Eric Davis: Sanders can win with the right strategy

The next six weeks will be critical for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign.

Sanders is doing better now than many analysts, myself included, thought when he became a candidate last May. Iowa polls indicate that state’s Feb. 1 caucuses are too close to call between Sanders and Hillary Clinton. Sanders appears to have a lead outside the margin of error in the Feb. 9 New Hampshire primary.

Sanders will likely raise over $100 million, enough for a 50-state campaign. Almost all of Sanders’ contributions are $200 or less, so he will be able to go back to his donors and receive additional support if he demonstrates momentum in early primaries and caucuses.

National polls show that while Clinton continues to be the preferred candidate among Democrats, Sanders is closing the gap. Last week’s New York Times/CBS News poll showed Clinton with only a 7-point lead over Sanders, down from 20 percent in the same poll in December. Some Democratic strategists in Washington see parallels between 2016 and 2008, when Clinton was thought to have an invincible lead in Iowa, only to end up finishing third, behind both Barack Obama and John Edwards.

Even if Sanders wins or comes close in Iowa, and wins New Hampshire convincingly, he still faces many challenges in becoming the Democratic presidential nominee. First, he must substantially improve his support among African-American and Latino voters if he is to have any chance of being competitive with Clinton in the two states that will vote in late February, South Carolina and Nevada.

Generating a large and enthusiastic turnout among African-American and Latino voters will be a key to Democratic victory in November, especially in competitive states such as Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada that have been swing states in the electoral college in recent cycles. Sanders must demonstrate in the Nevada caucuses and South Carolina primary that he can expand his appeal beyond the white middle-class progressives and young voters that have been the core of his supporters to date.

Next, Sanders has to demonstrate stronger appeal to working-class white voters to do well in states such as Michigan, Illinois, Missouri and Ohio that will hold primaries in mid- to late March. Although Sanders has been endorsed by a few labor unions, he has yet to receive the support of any of the manufacturing and industrial unions that are still important in Democratic politics in the large Midwestern states.

In many ways, Sanders’ message is directed toward union voters in the Midwest, yet he has not been able to obtain much traction in those states to date. However, national and local union leaders are often very pragmatic in their politics, and strong Sanders showings in early primary and caucus states could end up convincing organized labor to provide more support to Sanders in the states that will hold primaries later in March.

Finally, Sanders will need to overcome Hillary Clinton’s argument that she would be the strongest Democratic candidate in November. As of last week, the Real Clear Politics average of polls showed that Sanders was ahead of Donald Trump by 2 points, the same margin by which Clinton led Trump. Sanders led Ted Cruz by 3 points, while Cruz had a 2-point lead over Clinton.

If Sanders can generate momentum in the early primary and caucus states, and can follow that up with wins in some other states — such as Massachusetts, Colorado and Minnesota — that vote along with Vermont in the March 1 “Super Tuesday” primaries, the trial heats between Democrats and Republicans could show him doing comparatively better than Clinton by the time the large state primaries are held in mid- and late March.

Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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