There’s no doubt, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is stiff competition for Hillary Clinton in the race for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination.
In recent polls, Sanders continues to show his strength in early primary states and is closing in on Clinton’s national lead. According to a Monmouth University poll released Tuesday, Clinton holds 52% support nationwide from Democratic voters, down from last month’s 59%. Sanders garners 37% support, a big jump from 26% in December.
“With a shrinking margin, a strong showing by Sanders in Iowa and New Hampshire could cut Clinton’s national lead even more,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, in a statement.
With three weeks left before the New Hampshire primary, the self-proclaimed “Democratic socialist” is taking a commanding lead over the former Secretary of State. According to a new WMUR/CNN poll, Sanders has 60% support compared to Clinton’s 33% among Democratic New Hampshire primary voters.
Andrew Smith, director of the Survey Center for the University of New Hampshire, conducted the poll. He says Bernie Sanders is a real threat to Hillary Clinton and has been for several months.
“Sanders has had a 10 percentage point advantage over Clinton since September – it’s not that we are seeing a new phenomenon, what we are seeing is a continuation of a trend,” said Smith.
Historically in New Hampshire, the Democratic primary electorate tends to favor the candidate that is not the favorite of the party at large. During the 1984 primary, Gary Hart won over Walter Mondale and in 2000, Bill Bradley received 46% of the vote, nearly beating out establishment candidate Al Gore. Smith says approximately 35-45% of Democratic primary voters in the Granite State are considered moderate to progressive, which is why Bernie Sanders already has a built-in base.
“The key thing to remember about New Hampshire which is different than any other primary state is that we have a really big turnout; over 50% this year. That means the people who vote are not political activists, they are just regular old voters and they are not wedded to any one candidate,” said Smith.
The most impressive result from the poll is Sanders’ overwhelming favorability rating: 91% of all Democratic primary voters hold a favorable opinion, 96% under the age of 35 support him and a whopping 98% of voters who have never voted for a primary in the past also back him.
“Sanders has favorability ratings that are off the charts, I have never seen ratings like this,” said Smith. “He is staggeringly popular -- it’s not that Clinton is unpopular; she has 65% favorable opinion.”
Smith says what sets Sanders apart from Clinton is his “new on the political scene” feel even though he is the oldest candidate running. Another important factor is Bernie’s honest and direct approach on the campaign trail. When asked which candidate is the least honest in the recent survey, 55% of Democratic primary voters said Hillary Clinton.
“I think that is the biggest problem Clinton has had in her campaign is that she is not necessarily genuine -- the positions she holds on issues are political, rather than driven by her core beliefs,” said Smith.
What makes Bernie Sanders an even more viable candidate is his ability to control the messaging from his campaign. Smith says Sanders is driving the Democratic race by pushing the agenda and message, while Clinton is responding to him.
“It is much easier for voters to believe the real deal versus the person who is saying me too,” said Smith.
On the offensive, the Clinton campaign released a new TV ad in Iowa and New Hampshire on Wednesday highlighting her accomplishments as First Lady, Senator of New York and Secretary of State. According to the press release, the 60-second spot shows how Hillary Clinton is “uniquely suited to take on the challenges” that the next president will face and her experience “cannot be matched by any other presidential candidate.”
“Hillary Clinton is in very real danger of losing both Iowa and New Hampshire to Bernie Sanders. She is making two arguments: First, that she is ready to be elected, and second, that Sanders can't win and is a danger to America,” said David Schoen, a Democratic campaign consultant who worked with Hillary Clinton during her Senate run for New York.
Schoen says given the recent poll numbers, there is “no evidence this strategy is producing results for her.”
Candidates’ efforts for a winning game plan in the New Hampshire primary may be all in vain since 35-45% of primary voters say they make up their minds in the last three days of the campaign and 15-20% say they will select a candidate on Election Day.
“In New Hampshire, it’s not a heavily thought out ideologically driven choice and that means that things move around tremendously. People will start paying attention to debates, media coverage and see what their neighbor says. All these little things can change a campaign and shift how things will turn out in the end,” said Smith.