Though Bernie Sanders has surged in the polls in the past month, many pundits still doubt whether his candidacy is legitimate. As Ross Douthat notes, Sanders is still reluctant to criticize Clinton directly for being insufficiently liberal or for her scandals, a concern which in large part is due to his desire to run a clean campaign and focus more on the failures of the Republican Party than defeating Clinton.
Clinton, in the meantime, has gone after Sanders aggressively and misleadingly on guns and health care. Clinton is keenly aware of Sanders’ rise in the polls and clearly perceives him as a threat which she must neutralize; however, to what extent is she correct?
The first two states to vote in the nominating process, Iowa and New Hampshire, are often viewed as an early indicator of candidates’ success. In Iowa, Sanders was consistently trailing Clinton by double digits until the past month, and he is now in a dead heat with her according to the Huffington Post average. With less than two weeks to the Iowa caucus, Clinton still leads narrowly in Iowa, but it would not come as a surprise if Sanders won the state.
New Hampshire is a different story. There, Sanders has held a small lead over Clinton in the Huffington Post average since the end of August and that lead has only widened since. While it wouldn’t be a shocker if Clinton won New Hampshire, Sanders is the clear favorite there.
In sum, while Bernie is not favored to win in both Iowa and New Hampshire, it should not come as a shock if he does win both. Sanders could win both states, but it is also quite possible that Clinton wins both states, which would effectively end the Sanders campaign.
However, Democratic primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire are not like those in the rest of the country. Along with Sanders’ home state of Vermont, these two states are estimated to have the highest proportions of white liberals in their primary electorates. Sanders thus far has done disproportionately well with white voters and liberals, while Clinton has done well with minority voters, moderates, and conservatives. Since these are two of the best states for Sanders, he is under more pressure to win early since he will be fighting on much less friendly terrain moving forward.
According to this logic, even if we assume Sanders wins both Iowa and New Hampshire, Sanders could get crushed in states like South Carolina and Nevada (the next two states to vote) where black voters and Hispanic voters respectively are a much larger share of the primary electorates (and in both states, both minority and white primary voters are more conservative than in their Northern counterparts).
However, I think this logic underestimates the importance of positive feedback loops in the primary states. In 2008, Hillary Clinton was easily beating Barack Obama in primary polls in South Carolina despite the largely black electorate of that state’s primaries; it was not until his victory in Iowa that voters in South Carolina took him more seriously and he begun to rise in the state.
We can already see this effect beginning to take place in South Carolina – in the latest YouGov/CBS poll of the state, Sanders trails by 22 points compared to his deficit of 36 points in mid-December. In the most recent poll, white voters back him by a 60-38 margin, and he is steadily increasing his support with black voters from 7% in mid-October to 22% now. With victories in Iowa and New Hampshire, Sanders could see his support with black voters rise as Obama’s did following the early voting states.
In general, the early voting states tend to vet candidates for the later voting states, and as a result, voters take the “winners” of these states seriously. Although Iowa and New Hampshire will contribute very little to the final delegate math in determining the nominee, the identities of the winners matter a lot in the primary elections to come.
This is not to say that Bernie will necessarily achieve the same result as Obama with minority voters if he is successful early on, as Obama approached racial issues from a more complex perspective than Bernie’s economics-based approach. Hillary Clinton is more formidable than she was in 2008, and it is very likely that she will win South Carolina and Nevada. However, if Bernie does win Iowa and New Hampshire, he will greatly improve his chances in the Super Tuesday states of Massachusetts, Colorado, and Minnesota and the upcoming Midwestern states like Michigan and Illinois that will all vote in early March. For Bernie to break through nationally, he needs to win both Iowa and New Hampshire to be taken seriously by voters as a legitimate presidential candidate.
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