Notes from the Primaries: Clinton still doesn’t quite get the Sanders surge

The Sanders campaign has been stalled, but Clinton should be wary of calling him a 'single issue candidate'


The Republicans

After strong wins in New Hampshire and South Carolina, Trump appears to be in control of the GOP race now. Yes, lots could happen, and Rubio continues to gain strength as the mainstream alternative, but Trump has emerged from this huge GOP scrum in better shape than anyone else.

Compare his vote totals and shares at this point to the last two GOP nominees:

McCain ’08: 251,840 (31.5 per cent of total)

Romney ’12: 294,616 (30.5 per cent of total)

Trump ’16: 385,684 (31.9 per cent of total)

Yes, Trump has 50 per cent more votes at this point than McCain did in 2008.

We have another GOP debate this Thursday, which will be one of the most intense yet. Everyone will be gunning for Trump, and with fewer candidates on the stage more time will be spent on him. It will be one of his most important tests to date.

Watch for how his opponents play his attacks on George W. Bush for not keeping us safe, an issue that I assume with continue to resonate and disrupt the GOP conversation, even after Jeb’s hasty departure from the race.

As for the departure of Jeb, it was always a mystery to me how he thought he could overcome the legacy of his father and brother. Both in their own ways were failed Presidents, and certainly many Republicans saw them as unworthy successors to Ronald Reagan.

Despite raising and spending extraordinary sums of money, the Bush dynasty failed to re-assert control over the GOP (though there is another on the rise in Texas – George P. Bush, Jeb’s son, is worth watching).

The epic Bush crash in some ways makes Hillary’s early success even that much more impressive, while being a reminder that unlike Bush, Clinton has been part of two successful Presidencies.

The Democrats

Saturday was a big big day in Clinton land. The remarkable Sanders insurgency was halted but, importantly, not ended. After three early contests this long-shot and eccentric campaign has earned the same number of pledged delegates as Clinton (51) and received at least 47 per cent of the vote in all three states, which are also important battlegrounds in the general election.

In other words, his campaign has matured into a serious national political effort, capable of matching Clinton in organisation and money, and outperforming her in terms of media and creativity.

So while Bernie clearly suffered a blow on Saturday, he isn’t done and will go on to the 20 states voting in early March. But his task is much harder now, and he has little room for error in the days ahead.

Starting with Hillary’s New Hampshire concession speech and picking up over the past week, you could sense that the Clinton campaign had finally begun to rise to the Sanders challenge. After months of unmemorable media, the campaign has produced a series of powerful ads that present their candidate in a far more favorable light.

Clinton’s own television speeches and appearances have gotten far sharper and better. The campaign is aggressively deploying its many and varied surrogates, allowing them to be in more than one place at a time while reminding voters of the lack of validation and support Sanders has been able to garner (I helped develop and oversee the surrogate program in the 1992 campaign and know how historically important this has been in Clinton land).

And clearly a lot went right on the ground in Nevada on Saturday: see this terrific piece about Senator Harry Reid’s role in Clinton’s victory.

What comes next? Clearly Hillary is in the driver’s seat now. She is likely to win South Carolina and head into the 11 contests on Tuesday, March 1st with a lot of momentum and rising confidence. Bernie will have to perform well that day to stay competitive.

Importantly, he has a shot in at least five of the 11 – Colorado, Oklahoma, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Vermont. Look for the Clinton campaign to ride their advantage with African-American voters in the other six states and concentrate on knocking Bernie out in Colorado, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Oklahoma.

If she runs the table on March 1st the Democratic nomination could come to a rather rapid resolution.

Not a Fan of the ‘Single Issue Candidate’ Line

One area where I think the Clinton campaign is making a big mistake is in their labeling of Bernie a ‘single issue’ candidate. First, it just isn’t true, and attacks that are not grounded in reality don’t usually work that well over time. Second, it is offensive to both Sanders and his passionate followers, whom Clinton will need by her side if she wins.

Bernie is much more than about breaking up the big banks. And that brings me to the third problem – it suggests that the Clinton campaign still doesn’t really understand what is propelling his candidacy.

To me what is driving Bernie, and to some degree Trump, Cruz and Rubio too, is that they represent a break from the current political establishment. There is enormous disquiet in the American people now, and Hillary simply must begin to tap into this sentiment in some way.

The answer to this is in part someone who can ‘get things done,’ but it is also someone who is willing to bring fundamental change to a that system everyone views as terribly broken. I’ve been writing about this for months; why Clinton hasn’t become more of a forceful advocate of the very thoughtful political reform agenda she has already proposed remains another one of the big political mysteries of 2016 for me.


I will have more on this in a day or so, but Republicans continue to significantly outperform Democrats in television audiences for debates and townhalls and in turnout. While this gap is not determinative, it is illustrative.

Republicans are far more engaged and enthusiastic about this election right now than Democrats. And given that in two of the past three elections Democrats have had enthusiasm and turnout challenges, these numbers continue to be a cause of concern.

Simon Rosenberg is the founder of the think tank NDN/NPI. In the run up to the US election Left Foot Forward will be reposting his weekly analysis of the campaign trail as a UK exclusive. You can find previous columns here

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