Wisconsin was another great Sanders campaign success story. When the voters realized their choices were not limited to the usual corporate options, a state where a poll once showed Hillary Clinton with a 53 point lead went for Bernie Sanders by 13 points. And yet Wisconsin polls show us that there is still a gap between the campaign’s potential and the vote it actually gets. That’s a gap we’re going to have to close in a hurry if we hope to get the numbers of votes we need in the late primaries and caucuses.
When ABC News pollsters asked Wisconsin Democratic Primary voters, “Which candidate inspires you more about the future of the country?” they named Sanders by a 21 point margin (59-38%). So why didn’t he carry the state by that much? One principal reason is surely the fact that when asked “Who would have the better chance to defeat Donald J. Trump in November?” those same voters gave Clinton an 11 point edge (54-43%) – a position for which there is no evidence, although you would never know it from the day-to-day news coverage of the race.
The great open secret of this campaign has been the fact that in match-ups pitting Sanders and Clinton against the various hypothetical Republicans it has almost invariably been Sanders who polled stronger. Eight national polls conducted since mid-March all show him beating Trump by a greater margin than Clinton does. His average is 16.5 points, hers 10.5. The same is true with Cruz, whom Sanders beats by an average of 10.1%, compared with 2.8% for Clinton. Kasich actually beats Clinton by 6.6% in the polls; Sanders beats him by 2.7%. And this has been going on for months.
Lets be honest all around – everyone was probably surprised when this trend developed, since the conventional wisdom coming into this race was that the more centrist candidate – Clinton – would surely poll better among the general electorate. But it turns out that independent voters consistently prefer the long-time independent Sanders. Clinton’s people understandably dismiss these polls as meaningless; commentators have largely ignored them, perhaps because they are at a loss to explain them; and the Sanders campaign itself has yet to make the most of this rather substantial piece of evidence.
Ah, but aren’t such early match-up polls irrelevant? Someone mentioned Michael Dukakis’s 18 point lead over George Bush in 1988. Fair enough, so let’s look deeper. By an 88-10% percent margin Wisconsin voters told pollsters they thought Sanders was “honest and trustworthy;” they only gave Clinton a 58-39% margin. This credibility gap has shown up consistently. In fact, a March CBS/New York Times nationwide poll found that “Compared to frontrunners in previous presidential primary races, Trump and Clinton's unfavorable ratings (57 percent and 52 percent respectively) are the highest in CBS News/New York Times Polls going back to 1984, when CBS began asking this question.”
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But again, perhaps we underestimate the severity of the campaign that the Koch brothers will wage against Sanders. After all, Clinton’s people argue, she’s been thoroughly vetted over the years – or run through the mill, if you will – and she’s still standing, but they haven’t even started on Sanders. Fair enough. So what will they say about Sanders should he get the nomination? Bernie Sanders is a socialist – oh wait, he says that himself. Okay, he’s a communist; he honeymooned in the Soviet Union (remember the Soviet Union?); he supported the Sandinistas (remember them?); he’s a pothead (or he was, or his friends were); he likes Fidel Castro and his beard, and so forth. And, of course, there’ll be the “lower” type of campaigning against him – he’s not a Christian, you know. Will there be financial scandals? Well, apart from that joke about him being guilty of having once accepted free checking from a bank, it seems exceeding unlikely – where there’s no smoke ...
The campaign run against Clinton would be equally withering, although obviously very different. And really, despite her telling us in an early debate that by now we pretty much knew everything about her, is there anyone who doesn’t actually think there are more unknowns about what might be thrown at Clinton than there are about Sanders? The millions in speaking fees to the Clintons? The corporate donations to the campaigns and the foundation? It will also be brutal.
In late March, a Bloomberg Politics National Poll asked potential Democratic Primary voters across the nation which candidate “Cares the most about people like you?” They picked Sanders over Clinton by 59-33%. (They also found him “the most honest and trustworthy” by a 64-25% margin.) When the going gets ugly in a final campaign, this is probably the type of support you want to have behind you.
Should the GOP succeed in evading a Trump candidacy as so many party regulars hope it can, and were Clinton to win the Democratic nomination, she would then be the most unpopular candidate to run in a general election in at least the last thirty years. Is that really our strongest option? It would be one thing if her candidacy were based largely on voters who preferred her on the issues and were therefore willing to support her despite her liabilities as a candidate. Ironically, however, the reality appears to be that she is winning votes precisely because of the presumption that she doesn’t have such liabilities.
We in the Sanders campaign must share some of the responsibility for the lingering illusion of Clinton’s greater electability. Given the novelty of a candidate openly running against corporate domination of politics and the groundbreaking nature of a campaign run without corporate money and funded by millions of small donations, we were, quite frankly, stunned by our success and not always quick enough to make the best of every opportunity. But we have no more time to waste. The voters need to know who the stronger candidate actually is – and in a hurry.