The rise of Bernie Sanders: Is Hillary Clinton feeling the Bern?

Bernie Sanders’ popularity has surged since he announced his desire to run for president. Sanders’ campaign has been dismissed by many as an inevitable failure. Yet, despite doubt from commentators, his policy positions are supported by the majority of Americans, and he is drawing evermore attention. Hillary Clinton’s staff still treat Mr Sanders as a joke. But, come polling day, will it be Sanders who has the last laugh? No matter how much financial superiority you possess, US politics is never predictable. If the Clinton campaign continues to stagnate, it will be Hillary who will become the political joke in 2016. Can usurper Bernie Sanders prevent Hillary Clinton’s coronation? Unlikely. But in politics nothing can be ruled out, and with current trends in Mr Sanders' favour, it would be foolish to rule him out just yet.


If one looks at Bernie Sanders’ positions in relation to public opinion, his rise appears predictable. On inequality, Sanders argues that more must be done to reduce the gap between rich and poor. The Pew Research Centre discovered that 60% of Americans believe that the economic system unfairly favours the wealthy. On Business, Sanders has been a tough critic of Wall Street. This is not an extreme position, but it is a popular one. 73% percent of Americans favour tougher rules for Wall Street financial companies. Additionally, Sanders believes that higher taxes are vital in order to rebalance American society. Given America’s ideological affinity with low taxes, one would be forgiven for thinking that on this issue Mr Sanders would be viewed as a left-wing ‘extremist.’ This is not the case. 68% of Americans favour raising taxes on people earning more than $1 million per year. Money in politics is a big issue in the US, and Sanders has been a vocal opponent of the influence of big business. This is a popular stance, with 84% of Americans believing that money has too much influence in politics, and 85% wanting a complete overhaul of the current campaign finance system. These are just some of the many popular positions that Sanders holds. With this level of support for his policies, it is no wonder that we are starting to see this translate into visible support at rallies.


The rise of Bernie Sanders can be seen most clearly in the two battleground states that are vital to victory in the Democrat Primary – New Hampshire and Iowa. In New Hampshire, voters prefer Clinton (41%) to Sanders (31%). But, those who would consider themselves to be ‘liberal’ rate both Mrs Clinton and Mr Sanders equal on 31%. Moreover, the same poll also reveals that many Democrats are not happy with aspects of Clinton’s political history. “Half said that her use of a private email server and deletion of emails would hurt her; nearly half said the same of donations to the Clinton Foundation, and 46% said her handling of the attack in Benghazi, Libya, as secretary of state would also do damage.”


In Iowa, Clinton’s dominance is similarly unconvincing. Indeed, the New York Times has warned that she “might want to watch her back.” Sanders is gaining ground in the state and has emerged as Clinton’s leading rival. A poll revealed that amongst likely Democratic caucusgoers Clinton was leading Sanders by a margin of 52% to 33%. While this remains a commanding lead, Clinton's ascendancy has narrowed in recent months, down from a lead of 45 points. Peter A. Brown, assistant director of Quinnipiac’s poll, commented that “Secretary Hillary Clinton should not be biting her fingernails over her situation in the Iowa caucus, but her lead is slipping and Senator Bernie Sanders is making progress against her.” This is not reassuring news for Hillary Clinton. It is a reflection of the emergence of Sanders as an increasingly credible threat to her candidacy.


The Democrat primaries are still a long way off, and we should not get overly excited by the increasing momentum behind the Sanders campaign. At Clinton HQ though, it’s as if they’ve never heard of Bernie Sanders. “No one’s hair is on fire about him,” explained Maria Cardona, a national Democratic strategist close to the Clinton camp who worked for Hillary in 2008.” Chris Lehane, a veteran of Bill Clinton’s campaigns who is now helping Hillary raise money, explained that “Everyone…knows there’s a 30-to-40 percent vote that’s the ‘anybody but the frontrunner’ share.” This seemingly relaxed attitude at Clinton HQ suggests that Hillary has learnt little from her defeat in 2008. By writing off Sanders, Clinton is making the same mistake – underestimating her opposition. In 2008, Barack Obama was viewed as an inexperienced Senator. Yet by the time Obama had been recognised as a real threat, it was too late. Sanders may not have the cash and the name recognition of Clinton, does but he has a connection with voters – a connection that Hillary would be foolish to underestimate.


In a political system fuelled by money, it is unlikely that Bernie Sanders will defeat Hillary Clinton. The financial shortfall of the Sanders campaign suggests that his left-wing alternative will remain on the fringe of US politics (in a manner similar to Ron Paul on the political right). Despite this, Sanders’ message aligns with many Americans, and it will be these ordinary individuals – rather than pollsters or commentators – who will decide the Democrat Party’s nomination. Currently, the Clinton campaign is laughing off the Sanders threat. However, 2008 should be an alarming historical example of failure against the odds.


Can Bernie Sanders repeat the victory of Barack Obama and defeat the formidable Clinton election machine? Only time will tell whether he achieves this, but with the Clinton campaign pursuing the same failed strategy as 2008, it may be the discarded underdog who ends up having the last laugh.


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