What if Bernie Sanders captured Iowa and New Hampshire?

Bernie Sanders is topping the polls in both Iowa and New Hampshire just weeks prior to the caucus and primary in those states next month. Is that enough to remove the 'unelectable' label?

Gretchen Ertl/Reuters
U.S. Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders attends a campaign rally in Manchester, New Hampshire, January 2016.

With the endorsement of a key liberal advocacy organization and a lead in New Hampshire polls, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is gaining ground in the primary race for the presidency. 

As Senator Sanders surges in the polls in both New Hampshire and Iowa, the notion that he is appealing yet unelectable may be crumbling. While his early success in these states by no means guarantees a national primary victory, it may challenge those who dismissed Sanders as too far left in his ideology to be elected. 

In 2014, Washington Post writer Jaime Fuller called Sanders' candidacy the "longest of long shots." At the time, many commentators saw Sanders' rejection of corporate money and media as his likely downfall. Middlebury College professor emeritus of political science Eric Davis said of Sanders, "He needs more national reporters covering him if this is going to work."

Yet, in a Jan. 12 poll by Quinnipiac University, Sanders is leading challenger Hilary Clinton in Iowa, 49 percent to 44 percent. Trailing far behind at just 4 points is former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley. In New Hampshire, a Monmouth University poll has Sanders ahead of Clinton, 53 percent to 39 percent. Other polls conducted by American Research Group and NBC/Marist/Wall Street Journal have Sanders over Clinton by only three points, but leading nonetheless

On Jan. 8, Sanders responded directly to Mrs. Clinton's assertions that he was unelectable. "My opponent, Secretary Clinton, has basically raised an issue in recent days," he said. "And what she has said, is 'Well, you may like Bernie Sanders or not, but you've got to vote for Hilary Clinton if you want to prevent a Republican from getting the White House.' " 

According to Sanders, this simply isn't true. He cites state and national polls that predict that Sanders would be able to hold his own against such popular Republican candidates as Donald Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in the general election.

On Thursday, the liberal advocacy organization MoveOn voted to support Sanders in an online poll. Not only did Sanders garner record online ballot numbers (with 340,665 ballots filed), he also won an unprecedented portion of the vote, 78.6 percent, compared to Clinton's 14.6 percent. In 2008, Barack Obama won 70 percent of the same online vote. 

MoveOn.org's political action executive director Ilya Sheyman summed up Sanders' appeal, saying, "grassroots progressives across the country are excited and inspired by his message and track record of standing up to big money and corporate interests to reclaim our democracy for the American people.”

Like Barack Obama seven years ago, Sanders appeals to young people with his emphasis on social and economic problems. But although Sanders can depend on the youth vote, he is also attractive to people over 50

Contrary to early assumptions that he would be hindered by his ultra liberal leanings, Sanders' self-declared socialist identity contributes to his appeal. Party membership is down, in both major political parties. Meanwhile, independent voters rose to 43 percent of the population in 2014. Yet even as voters shy away from registering with either Democrats or Republicans, some political commentators say that America's political identity is increasingly liberal. 

Even popular aversion to the "socialist" label is decreasing. According to a Rasmussen report, 13 percent of voters consider it a positive when candidates are described as socialists, up from 8 percent just four years ago. A cover story for The Atlantic this month claims that despite Congress's conservative leanings, "a liberal era is only just beginning" in American politics. 

Just because Sanders is doing well in New Hampshire and Iowa, however, doesn't mean that he will win the Democratic primary. Both states have a small percentage of minority voters. Sanders is less popular with African American voters than Clinton. Clinton also seems likely to carry the South, due in part to her greater appeal to the South's large population of African American Democrats.

When it comes to unions, which have long been seen as bastions of liberal support and key to getting voters to the polls, Clinton carries the support of some of the nation's largest labor unions. Even if Sanders wins in the early primaries, he has a long way to go to outstrip Clinton's national popularity. According to Real Clear Politics, Clinton is polling 12.8 percentage points ahead of Sanders nationwide. 

Winning in New Hampshire and Iowa next month won't secure the nomination for Sanders, but his rapidly rising popularity in those states is perhaps indicative of an emerging shift in thought as Bernie becomes "electable."

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