As we barrel down the homestretch to the Iowa caucuses, left-wing poll-watchers everywhere should allow themselves a moment to enjoy the sound of professional pundits proven disastrously wrong.
“Hillary Clinton is the most dominant nonincumbent ever,” declared Slate’s John Dickerson, reporting from Iowa one year ago. “Democrats like Gov. Martin O’Malley and Sen. Bernie Sanders are making moves, but few local activists even pretend that they are serious challengers to Clinton.” Harry Enten, adopting the FiveThirtyEight house style of a precocious child reading statistics from the back of a baseball card, concluded last April that Clinton’s “path to the nomination looks easier than anything we’ve ever seen before.” Sanders, on the other hand, was “a self-described socialist” — a sufficient disqualification for Enten to spend less time contemplating his candidacy than the threat posed by Lincoln Chafee.
Now, in the week before voting begins, Sanders finds himself in the unlikely position of early-state frontrunner: polls show him neck-and-neck with Clinton in Iowa and far ahead of her in New Hampshire.
Yet in fairness to the commentators, their analysis only reflected the overwhelming balance of forces within the political system. By early 2015, the leadership of the Democratic Party had determined to nominate Hillary Clinton with a degree of unanimity unparalleled in recent history. In April 2007, Enten reported, Clinton had won the endorsement of just one Democratic senator; by April 2015, she had already secured the support of twenty-seven senators, far more early endorsements than even Al Gore received as Bill Clinton’s sitting vice president.
From a Beltway perspective, meanwhile, Sanders was an undeniably fringe figure. “Socialist to Snap at Clinton’s Heels,” barked The Hill, in an article that compared Sanders to the punchless candidacies of Dennis Kucinich and Al Sharpton. Before he began to campaign, the Vermont senator barely registered with the Democratic electorate.
Even in neighboring New Hampshire, four February polls showed Clinton leading by an average of 47 percentage points. In Iowa, meanwhile, pre-campaign poll results resembled early-season college football scores: NBC found Clinton ahead by the modest margin of 68 to 7, while PPP put it at 62 to 14.
Sanders announced his candidacy at the end of April. In the nine months since, the race has been defined by two interlocking phenomena — surprisingly expansive and durable grassroots support for Sanders, matched only by the increasingly fierce and coordinated elite support for Clinton.
Truck Drivers for Bernie
Given Clinton’s gigantic early lead, and her built-in advantages of name recognition, cash in hand, and establishment backing, it was remarkable how quickly Sanders closed the gap in the early-voting states. It is in the nature of things for frontrunners to falter, and challengers to catch up, but virtually no one predicted that by June 2015 — after just two months of hard campaigning — Sanders would have cut Clinton’s margin in New Hampshire to single digits.
Yet even in August, when Sanders took his first lead in the Granite State, most pundits remained skeptical. The relevant parallels were now no longer Kucinich and Sharpton but Bill Bradley in 2000 (according to the Wall Street Journal) or Howard Dean in 2004 (according to Roll Call) — “progressive” primary darlings whose momentum flared out in Iowa and New Hampshire. Given Sanders’s presumed dependence on a narrow caste of emotional liberals, journalists and data analysts agreed, he would find it difficult to sustain his momentum through to election day.
In the past month, with Sanders’s strength in Iowa and New Hampshire stubbornly growing, commentators have finally begun to compare Sanders to an actual primary winner — Barack Obama. Sanders, like Obama in 2008, has challenged Clinton by mobilizing young and first-time voters — a valuable if notoriously precarious demographic base. Heading into Iowa, the question animating professional poll-watchers is whether Sanders can follow the Obama path to early-state victory.
Yet this is the wrong way to approach the Sanders phenomenon. A good deal of evidence suggests that Sanders has assembled a rather different kind of voter coalition than any primary challenger of the past generation — that he is the rare “progressive” candidate who can actually win over white working-class voters.
Recent Democratic primary upstarts have appealed above all to a highly motivated liberal base — voters who were generally well-informed, well-educated, and well-off. In 2000, exit polls showed that the only bracket of voters Bill Bradley won in Iowa were those with incomes over $75,000 a year; in New Hampshire, he only won voters making over $100,000.
In the 2008 caucus, both Obama and John Edwards significantly over-performed their overall Iowa numbers with voters making over $100,000, while underperforming with voters making less than $50,000. It was Hillary Clinton, though she finished third in the overall caucus, who outdid her overall numbers with Iowans at the lower end of the income distribution.
In New Hampshire, where Clinton staged a surprise comeback victory, she again overperformed among voters making less than $50,000 — winning them over Obama by a margin of 47 to 32 percent. Perhaps even more telling was Clinton’s victory among voters who said they were “falling behind financially”: she won them, 43 to 33, while Obama swept voters who said they were “getting ahead,” 48 to 32 percent.
The young liberals who flocked to Obama in 2008, in other words, were economically both comfortable and confident. All signs so far suggest that Bernie Sanders’s Iowa and New Hampshire youth revolt is of a very different character.
Unfortunately the data is patchier than it should be, since even in an election where questions of class have dominated the debate, pollsters prefer to ask voters where they fit into the vague and arbitrary categories of “liberal,” “moderate,” and “conservative,” rather than requesting hard information about income and education.
Still, it’s possible to see some patterns. In Iowa, a September Quinnipiac poll showed Sanders with a nineteen point lead over voters making less than $30,000, while Clinton led voters making over $100,000 by fourteen points. This week another Quinnipiac survey gave Sanders a four point lead overall, while showing income divisions sharpening even further:
Perhaps the most suggestive shard of Iowa data came in a recent Monmouth poll, which shows Clinton far ahead among voters who drive a sedan or SUV, and Sanders holding a solid lead among wagon and truck drivers. (Martin O’Malley, beautifully, did his best among coupe/convertible and motorcycle drivers.)
In New Hampshire, where more pollsters have gathered income data, the evidence is even clearer. Across seven polls since October, Sanders has outperformed his overall numbers among voters making less than $50,000 by an average of 5.5 points. Clinton’s most stalwart support, meanwhile, has come from voters making at least six figures.
Why does this matter? One striking difference between Sanders and Obama, as Jedediah Purdy has noted, is that the Sanders campaign is about the platform, not the candidate. Another striking difference is that Sanders has forged connections to lower-income New Hampshire and Iowa Democrats that eluded Obama and every other progressive primary challenger in recent history.
Sanders has done it by offering a substantial rather than rhetorical “progressive” vision. His call to break up the big banks, install a $15 minimum wage, and provide single-payer health care for all — however mild as “democratic socialism” goes — represents an aggressive economic populism exiled from the national Democratic Party for decades. Certainly Sanders’s program far exceeds the universally timid and deficit-focused reforms on offer from Bradley, Dean, and Obama.
Sanders may well have won intense backing from the professional and technical workers that John Judis described at a campaign rally last fall, and that Michael Harrington long hoped might embrace democratic socialism. But the polls suggest that Sanders’s program has also proven immensely appealing to a younger but less affluent and more traditional Democratic white working class: not just hybrid owners, but truck drivers, too.
Beyond Iowa and New Hampshire
Of course, all of this might not be enough for Sanders to win the nomination. So far, he has failed to win substantial support from the nonwhite lower-income voters outside of Iowa and New Hampshire who must form the bedrock of any genuinely progressive democratic coalition. Black and Latina voters in South Carolina and Nevada, as media analysts have tirelessly observed, have not begun to feel the Bern.
Yet this probably reflects the particular dynamics of Sanders’s underdog campaign, rather than any rigid limits to his appeal. Forced to concentrate on the two earliest states simply to appear on the electoral radar, Sanders has not been able to devote comparable resources to other, less lily-white places. The consequence is that nonwhite voters have been less exposed to Sanders’s economic program.
A September CBS poll, for instance, showed that 35 percent of black South Carolina voters believed that a Sanders administration would “favor the rich”; only 12 percent believed that he would “favor the poor.” Just 10 percent of black and 24 percent of white voters, meanwhile, thought that Goldman Sachs’s favorite Democrat, Hillary Clinton, would “favor the rich.”
To challenge a well-known, well-financed, and strongly backed establishment favorite like Hillary Clinton, there is no substitute for ground-level campaigning. In Iowa and New Hampshire, where Sanders spent a combined fifty-five days in 2015, he has succeeded in introducing himself to lower-income voters and mobilizing them behind his message. In South Carolina, where he spent only ten days, his message has barely gotten out at all.
More recently, there are signs that Clinton’s strength among black voters has begun to melt away. With nearly a month between the Iowa caucuses and the South Carolina primary, and just 52 percent of likely black voters “enthusiastic” about their candidate, it may well dissolve even further. Recent Sanders endorsements from South Carolina state representative Justin Bamberg, the lawyer for the family of Walter Scott, and Natalie Jackson, the lawyer for the family of Trayvon Martin, suggest progress for the campaign.
Yet even if Sanders himself proves unable to close the gap, it is worth considering the significance of what he has already demonstrated: that the blunt embrace of social-democratic politics, combined with intense day-to-day campaigning, can capture the support of lower-income white Democrats.
Sanders’s achievement threatens to transform the internal dynamics within the Democratic Party.
What does it mean for the future of Democratic politics if black and Latina voters have become the last-ditch “firewall” for the party’s elite?
It may be that southern black voters truly are as economically conservative as the South Carolina polling makes them out to be, strongly preferring Clinton to Sanders on Wall Street reform, health care, and taxes. But it is more likely, as even Sanders critics have acknowledged, that “marginalized electorates” tend to vote cautiously for practical rather than ideological reasons.
The same logic, after all, applied to lower-income white voters in Iowa and New Hampshire who gave their support to Gore, John Kerry, and Hillary Clinton in 2008. These seasoned frontrunners won over the working class not by tacking left on economic issues, but by projecting an image of competence and electability, while occasionally casting their opponents as out-of-touch outsiders. This is again the Clinton strategy in 2016.
Through hard campaigning, Sanders has already shattered this paradigm in Iowa and New Hampshire, and there is reason to believe that he can do it again. In 1988 Jesse Jackson won over cautious nonwhite voters while running on an economic platform that included single-payer health care, progressive taxation, and strong labor laws. Bernie Sanders, virtually alone among white elected Democrats, endorsed Jackson.
In the end Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition was derailed by the universal hostility of the party elite and the skepticism of white Democrats. But the improbable success of Sanders’s campaign — the first since Jackson to embrace a similar program, and the first to win over lower-income whites while doing it — raises the very tangible prospect of a new alliance of working-class voters.
Whether that alliance develops around Sanders in 2016, or around some future candidate — inside or outside the party — Democratic elites have every reason to be nervous.