Bernie is no longer such an outside bet for the Presidency
The oil tanker that is the mainstream media has finally started to change course. After months of relentlessly claiming that Hillary Clinton was the unassailable frontrunner in the race for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States of America, Washington has woken up to reality: Hillary is in deep trouble.
Back in June last year, I wrote on this site: ‘Think Hillary is inevitable? Think again.’ At the time, most of the national polls gave Clinton a gargantuan lead – up to 60 points – over her lesser-known rivals. Deaf as ever to the nuances of public opinion, the mainstream media declared that the race was over before it had even begun.
But the signs were there. Polling of both registered Democrats and the general electorate demonstrated that significant and increasing numbers of Americans associated the former First Lady and Secretary of State with the elitism and greed of corporate of America. Indeed, often described as ‘out-of-touch’, most voters do not ‘like’ nor ‘trust’ her.
Despite early polls predicting a Hillary primary landslide, others hinted that she was a remarkably weak candidate for someone with such a large national profile and solid donor and political base on Capitol Hill. Her receipt of millions of dollars in campaign donations and personal income over the past decade from Wall Street’s casino capitalist heavy-weights like Goldman Sachs, Citigroup and Morgan Stanley has many progressive voters questioning her commitment to addressing poverty, inequality and financial irresponsibility.
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As I put in June: ‘Hillary, ever the corporatist, establishment, free market Democrat, will be vulnerable to a challenge from the left. As a rich, powerful and well-connected woman, voters may conclude that she is hardly the right person to fundamentally re-shape America’s elitist, unequal politics.’ Enter, stage left: Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.
After a ‘virtual tie’ in the Iowa caucus, a national Quinnipiac poll found, as ABC News put it, ‘Hillary Clinton’s strong national lead over Sanders is essentially gone and, instead, the Democratic race is incredibly close’. With the New Hampshire primary fast approaching, Clinton is on 44% countrywide to Sanders’ 42% - his highest support in any national poll to date. Clinton’s lead was, as recently as late December, 31 points.
The Iowa Caucus entrance poll found that just 10% of voters believed Clinton was ‘honest and trustworthy’ against 83% for Sanders. Only 22% agreed that Clinton ‘cares about people like me’ versus 74% for Sanders. Those are staggeringly bad numbers for Clinton among members of or sympathisers to her own party.
If Hillary was any other politician, her campaign would be characterised as sinking like a stone. Instead, despite Sanders being on course to win New Hampshire by a landslide, some supposed experts still think Hillary’s current travails are merely a bump on the long road to the White House.
We’ve seen this movie before, of course, and it doesn’t have a happy ending for the Clintons. During her previous Presidential run in 2007, when she managed to clinch defeat from the jaws of victory, many of these same obstacles were ultimately her downfall. She simply could not compete with the elegant prose – or indeed the grander promises – of the fresh-faced, natural-born campaigner that was Barack Obama. Her public remarks were wooden and uninspiring, her one-to-one interactions with voters awkward and detached.
Journalists following her campaign as it criss-crossed the early primary states couldn’t help but draw rather unflattering comparisons with her husband Bill, skilled in the art of retail politics and perhaps the most affable, electrifying President in modern American history. In eight years, things have not improved.
One analyst recently described Hillary as ‘America’s most boring public speaker’. Another suggested that her delivery in Iowa last week was like that of a ‘classroom lecture’. Her staid, business-like (although healthily-attended) campaign events are nothing compared to Sanders’ raucous, mass rallies. The veteran left-winger is energising significant numbers of young, first-time and poor voters across the country, even beyond the early-voting primary states.
As Obama proved in 2008, like (ironically) Bill Clinton before him in 1992 or John F. Kennedy in 1960, crowds matter; ‘buzz’ matters. Their energy can give an outsider candidate sufficient momentum to ride all the way to the White House. Sanders’ campaign has even attracted a record number of small, individual donations, smashing Obama’s 2008 and 2012 efforts at this early stage. Make no mistake: the Bernie surge is real.
2016 is the year of American rage. This is not a normal election. A business-as-usual candidate cannot win (just ask poor Jeb Bush). This presidential election is all about the establishment and how much ordinary Americans, left and right, Democrat and Republican, hate it. Sanders is gaining support and momentum because he is tapping into this raw nerve. His belligerent style comes across not as aggressive or wacky, but as authentic, righteous fury.
Railing against the exploitative practices and insatiable greed of corporate America is wildly popular in a country struggling to get by in the midst of the slowest and most unequal post-recession recovery in the nation’s history. Whoever can reflect and harness this popular anger will win the White House. (Hint: a stand-offish, establishment-cosy candidate might struggle to win that fight). Polls also prove that Sanders, perhaps counter-intuitively, is actually more electable than Clinton for this very reason.
The ‘Clinton system’ – a vast network of rich donors, experienced staffers, well-connected lobbyists and expert PR specialists – is a formidable, well-oiled machine. Sanders is probably justified in calling it the ‘most powerful political organisation’ in America. If he wins the Democratic nomination, he will have pulled off a stunning upset. But it will not have been an unforeseeable shock for those who had the foresight to dig a little deeper into the critical detail of those early polls.
Maybe you didn’t believe me in June, but you’ve got to believe me now. All the evidence is pointing to one simple fact denied for so long: Sanders can win this thing. And, if I was a betting man, I would say he will. I just wish I’d put money on it back in the summer...