite of what conventional political wisdom would expect.

Sanders has also shown consistent strength among political independents as a whole. For example, a Quinnipiac poll in mid-February found that independents viewed Sanders favorably by a wide margin, 54% to 31%. With Clinton the numbers were more or less reversed: 61% of independents viewed her unfavorably, compared with 31% who held a positive view. Sanders also did better among independents than Clinton in all of the poll’s November matchups. Against Rubio, for instance, Sanders won among independents by 46% to 40% — while Clinton lost this group by ten points, 46% to 36%. With other Republican candidates the numbers varied, but Bernie did better than Hillary with independents every time. Against Trump, for example, Sanders beat Trump among independents surveyed, 51% to 36%. Clinton also got more independent support than Trump, but barely (42% compared to Trump’s 40%).

A February PPP poll showed strikingly similar results. Independents voiced a favorable opinion of Sanders (54% to 31%) but an unfavorable one of Clinton (61% to 32%). As a result, Sanders did better with independents than Clinton against every possible Republican nominee. With Cruz as the Republican candidate, for example, Sanders won among independents by 40% to 36%. But Clinton lost this group to Cruz by more than 15 points, 49% to 33%.

A CNN poll released March 1 showed Sanders dramatically outperforming Clinton with independent voters. Independents in this poll would choose Cruz over Clinton by 50% to 43% — but Sanders would crush Cruz, 61% to 35%, in this same group. Clinton lost independents to Rubio by 41% to 53% in the CNN survey, while Sanders won their support by a similarly wide margin (Sanders 53%, Rubio 44%). Clinton edged out Trump among independents in this poll (48% to 44%, with a 5.5% margin of error) — while Sanders carried independents by 20 points (59% to 39%).

A Fox News poll in February reached very similar conclusions. Among independents, Clinton got 4% more support than Trump, winning this group 43% to 39%. But Sanders carried independents by 54% to 33%, winning these voters by just over 20 points.

The consistency of these results is remarkable. The clear support for Sanders among independents reflects their strong rejection of what other in countries is called the “political class” (better known in the US as “the establishment”). Sanders has become a competitive candidate because he speaks, directly and unapologetically, to these voters’ outrage about their shrinking economic prospects, and their sense (born of experience) that the system is rigged against them. But Sanders’ popularity with independents is not just due to a general “anti-system” sentiment — it’s also because his core policy positions are popular with voters.

A Vox poll at the end of January (see graphic below) found broad public support for the positions that Sanders has made central to his campaign. Raising taxes on the wealthy and large corporations — with the specific goal of fighting income inequality — are backed by about a 3-to-1 margin. Tuition-free college and single-payer health care win support by about 2-to-1.

Raising the federal minimum wage to $15.00 an hour drew 63% support in a Hart Research poll in January 2015. In a December 2015 Kaiser Foundation poll. 59% supported the idea of a Medicare-for-all health care plan, with 60% of independents backing the idea. (It’s worth noting that this poll was conducted after two weeks of Clinton attacks on Sanders over this very issue.) A September Bloomberg poll found that 78% of respondents want the Citizens United decision on corporate political spending to be overturned; only 17% said it was a good decision. “The poll indicates deep suspicion of a campaign finance system seen as giving outsize influence to the wealthy,” Bloomberg News reported. Other polls in 2015 showed similar results on the issues that Sanders has championed.

In the context of a ruthlessly-fought general election battle, these issue-focused polls don’t translate into automatic support for Sanders. Issue polls are often sensitive to changes in wording, and not all polls show the same results. But these surveys do show that Sanders’ core positions have a large reservoir of support in the US electorate, and that’s an important asset to bring to a general election fight.

In a year of grassroots voter anger, Sanders’ support among independents is a key reason why he does better than Clinton against every major Republican in polling on the November election. It’s recently become common to acknowledge this, but the pattern’s been emerging since the start of this year. Here are averages of recent surveys via RealClearPolitics.com (as of March 7):

against Trump: 
 Clinton wins by 3.4% 
 Sanders wins by 8.0%
against Cruz: 
 Clinton loses by 1.5%
 Sanders wins by 9.7%
against Rubio: 
 Clinton loses by 5.0%
 Sanders wins by 3.3%
against Kasich: 
 Clinton loses by 7.4%
 Sanders wins by 0.5%
In an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll not included in the above averages, Sanders runs even more strongly. This survey showed Clinton and Ted Cruz in a tie with 46% each, while Sanders defeated Cruz by ten points (50% vs. 40%). Both Democrats beat Donald Trump in this survey, but Sanders’ margin of victory was six points larger.

We can be sure that polling numbers will change many times between now and November, but surveys like these still contain useful information. Polling can’t substitute for analysis, but it can contribute to it — it’s up to us to put those numbers in context.

And while who’s up and who’s down is likely to fluctuate, there’s a clear message from both polls and actual voting to date: political independents don’t like Hillary Clinton. In fact, she has lost ground with this group compared to the last time she ran for president: “Independents like Hillary Clinton less than in 2008,” the Washington Post reported last month.

Clinton’s advocates often dismiss her high negatives in polling as a side effect of being “battle-tested.” Because she’s been subject to so many Republican attacks, they argue, voters have basically decided what they think of her. Clinton’s negatives may be high, supporters say, but they won’t go up, and her positives won’t go down. Her numbers are “baked in” and unlikely to change.

But that’s not what the data shows. As the Huffington Post’s poll tracker indicates, Clinton’s popularity has in fact been in decline throughout this election season. There’s no guarantee it won’t drop further:

Among independents, Clinton’s decline has been the steepest of all. Quinnipiac polls during 2015 found that her net favorability dropped by 11 points among voters overall — but fell by 31 points among independents.

The more Clinton has campaigned in this election, the less popular she’s become. “One thing that has never happened as the result of a Hillary Clinton campaign is her poll numbers going up,” noted Lawrence O’Donnell on MSNBC. In her two Senate campaigns and in her 2008 presidential run, he observed, “nothing she did made it go up.” This is no secret, O’Donnell added: “They know that, in the Clinton campaign, they’ve tracked those numbers. They know that a Hillary Clinton campaign has never increased her share of voters.”

In contrast, the more voters have seen of Sanders, the stronger his support. “The more Democrats learn about Bernie Sanders, the more they appear to like him,” the Associated Press reported February 19. “Clinton’s campaign has argued that as voters learned more about his record, Sanders will begin to lose support. Instead, it seems that as Sanders has gotten more scrutiny, support for him has only grown.” Again, this is true not only among Democrats: Sanders’ popularity with independents has also grown in the course of the campaign.

It’s true that in a general election, Sanders would face an onslaught of negative Republican advertising. So would Clinton. Either candidate would be attacked — and either would respond, bringing their own strengths and weaknesses to that fight. In discussions of electability, Clinton’s weaknesses have been less examined — and if Democrats don’t want to end up with “buyer’s remorse,” it would be smart to take a closer look.

In terms of ability to stand up to a Republican onslaught, Sanders has some strengths that Clinton doesn’t. In our media-saturated age, once a trope about a candidate gets established, it’s hard to shake — for better or worse. And if there’s one thing voters know about Bernie, it’s that he’s honest. (Even in South Carolina, a state that Clinton won, Sanders was seen as more honest by a 15-point margin.) The Clinton campaign has tried to attack Sanders on this front, and so far they haven’t really made a dent. Republicans would be more vicious, for sure, but Bernie is no pushover in this department.

Compared with Clinton’s frequent shifts in her positions, Sanders’ consistent stands over the years give him the advantage of authenticity — in a year when this is precisely what voters are looking for. That’s not to say that GOP attacks wouldn’t draw blood; they would. But Sanders has assets that will help in resisting them. As the Qunnipiac poll reported in February, “Sanders has the highest favorability rating of any candidate and the highest scores for honesty and integrity.” That’s a starting point that any politician would envy.

Years of Republican attacks have generated strong loyalty to Hillary among many Democratic partisans. As a result, her approval numbers among Democrats are much higher than among other voters. But independents have no partisan attachment to Clinton, and are more inclined to view her as a “typical politician” who they do not trust. The track record of Clinton’s past campaigns suggests that she is unlikely to turn this around — and it would be difficult for her to win without independents’ support.

In a time of populist discontent, Hillary Clinton’s political strengths are undermined and her weaknesses increase. In her Goldman Sachs speeches (according to those who attended), Clinton declared “that the banker-bashing so popular within both political parties was unproductive and indeed foolish,” Politico reported in 2013. “What the bankers heard her to say was just what they would hope for from a prospective presidential candidate: Beating up the finance industry isn’t going to improve the economy — it needs to stop.” As a finance industry insider told Politico, “She sounded more like a Goldman Sachs managing director.”

That stance is not an asset in the current political moment, and Hillary’s attempts to re-brand herself have been unconvincing. The deep anti-establishment mood this year casts doubt on the assumption that Hillary Clinton would necessarily be the more effective candidate in the fall.

Unlike Bill Clinton, Hillary is not known as a highly effective campaigner. “I’ve never thought of her as a particularly great performer on the stump,” former Obama advisor David Axelrod commented last month. While sympathetic to Clinton’s candidacy, Axelrod has also questioned her strategic judgment: he thinks the weaknesses of Clinton’s 2016 campaign look a lot like the ones she displayed in 2008. “When the exact same problems crop up in separate campaigns, with different staff, at what point do the principals say, “Hey, maybe it’s US?” he tweeted in early February.

Those problems have included “muddled all-of-the-above messaging” and a lack of clear campaign strategy, Politico reported last month. When Sanders’ growing popularity led the Clinton campaign to go after him on the issues, the result was over-the-top attacks like Chelsea Clinton’s attempted scaremongering over health care. “Democrats have almost universally panned the attack, believing it to be ineffective,” The Hill reported at the time.

According to reporter Carl Bernstein. Clinton’s supporters in today’s White House are dismayed by how quickly she lost her early lead and are concerned that she could be “vulnerable” in the fall. “They’re worried that the Democrats could blow” the fall election with Clinton as the nominee, Bernstein told CNN. “She keeps tripping herself up,” he explained. “That is what she did in the last campaign, and that’s what she’s been doing in this campaign.”

What particularly concerns these White House operatives, Bernstein says, is that “she has caused herself these problems.” In her paid speeches for Goldman, for example, people in Obama’s inner circle think that Clinton displayed “terrible judgment” by “accepting this money in a presidential year when she knew that she was going to probably be running for president. To the people in the White House I talked to, it is unfathomable that she did this.” Bernstein thinks both the Goldman Sachs transcripts and the email server issue have legs, and would come back to haunt Clinton in a general election.

We’re also seeing a different time in America. It is possible she is not in tune with the time of her country and her party. And somehow she has to get herself aligned with this new strain of economic populism,” Bernstein said. “[But if] she’s got transcripts that she can’t release that show her cozying up to Goldman Sachs, it’s a problem.”

Here’s a thought exercise. Imagine there’s another financial crash before the election — and transcripts of the Goldman Sachs speeches get leaked to the press in mid-October. If the candidates are Clinton and Trump, how do you think most independents will vote?

Hillary Clinton has reversed her prior positions on the TPP trade deal, the Keystone pipeline, mandatory sentencing laws, the Iraq war, NAFTA, marriage equality, and more. With that background, her current efforts to convince voters that she’ll be “tough on Wall Street” leave many unconvinced. In a year when voters are angry at the establishment, hungry for authenticity and inclined to reject “traditional politicians,” Hillary Clinton may not be the strongest candidate.

Pro-Clinton pundits have rushed to anoint her as electable, but they’ve done so with more assumptions than analysis. As prophets of conventional wisdom, they remain confident in the same gospel they have preached for years. Their faith is unshaken by their failure to predict any of this election’s major events.

They see the political power of the billionaire class as a fact of life to which we must adapt. If they talk about grassroots anger in this election, they discuss it as a bomb to be defused, not a source of energy to be understood and unleashed. They are poor guides to what lies ahead.

In a year of populist rebellion, Bernie Sanders is a good fit for the times. That’s how he became become a competitive candidate when pundits assumed he had no chance. That’s why he’s won the support of lower-income voters, and is winning the support of independents. That’s what enabled him to build an unprecedented network of small donors, which will be a key asset in a general election battle. It will take a fierce fight to elect President Bernie Sanders: in politics, nothing is guaranteed. But it’s a fight that we can win.