Eric Davis: Sanders campaign at crossroads
The Democratic presidential debate this Saturday evening comes at a critical time for the campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders. Sanders needs a strong showing in order to close the gap with Hillary Clinton nationally, and to solidify his position in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Saturday’s debate, to be broadcast by CBS from 9 to 11 p.m., will be held in Des Moines. Although the Saturday night time slot will draw a lower national audience than the 14 million who watched October’s Democratic debate, it will be watched by voters in Iowa, and by the press, pundits and political observers nationwide.
Sanders had a strong summer and early fall. He has brought attention to his signature issues of income inequality and the condition of the middle-class. He should raise $50 million or more, almost all in individual donations of $200 or less, and none from PACs or Super PACs. Sanders has an effective ground operation for get-out-the-vote activity in both Iowa and New Hampshire, with more than 100 paid staffers in the field in those states.
Sanders has also established himself as the clear alternative to Hillary Clinton, with Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee having dropped out of the race, and Martin O’Malley not getting any traction for his campaign.
National polls show that Clinton continues to lead among Democratic voters. Iowa and New Hampshire polls show that the first two states to vote are now competitive, with Clinton having stopped Sanders’ early momentum.
Clinton’s stronger performance in recent polls reflects changes in her campaign, as well as news coverage of events. Clinton is now somewhat more accessible to both the press and to average voters. The consensus of political observers is that she did well in the first debate. She came out of the special House committee hearing on Benghazi unscathed. In both of these settings, she came across as presidential. Clinton was also helped by Vice President Biden’s decision not to become a candidate.
To date, Sanders has solid support among two components of the Democratic base — younger voters, and white middle-class progressives. However, these two groups do not make up a majority of the Democratic electorate, much less the nation as a whole. Also, young voters often turn out at lower levels than older people.
Sanders continues to struggle among two other groups of Democrats. Clinton has substantial leads among African-American, Latino and other diverse voters. These voters are a key part of the Democratic electorate in the early states of South Carolina and Nevada, as well as Florida, Texas and California. Sanders has also not made much headway among manufacturing and industrial workers, an important voting bloc in states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio and Illinois.
At this point, I see two scenarios for Sanders. In the first, he narrowly wins Iowa and New Hampshire, is competitive in South Carolina and Nevada, and wins a few states in addition to Vermont on March 1: Colorado, Massachusetts and Minnesota. In these circumstances, he could try to get 30 to 40 percent of the delegates from the big states that vote later in the spring, to be a force at the convention if not the nominee.
In the second scenario, Clinton wins narrowly in Iowa and New Hampshire, she wins big in South Carolina and Nevada, and in all states except Vermont that vote on March 1. In this situation, Democratic leaders will press Sanders to wrap up his campaign, so Democrats can unify behind Clinton and prepare for the General Election, while the Republicans remain divided over their nominee.
Saturday’s debate, and the reaction to it, will help determine which of these two scenarios will play out over the next few months.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.