As I’ve noted repeatedly in several posts during the current election cycle, the media loves them a horserace, and they are not above fabricating one, if necessary, to attract readership. This is particularly true when the clear front-runner is yesterday’s news – as is the case with Hillary Clinton. In newsrooms across the nation, nothing provokes more concern than the specter of writing stories month-after-month about how Clinton is crushing the competition. To forestall this, we’ve seen two narratives take root in the popular press this past week. The first is that Clinton’s support is softening. As evidence, journalists are citing the rise in her unfavorability ratings, as captured in this Gallup poll.
As the graph shows, Hillary’s favorable ratings have plummeted from the high 60% to the low 40%, while her unfavorable ratings have inched back up to where they were before she became secretary of State. Of course, no one expected Clinton to maintain those high ratings as she transitioned from secretary of State to presidential candidate, but still.... Similar stories are told in Iowa and New Hampshire, where Clinton’s favorables/unfavorables are also underwater. Why is this bad news? Because, as Chris Cillizza reminds us, “Presidential politics tends to be dominated by personality and how people perceive their candidate choices.” The plain fact is that Clinton is not very likable.
Then there is the ongoing e-mail saga. In the most recent development, the inspector general of the intelligence community found that some of the e-mails provided by Clinton included classified information, although there is some dispute regarding whether those items were classified at the time Clinton sent the e-mails. No matter – this latest tidbit fits nicely into the prevailing media narrative that the Clintons can’t be trusted because they see themselves as above the law. As a result, we have a spurt of recent news stories with headlines like “Is Clinton’s tide shifting?,” “Worrying numbers for Clinton in last week of Polling,” and “Four poll numbers that should unnerve Hillary Clinton”.
To be fair, all these articles are laced with the usual caveats about how Clinton is still ahead in the polls, etc., but the undeniable message is the same: The Democratic race for the presidential nomination is closer than that it should be – and it could very well tighten some more. Of course, it takes two candidates to make a horserace. This is where Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders comes in. As Clinton’s political stock falls – at least in the prevailing media narrative, if not among voters – his goes up, the better to sustain the horserace narrative. In a fawning Atlantic piece that came out today, Molly Ball gushes, “There’s something about Bernie.” She notes his huge crowds, his ability to draw campaign donations (in small bills!), despite not holding fundraisers, and, not least, the fact that he possesses something Clinton does not: “an ideology.”
Her conclusion? “In the biggest surprise of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, this thoroughly implausible man, Bernie Sanders, is a sensation.” Yes, midway through the article Ball includes the usual hedges – Clinton is still leading in the polls, Bernie’s a longshot – but then there’s this: “Every Sanders crowd is full of die-hards like Bailey [a Bernie-supporter Ball interviewed], passionately committed to their unlikely hero. Every Clinton crowd, on the other hand, is full of lukewarm rank-and-file Democrats who will not hesitate to tell you they have some qualms about supporting her.” Ouch! To those on the Left, particularly those disappointed in what they see as Obama’s lukewarm embrace of progressive ideas, Bernie is a man whose time has come. As my colleague Bert Johnson points out, if you look at Bernie’s stump speeches from the early 1990’s you will find them interchangeable with what he is saying now about corporate power and economic inequality. What has changed is that Bernie’s message has now found a willing audience. Or so the prevailing media narrative would have one believe.
The problem with both these narratives is that they run up against stubborn facts. One is that candidate likability, Cillizza’s pronouncement notwithstanding, isn’t a very important influence on the vote, a point I’ve made multiple times before. Favorable/unfavorable ratings may be slight more indicative, but as Brendan Nyhan points out, her “favorable/unfavorable ratings at the national level have not changed as drastically as the coverage suggests. They averaged 47 percent favorable/45 percent unfavorable in January and are at 44 percent favorable/48 percent unfavorable now – a relatively modest shift given the onslaught of negative coverage” she has received of late.
Moreover, if you unpack the trajectory of Clinton’s favorable/unfavorable ratings, you will see that her rising negatives are almost entirely rooted among Republicans and independents. Among Democrats she is both better known and viewed more favorably than any other Democratic candidate, including Sanders.
On the other side of the narrative, Sanders may be a “sensation," but he continues to trail Clinton in both Iowa and New Hampshire according to the polls – and these are the two states that seem demographically among the most favorably disposed toward him. (In a transparent bid to lower expectations, the Clinton campaign is openly suggesting Bernie could win both states.) Once the campaign moves south, particularly on Super Tuesday, Bernie is going to be traversing decidedly less favorable terrain. As this chart from RealClearPolitics shows, many of the delegate-rich Super Tuesday primaries will be held in the South, in states with heavy African-American or Hispanic populations. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, Bernie has, so far, elicited less-than-robust polling support among nonwhites.
Before my Twitter and blog feed are inundated with negative comments from the #feelthebern crowd, let me remind my readers that I’m analyzing where the candidates stand right now, and not expressing a political preference regarding an outcome. As a longtime Bernie-watcher, I’m thoroughly enjoying his time, however brief, on the national stage, and I sincerely hope his run lasts beyond Iowa and New Hampshire, if for no other reason than to see Bernie scowl one more time at another inane horserace question from Chuck Todd. Bernie is raising important issues – including concerns about the intersection of race and income inequality – that need to be discussed at the national level. But it is also the case that his “surge” in the polls is much more about pollsters dropping Elizabeth Warren’s name from their list of potential candidates as it is any discernible shift in support away from Clinton. It fits the media horserace narrative to speculate about the possibility, however improbable, that Clinton will stumble and Sanders will step in to steal the nomination. As of today, however, the facts say that is not going to happen. Bernie trails Clinton in all the important indicators: national polls, early state polls, fundraising and party endorsements.
Is there something about Bernie? Yes. Right now, he’s losing.
Matthew Dickinson publishes his Presidential Power blog at http://sites.middlebury.edu/presidentialpower/.