Hillary Clinton barely beats Bernie Sanders in Wisconsin. Should she worry?

If you look closer, the Wisconsin results don’t really say anything about Sen. Bernie Sanders’s national prospects – or even how he'd do in Wisconsin.

Jim Cole/AP/File
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks in Hampton, N.H., earlier this year.

It’s true – Bernie Sanders nearly beat Hillary Clinton in Wisconsin over the weekend. The wild-haired, self-proclaimed socialist took 41 percent of the vote in a straw poll at the Wisconsin Democratic Party convention, while the former secretary of State drew 49 percent – winning, but barely. Time to crank up the media Wurlitzer! It’s a race, folks. Mrs. Clinton’s still the favorite, but Sanders is coming up on her left.

That’s the way some people in the progressive wing of the party are choosing to interpret the results, in any case. Enthused by the size of Senator Sanders’s crowds, they see the Wisconsin vote as vindication for their ideals and proof that Clinton is vulnerable to a liberal challenge.

“Remaining clear-eyed about hurdles but WI straw poll shows strength of Sanders’ insurgent campaign,” tweeted Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of the left-leaning magazine The Nation, on Monday.

Um, really? Look, we’d be thrilled if the Democratic nomination race turned competitive, since that would generate lots more interest, and thus readers, for our stuff. Journalists are almost always biased in favor of conflict. It’s more dramatic than writing yet again about Clinton’s ginormous polling lead.

But the Wisconsin results don’t say anything about Sanders’s national prospects. They don’t really measure how he’d do in Wisconsin. It’s quite possible they’re not really indicative of the state Democratic convention itself.

That’s because straw polls are actual polls with the rigor removed. They’re semi-random, not representative or complete. At the Wisconsin Democratic convention only about one-third of the 1,600 attendees actually participated in the survey, according to a report from Gee, do you think it’s possible that motivated Sanders fans made an effort to participate, while Clinton backers didn’t bother? Or that committed liberals are more likely to attend an off-year Democratic convention in the first place?

Let’s ask ex-GOP nominee Michele Bachmann, who won the Ames Straw Poll in 2011 ... oh yeah, right.

Nor is Wisconsin a key state in the march to the nomination. Its primary isn’t until April, long after the winnowing of trailing candidates has begun. Plus, left-leaning Democratic voters seem pretty satisfied with Clinton. Self-described liberals are just as likely to support her as self-described Democratic moderates or conservatives, according to (actual) polls.

That said, the straw poll results do at least provide a general picture of something – the rest of the field, at the moment, is nowhere. Sanders got a total of 208 votes. Martin O’Malley got 18. And Wisconsin, in the end, might be a good state for Sanders actually. The state has a long liberal history. The last socialist to serve as mayor of a big American city was Frank Zeidler, who ran Milwaukee from 1948 to 1960.

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