Can he beat Clinton and if so, the Republican?
In contrast to all the interest that the Republicans have delivered in their pre-primary contest, the Democratsâ€™ affair has been a low-key, staid affair so far: two candidates plus an also-ran, of which one has been an overwhelming favourite for a long time, backed with huge financial and political muscle; the other, a 74-year-old self-described socialist who has never even run for election as a Democrat before. It ought to be no contest.
And yet Bernie Sanders, Independent Senator for Vermont, stands ready to shake up the race dramatically. This time last year, he was polling about 4% in the national polls for the nomination, against Hillaryâ€™s 60%; now he trails by around 52-36. Thatâ€™s still a big gap little more than a week from the first caucus but itâ€™s coming within range.
More significantly, the polls for that Iowa caucus put Sanders and Hillary almost neck-and-neck. Of the nine polls this year, six have given Clinton a lead and three Sanders. His position in the New Hampshire is stronger still, with leads in each of the last seven polls ranging from a tight 3% to a stonking 27%. That latter one does look like an outlier but even if it is, Sanders almost certainly holds a real, and perhaps comfortable lead.
Hillaryâ€™s supporters might well that thatâ€™s all very well but the nomination will not be sown up in Iowa and New Hampshire. Important though they might be, there are few delegates that come from them and there are another 48 states plus assorted other territories that send delegates, and in the country at large sheâ€™s doing well enough, thank you. Take the third state, South Carolina, for example. Sanders hasnâ€™t come within 2:1 of Hillary there.
To make that case for Clinton ignores three points. Firstly, South Carolina hasnâ€™t been polled since mid-December. While she is almost certainly still ahead, thereâ€™s little reason to assume that Sanders hasnâ€™t had the same momentum there heâ€™s had everywhere else and it may well now be closer than the last numbers suggest. Secondly, if he does win Iowa and New Hampshire, or wins one comfortably and takes a narrow second in the other, he will be the one on the roll and Hillary will be on the defensive, adding further momentum to his campaign nationally. Finally, one reason why Hillaryâ€™s been struggling â€“ the e-mail saga from her time as Secretary of State â€“ is not going away any time soon and may get worse. Even without the polling and voting stories, the national swing may continue to be against her.
Against all this is the fact that he is Bernie Sanders, socialist. Hillary cannot now ride to victory on a wave of adulation and entitlement but she can fight for the nomination and thereâ€™s plenty of negative campaigning to be thrown if needs be â€“ and needs may very well be.
I very much doubt that Sandersâ€™ surge has much to do with his intrinsic qualities as a candidate, though his core support was important in making him the alternative to Hillary; this is much more about an anti-Clinton vote. And that gives the Democrats a problem because in an election where the Republicans seem to be falling over themselves to find the least attractive candidate to put to the electorate, the Democrats may yet find both their offerings still worse: a crook and a commie. Both descriptions are of course unfair but in politics and perception, fairness is not always relevant.
Sanders should not win the nomination. For all that he might poll well in the head-to-heads at the moment, I donâ€™t believe that would withstand a Republican campaigning onslaught. If he is nominated, it will largely because he is the last man standing after Hillaryâ€™s chances are fatally affected by further revelations; if nothing else comes out, it’ll be her.
We may also need to now put aside speculation about Biden or someone else becoming candidate in a brokered convention. That might have been possible had Hillary taken 80% of the votes and close to 100% of the delegates, and then been forced to withdraw. Sanders performing strongly across the country not just in Iowa and New Hampshire but through Super Tuesday and beyond, will earn him his place as first reserve and it will then become very difficult to parachute someone in over his head if Hillary falls. Theoretically, a King Over the Water candidate could still join and win the late primaries; twelve states have filing deadlines in March or later, including California. In reality, the momentum Sanders would pick up in between would almost certainly prove decisive. Those who took my tip to back Biden on the exchanges at 199/1 may want to think about cashing out now at the 28/1 available at the time of writing.
Sanders is currently best-priced at 4/1 with both Ladbrokes and SkyBet, which is probably about right. His odds for the presidency are 8/1 (Stan James), implying a better than evens chance if he wins the nomination. I think thatâ€™s too short and would want at least 12s. The value for the big prize remains, as it has done for months, with the Donald. Yes, his ratings with many demographics are appalling but he only has to beat the candidates heâ€™s up against.