On the surface, the new California Field Poll really wasn’t bad for Hillary Clinton. Yes, her one-time 63 point lead had shrunken to six, but it was still a lead, and at this point the Clinton campaign reckons that it won enough delegates in the South on Super Tuesday to hold on even if Sanders were to continue his winning streak – so long as their campaign manages not to implode. And while such an implosion must still be regarded as a long shot, the Field Poll numbers suggest that there are grounds for one: Only 48 percent of voters polled in the nation’s most populous state viewed Clinton favorably, compared to 49 percent who looked upon her unfavorably. Which once again raises the question of why Democratic Party leaders seem resigned to allowing such an unpopular candidate to carry their banner in November, particularly given that this a not a one-state anomaly, but a nationwide phenomenon.
In contrast to Clinton, Sanders enjoyed a twenty point (55-35%) favorable cushion. He did better than Clinton both among Democrats and Republicans, but his real edge came among independents who liked him by a 63-27% margin and disliked Clinton by 50-44%. Clinton supporters understandably try to shrug off these types of polling results – when they are raised at all (and maybe, while they’re at it, berate Bernie supporters for not liking Hillary more). A reasonably representative Clinton-backer response had it that, “The Republican hate machine has not been working on Bernie Sanders for two decades, as they have against Hillary. And she has stood up to it very powerfully. But if he were to be the nominee (which he won't be), the attacks would begin.”
Clearly it is a fact that Sanders has yet to encounter the incredibly distorting campaign the Republicans will roll out for the final election. But then neither has Clinton. And there seems no obvious reason to think the fact that Clinton would start the race with a negative popularity rating somehow insures that her popularity would not drop even lower under a Republican assault.
Were this a “normal” year, we might expect to see Democratic Party regulars and “smart money” backers start looking elsewhere when faced with a front runner who is recording the second highest unfavorable rating for a major presidential candidate since CBS News and the New York Times starting polling on the question in 1984 (exceeded only by Donald Trump). But this is not a normal year. This is a year when the party establishment put all its eggs in Hillary Clinton’s basket and the big money people and the party regulars feel they have nowhere else to turn. So far as the Democratic field goes, the money guys really do have nowhere else to go, in that Sanders has built his campaign on the fact that he doesn’t seek their cash.
The party leaders, on the other hand, do have the option of turning to Sanders, but it’s one that they find exceedingly unpalatable. As Clinton herself said of him, “He’s a relatively new Democrat, and, in fact, I’m not even sure he is one. He’s running as one. So I don’t know quite how to characterize him.” And let’s face it, Sanders, Congress’s longest-serving independent, who has long made no secret of his disdain for the political priorities of leading figures of both parties, didn’t enter the Democratic primaries because he was eager to hit the Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner circuit. He did it because it’s what you have to do to run a serious campaign.
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For a taste of the depth of party-regular antipathy toward Sanders, there’s the dyspeptic running commentary of Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank who calls Sanders “outrageously McCarthyite” for persistently challenging Clinton to release the text of her Wall Street speeches. Dismissing the core of the Sanders challenge, Frank says, “There was this complaint, ‘Oh she had contributions from Wall Street.’ So did Barack Obama. So does almost every Democrat because you can’t unilaterally disarm.” Now, Sanders may win and he may lose; you might agree with Sanders or you might disagree with him; but if there’s one thing the Sanders campaign would seem to have clearly demonstrated, as it surpasses Clinton’s fundraising with its millions of under-$30 donations, it’s that the rule of big money in politics can be broken – now. However, as the continual age disparity in the Sanders/Clinton vote shows, the longer you’ve lived with the old system, the harder it can be to recognize the fact that a new one has been born.
Still, if there’s one thing you expect political veterans to be able to do, it’s read polls. Does the fact that Sanders is currently more popular than Clinton prove that he would he would ultimately fare better than she? Of course not. One long-time Clinton supporter stated his concern quite clearly: “My lingering fear is that, given a choice between a "socialist" and a "fascist," Americans will vote more for the latter. I sure would like to be proven wrong, but the risk is too great.”
A Sacramento Bee opinion writer cautions that in a November election campaign Sanders would “have to detail his trillion-dollar, five-year infrastructure program and what his health-care system overhaul would entail. He’d have to explain his plan to make college more affordable which includes free tuition at public colleges and universities. To help pay for his ideas, he has proposed a tax on Wall Street transactions by investment houses, hedge funds and other speculators — a tough sell to a Congress reluctant to support any tax increases.”
Really, could the nation be any better served than to have a presidential election actually contested on these questions? Will some of Sanders’s proposals require greater depth and articulation? Absolutely. Will some of them have to be revised? Quite possibly. But the severity of our growing income and wealth disparities, the worldwide environmental crisis, and our out-of-control foreign policy would seem to demand that we not put the big questions off for another four or eight years. We have absolutely nothing to fear from a national debate on the issues Sanders raises. And we have a world to gain.