As 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ meteoric rise in national polls over the summer of 2015 from 5% to above 30% hit a plateau in the fall, his campaign announced a strategic shift in early September to what it called “phase 2.” Phase 2 would be focused on persuading voters whereas phase 1 was focused on introducing the Vermont Seenator with a Brooklyn accent and democratic socialist politics to a national audience.
Three debates, four months, and millions of dollars spent on television and radio ads later and Sanders poll numbers in Iowa are today roughly what they were in September.
Clearly something about phase 2 is not working.
When confronted with this unpleasant reality, Sanders supporters often react by dismissing or questioning the efficacy and accuracy of polling data. After all, they argue, these same polls showed in December 2007 that Barack Obama would come in third and Hillary Clinton would come first (or second) and instead Obama pulled a stunning upset whose momentum he rode to victory to become the country’s first Black president. However attractive this comparison may be at first glance, upon deeper examination it proves to be ultimately erroneous and highly misleading as analogous to Sanders’ current Iowa poll numbers for the following reasons:
- The December 2007 primary contest was not a two-way race as the Sanders-Clinton struggle is today nor even a three-way race between Clinton, Obama, and John Edwards but a five-way race between Clinton, Obama, Edwards, Joe Biden, and Bill Richardson.
- Polls were not so much wrong as they by their very nature as snapshots incapable of capturing or predicting what living, breathing caucus-goers would actually decide to do and what political decisions and judgments they would make on caucus night.
- Obama’s Iowa upset had less to do with a surge in young or new voters and more to do with the utter collapse of support for Biden and Richardson. Candidates winning less than 15% of a given caucus meeting are disqualified and their supporters must choose an alternative candidate above that threshold to support, so there is a strong incentive for supporters of fringe candidates not to waste their votes on someone who cannot get beyond 15%. Obama was evidently the top second choice of Biden and Richardson votes and the pre-caucus polls proved to be very accurate when it came to measuring Clinton’s and Edwards’ final numbers.
- Even if all of Martin O’Malley’s 5% and the roughly 5% of undecided voters unanimously decided to back Sanders, Clinton would still have a narrow lead since, as things stand now, Iowa remains a 10-15 point race.
So yes, polls matter, they are not omniscient, and for Sanders today in Iowa, victory is within striking distance but the gap remains.
Winning Iowa is crucial for his strategy of leveraging the momentum of early wins to catapult to victories in the states that follow. It’s the only way to turn what the Clinton campaign hopes to be a quick contest predicated on landing a knock-out punch either in the early states or on Super Tuesday into a protracted war where a people’s candidate relying on mass mobilization and organization can overthrow an establishment candidate who enjoys all the institutional advantages and support of an incumbent. Defeat in Iowa and victory in New Hampshire – a repeat of the Clinton 2008 experience – would have a decidedly different impact on the 2016 race than it did in 2008. For starters, Clinton’s victory in New Hampshire in 2008 was an electrifying upset that turned a three-way race between Obama, Clinton, and Edwards into a two-way race between just herself and Obama. Today, we already have a two-way race and New Hampshire is essentially a second home state for Sanders since ads for his Vermont elections have aired there for not just years but decades. Sanders winning his second home state will surprise no one and electrify nothing.
Sanders must win Iowa. To do that, phase 2 of his campaign – persuading Clinton voters that Sanders is the better, smarter, stronger choice – needs to be re-rejigged as soon as possible because the polls tell us that persuasion is not yet succeeding.
Unfortunately, the biggest obstacle to making the kind of changes that are needed to defeat Clinton in Iowa is the man himself. Sanders still has not figured out how to hit Clinton in a way that is consistent with his values and deeply moral nature. The very notion that he has to throw punches Clinton’s way probably and understandably disgusts him.
But at this point in the race, he can either go hard or go home.
To be clear, this is not an argument for going negative as the conventional-thinking bourgeois pundits and political consultants have been saying since … forever. Sanders has always been an unconventional politician who wins by being unconventional, so he does not and absolutely should not go negative by engaging in character assassination, making nasty personalistic attacks, mudslinging, and ‘opposition research’ i.e. looking for scandalous skeletons in Clinton’s closet and leaking them to the craven corporate media to generate a feeding frenzy that drowns out discussion of the pressing issues and challenges facing the country.
Sanders can hit Clinton and draw stark contrasts with her in an unconventional way not by talking about her but by talking about himself. For example, he can stress:
- I am honest.
- I am trustworthy.
- I am not for sale.
- I have not made millions of dollars giving speeches to Wall Street banks.
- I take a stand on issues based on right and wrong, not political expediency or convenience.
- I am not willing to say or do anything to get elected.
- I have never run a negative ad.
- I have never lied about or slandered a political opponent.
- I always take the high road.
- We need a president who gets issues like the Iraq war and trade deals right the first time.
- Republicans like and respect me.
- Republicans support me.
- I can bring the country together.
All of the above are indirect hits on Clinton who is (correctly) perceived by voters to be untrustworthy, shameless, partisan, and polarizing.
Since phase 2 began, Sanders’ attempts to draw contrasts with Clinton have been utterly ineffectual. In most cases, they are one-offs about the Iraq war or vagueries about “establishment politics and establishment economics.”
Sanders has to name names, he has to be explicit as he is passionate, and most importantly, he has to develop an intellectually clear and emotionally compelling narrative that resonates far beyond his base of support and frames the political choice facing the Democratic primary electorate. ‘You can choose me – a crabby old democratic socialist railing against Wall Street and Corporate America as I’ve done since the 1960s – or you can choose Secretary Clinton, whom I like and respect despite some mistakes of hers here and there over the years and with whom I hardly have any yoooj differences with anymore now that she shrewdly co-opted my entire platform to blunt my appeal’ is not going to cut it!
The phase 2 stump speech cannot continue to be the phase 1 stump speech plus #BlackLivesMatter. The next debate — two weeks before the Iowa caucuses — cannot be a yet another collegial Senate-style recitation of differences of opinion. The major obstacle to a Sanders at this point is not the Republican clown car but the Clinton campaign, the Democratic Party establishment in the form of the Democratic National Committee, and their billionaire class backers and it’s time to act like it, it’s time to take them on and take the gloves off. Maybe Sanders should brush up on what Eugene Debs’ said about Theodore Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson during the 1912 presidential campaign for some pointers.