It has been a busy few weeks for the Democratic presidential race. First the debate, then Jim Webb's exit from the race and today the news that Vice President Joe Biden has declined to jump into the contest. Tomorrow, Hillary Clinton will testify before the Benghazi committee. All of this will have an effect on the voting public, but it's still too early to make any definitive statements as to how everything is going to shake out. Still, some trendlines are already emerging, and they could be very good news indeed for Clinton.
First let's take a look at the debate's impact, because we are starting to see hard data in the polls showing what the public thought about the debate (as opposed to "what the pundits thought the public might be thinking about the debate"). The first Democratic debate was a success for Bernie Sanders, but a really big success for Hillary Clinton. Nobody else at the debate even registered much with the public, which is no real surprise. Both Clinton and Sanders are doing better in the polls after the debate than before, but Clinton clearly did herself more good than Bernie. Sanders is comfortably polling in the mid-20s, but so far he seems to have a built-in ceiling of around 30 percent support. Clinton, on the other hand, had seen her numbers slip dramatically down to around 40 percent before the debate. She's now in the high 40s and looks like she's within reach of topping 50 percent again. That's a solid turnaround in trendlines, created almost entirely by her strong debate performance.
Sanders supporters were convinced that Bernie won the debate, right after it happened. The voters didn't agree -- most Democrats said Hillary won (but also that Bernie did well, too). Sanders supporters were convinced that the debate would be a great way to introduce Bernie to a lot of Democrats who maybe had heard his name but had never really heard him speak. This would engender a wave of new support for Bernie, which would lift his numbers up to where Clinton's were. That largely didn't happen. Some voters were indeed convinced to give Bernie a chance, but not enough. Most were convinced to give Hillary more support, which notably reversed her recent drop in the polls.
These numbers, I should mention, are all from polls that included Biden's name. Now that he's officially not running, the pollsters (hopefully) will stop including Biden, so we can get a more accurate picture of the two-way race between Clinton and Sanders. More on this in a moment.
Jim Webb finally figured out that the Democratic Party has moved on from the early 1960s, and that he's (to put it politely) not exactly a good fit for the current Democratic electorate. He did mutter darkly about launching an independent bid for the presidency, but even if such a wildly-improbable thing were to happen, it likely would have almost zero effect on the race at large. Other than Clinton and Sanders, there are still three other Democrats still running, at least until Lincoln Chafee runs out of money. Martin O'Malley will likely stay in to the bitter end, in his bid to get named to the vice president slot on the ticket. Lawrence Lessig is not "running for president" so much as "performing a political science experiment," so he's not likely to end his run any time soon, either. However, with Biden now out, the Democratic race is clearly a one-on-one contest, so none of these minor candidates are even really worth discussing.
The big question looming now is where all the Biden supporters will go. Biden was polling respectably in the high teens, meaning there is 15-20 percent of the Democratic electorate now up for grabs. Who are these Biden supporters? Some just plain love Biden as a candidate. Some are party loyalists who wanted what would essentially have been a third Obama term. Some don't like Hillary Clinton but were reluctant to support Sanders. The question is what was the exact mix of the Biden supporters. Party loyalists will likely shift their support to Clinton. People disenchanted with Clinton will likely move over to Bernie's column. Much like the effect of the first debate, what is most likely to happen is that both Sanders and Clinton get a boost from Biden's exit, but that Hillary's boost will be bigger than Bernie's.
That's what the polling so far has indicated. After asking the question with Biden's name in the list, some polls asked the question again without including Biden, to see how the numbers differed. In these polls, most showed that Clinton got more of the Biden supporters than Sanders. If this does play out, it would mean Bernie might get a bump of around five percent while Clinton rises by 10 percent or more.
This might give Clinton an unbeatable lead. Adding five points to Bernie's numbers (even on his best day) only moves him up to the mid-30s (with a ceiling of perhaps 35 percent or so). But adding 10 points to Hillary's numbers puts her comfortably into the 50s -- well over a majority of Democratic voters. She could climb as high as 60 percent, which (if she can maintain it) would easily be enough for her to win the nomination.
We've still got a lot of election season to go, however. These numbers might change in the future, for better or worse. Democrats still have a number of debates lined up, and Hillary still has to testify tomorrow before Congress. So far, she's been aided by the Republicans who have admitted the nakedly partisan nature of the committee, and she seems pretty confident she won't have some sort of "gotcha" moment, but anything is still possible.
Biden's exit from consideration should clarify the race, but it'll likely take a few weeks before the ripples fade. Biden supporters will now be faced with a choice between two viable candidates. Perhaps some of them will even take a look at O'Malley, who still struggles to top one percent in the polls. Biden voters may shift back and forth between Clinton and Sanders for a while before truly committing to one or the other.
However, if the trends do play out the way previous polls have indicated, and barring any unforeseen circumstances, the pundits may look back on this week as the time that Hillary Clinton clinched the Democratic nomination. Her strong showing in the debate began this trend, and if Biden's supporters put her comfortably over 50 percent in the Democratic race, the trend may become irreversible. If it does continue, Bernie Sanders would have to take Iowa and New Hampshire to even have any reasonable shot at winning the nomination. Sanders would have been much more competitive in a three-way race with Biden, but now that that option is not going to happen the road to the nomination looks a lot harder for him.
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