Election 2016

5 Ways Sanders Is Gaining Ground as the Primaries Begin

It looks like the DNC data spat has spooked Clinton's team.

Photo Credit: Image by Shutterstock, Copyright (c) Crush Rush

As 2015 comes to a close, the ghost of Barack Obama’s stunning 2008 upset win over Hillary Clinton in Iowa is casting a long shadow on the current Democratic presidential race and raising the question, is Bernie Sanders gaining crucial ground?

The short answer was provided by Clinton herself in an email blast sent after Saturday's debate: “I don’t know how else to say it except by saying it: We could lose the nomination.”

Here are five factors that underscore Clinton’s assessment that the first two contests for the 2016 Democratic nomination—the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary—are within reach for Sanders.

“The other candidates on that stage last night would like nothing more than for our team to sit back and relax right now, but I am not taking anything for granted,” Clinton said, before asking supporters to contribute to her campaign.

1. Sanders is beating Obama’s Iowa benchmarks. Bernie is now doing better in Iowa against Clinton than Obama was doing in 2007, according to recent polls. Obama trailed Clinton in Iowa by nearly 30 percentage for most of 2007 and in polls that December. In contrast, the latest CBS poll puts Sanders 5 points behind Clinton in Iowa, according to Real Clear Politics tally. For December, her lead has averaged 14.9 percent.

Obama won Iowa because of exceptional grassroots organizing, especially among young people. Sanders has said that he hopes to repeat that pattern. In 2008, 240,000 Democrats attended the Iowa caucuses, compared to 125,000 in 2004. Obama was the choice of 57 percent of caucus goers under 29 years old and of more than one-fourth of the first-time caucus attendees that year. An early December Des Moines Register/Bloomberg poll that found Sanders was 9 points behind Clinton also said he was leading among participants under 45, independents and first time caucus goers.

2. Sanders is holding his New Hampshire lead. In New Hampshire, which is next to Sanders’ home state of Vermont, he is leading but that contest is also tightening, according to Real Clear Politics. Sanders averaged an 8.6 percent lead in December, but this is where a different ghost of 2008 looms. That year, the Obama campaign was out-hustled on street corners by sign-carrying Clinton supporters, many bused in from New York, giving her a surprise victory. 

Top Sanders aides have called both New Hampshire and Iowa must-win states, because the states that follow, Nevada and South Carolina, are seen as Clinton strongholds. Both Bill and Hillary Clinton have spent enormous energy in recent years to build bridges with leaders in Latino and African-American communities. That creates a big hurdle for Sanders, whose response has been to reach out to younger activists like his recent sit-down with Atlanta-based artist and actor Killer Mike.

If Sanders wins Iowa and New Hampshire, and Clinton wins Nevada and South Carolina, the next contests are in Colorado, Minnesota, Massachusetts and Vermont, all of which occur March 1 and are seen as strong states for Sanders.

3. Sanders is breaking campaign donation records. Sanders is showing that it is more than possible to run for president with the support of millions of people contributing $25 or less, in contrast to almost all other 2016 contenders in both parties who have wealthy benefactors. On Monday, his campaign spokeswoman told Democracy Now that he has 2.3 million contributions, which broke Obama’s record of 2.2 million donations.

Sanders breached Obama’s benchmark during Saturday night’s debate, which was seen by an estimated 8 million people nationally. “The average donation during that period was $25 or less,” the campaign told the New York Times, which speculated that he “could beat Hillary Clinton for contributions in the final fundraising quarter of the year.” One other underappreciated facet of Sanders' supporters is he is raising more money than almost all of the Republicans, even some backed by billionaire-fed super PACs.

4. Democrats' top issues favor Sanders. Unlike Republicans, Democrats are far more focused on domestic issues. In Saturday’s debate, Clinton was seen by most pundits as stronger on national security and foreign policy. However, Sanders held his own and rebutted her critiques of his domestic agenda.  

Twenty-seven percent of Democratic voters say economy and job are the most important issues, according to a mid-December national poll of Democratic voters by Monmouth University. In contrast, national security and terrorism were only cited by 20 percent of these voters as their top issue, followed by education (15 percent) and gun control (9 percent). There is an undercurrent here that pulls voters in Sanders’ direction.

Take health care reforms. On Saturday night, Clinton defended Obamacare, saying the problem with today’s rising private insurance deductibles and ever-increasing drug costs was the lack of government regulation and private sector competition. Sanders, in contrast, praised Obamacare’s coverage of millions of previously uninsured, but insisted the real solution was a national system that took private profits off the table. That’s in sync with most Democrats, according to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll. Its Decembner poll found most Democrats “strongly favor” (52 percent) a “Medicare for all” approach and many “somewhat favor” (24 percent), which is essentially what he is calling for.

However, that same poll found that Democrats—unlike evangelical Republicans—are not single-issue voters, especially on health care.   

5. The DNC data spat has spooked Clinton's team. According to a Politico.com report, the Democratic National Committee’s mishandling of confidential voter files has spooked the Clinton campaign while infuriating the Sanders campaign.

Campaigns are unpredictable affairs, even under the most controlled circumstances. This odd development, in which the DNC’s voter database contractor repeatedly has allowed the notes each campaign has compiled on individual voters in key states to be sent and accessed by their opponents, has made the Clinton campaign worry that Sanders staffers have seen their confidential plans to sway likely Iowa and New Hampshire voters.    

While Sanders apologized for the snafu—his staff improperly accessed Clinton files after discovering a firewall was down—and Clinton accepted his apology on the debate stage, the tightening of the Iowa and New Hamsphire races has caused jitters among her staff.

The DNC has yet to take responsibility for its absurd incompetence. Meanwhile, this odd affair has fired up both the Clinton and Sanders campaigns in ways that add worries and resolve to their final weeks of campaigning before 2016’s first contests. As Clinton said in her fundraising e-mail after Saturday’s debate, nothing’s for certain. If anything, Sanders may be well on his way to raising Obama’s 2008 ghost in Iowa.

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).

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