Democratic Race Stabilizes

LAS VEGAS, NV - October 13: bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton and Martin O'Malley pictured at the 2015 CNN Democratic President
LAS VEGAS, NV - October 13: bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton and Martin O'Malley pictured at the 2015 CNN Democratic Presidential Debate at Wynn Resort in Las Vegas, NV on October 13, 2015. Credit: Erik Kabik Photography/ MediaPunch/IPX

On Monday, I took a look at the Republican nomination race, so I thought it'd be fair to check in today with the Democratic contest. One obvious reason why I (and others in the political commentary world) have been paying so much more attention to Republicans is the continuing volatility of the GOP campaign, which still has (as of this writing) 14 official candidates running. By comparison, the Democratic race is a lot more calm after half the field has already dropped out, which has left only three candidates still in the contest: Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley.

Even a horserace between three horses can be exciting and close, we should mention, if they're evenly matched. The sheer number of candidates isn't always the best indicator of the fierceness of the struggle to be the frontrunner. However, in this case neither of those things is really true. The Democratic primary race has stabilized and there simply hasn't been much movement at all in the past few months. The safe bet is on Hillary to win comfortably. Bernie has an outside shot but still a rather long one, and O'Malley has no chance whatsoever.

In national polling, Clinton lost ground all summer, and hit a low of around 40 percent support among Democratic primary voters. Since October, however, she's been regaining ground and has now spent the last month in the range between 54 and 58 percent. Individual polls (rather than a poll-of-polls average) for the past month have fluctuated between 50 and 60 percent support. This is not an insurmountable lead -- she could very well fall back again if she stumbles badly on the campaign trail. But, at this point, it certainly is a daunting lead for the other candidates in the field.

Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders seems to have hit a ceiling, in the low-to-mid 30s. He also has bettered his poll numbers since the summer, but he didn't benefit as much as Clinton from Joe Biden declining to run. Both Clinton and Sanders got a big upward bounce as the Biden fans divided themselves up, but Clinton pulled in more of them than Bernie. And Clinton, even discounting the Biden spike, has been steadily gaining ground since the summer, while Bernie's only upward movement came as a result of the Biden announcement -- his poll numbers have been otherwise pretty flat. Bernie's been regularly polling in the range between 30 and 35 percent, but showing no real movement upwards of late.

Martin O'Malley is, as he's always been, an afterthought. His polling average has yet to hit five percent, and is currently at 2.3 percent. I've long maintained that he's in the race largely to present himself as an attractive candidate for an eventual vice-presidential pick, and I've seen nothing in the past few months to change this impression.

Of course, Sanders supporters have been (correctly) pointing out that Hillary Clinton was also way out in front in the polling in the 2008 nomination race, and Barack Obama was lagging behind her roughly in the spot Bernie Sanders now occupies. Anything can, indeed, happen in politics -- and usually already has. Sanders could spark some late attention and capture some early primaries, which would give his campaign a boost and get Democratic voters to more seriously consider an alternative to Hillary Clinton.

In the first four states to vote, Sanders could indeed do well. Right now the polling in Iowa puts Clinton up by a pretty wide margin (22 points in the most recent poll), but the situation is volatile. Clinton and Sanders are both fighting hard for the state, but Sanders might have a hidden edge since in a caucus state the most-committed voters have an outsize influence. Fired-up "Feel The Bern!" voters versus tepid Hillary supporters might make this state more competitive than the polls now indicate. Even if Sanders comes in a close second here, it'll likely do his campaign some good.

New Hampshire is much more favorable to Sanders, being right next door to Vermont. Sanders is currently leading Clinton in the polling here, and they've been neck-and-neck for months. New Hampshire isn't all that big a state in terms of delegates to the convention, but its "first primary" status means it has an outsized influence on how voters elsewhere see the race shaping up. So if Sanders comes in a close second in Iowa and then beats Clinton in New Hampshire, the entire race might become a whole lot closer nationally, as Democratic voters give Bernie a second look.

The next Republican state to vote is South Carolina, but Democrats in Nevada will caucus before the Democratic South Carolina primary. Nevada is currently pretty heavily tilted towards Clinton, but the polling is pretty sparse so far. Nevada is a strong Union state for Democrats, which might give Bernie another hidden advantage. If Sanders is coming off a New Hampshire win, and if his caucus-goers convince enough other Democratic voters that Sanders has a chance, it's conceivable that he could pull off an upset and win Nevada. However, South Carolina is pretty solid Clinton territory. She's currently leading Sanders by a whopping 50 points here, a lead that looks pretty insurmountable no matter how good Bernie does in New Hampshire and Nevada.

So, in the rosiest of scenarios for Sanders, he closely loses Iowa, wins New Hampshire, pulls a surprise victory in Nevada, but then loses badly in South Carolina. That's an even split, two states each. This is exactly what Sanders would need to be considered a valid contender by voters nationally. The prospect of a real alternative to Clinton would be safer for many voters to consider, if Sanders already has some solid victories under his belt.

Bernie's real viability may hinge on one particular demographic, though. Many have already pointed this out, but the biggest reason Clinton is doing so well in South Carolina right now is the African-American vote. Sanders has been frustrated in his efforts to woo these voters, which is a little inexplicable when you consider his policies versus Clinton's. Hillary has great name recognition among African-Americans and some secondhand good feelings left over from her husband's time in office. This is going to be crucial when the first big primary date happens, as a huge chunk of the South all votes on the same day (people are already calling it "S.E.C. Tuesday," which is as good a name as any).

Clinton's lead in South Carolina is likely insurmountable for Sanders, no matter how well he does in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada. But that may change by S.E.C. Tuesday, as the voters will have had more time to take Bernie's measure. To have any good chance of winning the nomination, Bernie Sanders must shake loose a significant portion of the African-American vote from Hillary Clinton across the South. If he can't do so by S.E.C. Tuesday, then Clinton may sweep the South and begin projecting an air of invincibility that simply cannot be overcome.

In conclusion, there is absolutely no path to the nomination for Martin O'Malley. There is a path to victory for Bernie Sanders, but it is a narrow one which must be perfectly trod. But the wide, wide road to the nomination really does belong to Hillary Clinton at this point. She has pulled out of her summer slump, she's campaigning a lot better and she's a lot more accommodating to the media these days. She is hitting her stride, in other words. Being a Clinton, though, means there will always be scandalmongers out there trying to take her down, and it's always possible that one of these will stick in a way all the ginned-up "scandals" this year have not. Hillary Clinton could, in other words, somehow beat Hillary Clinton. But barring some self-immolation of one sort or another, the safe bet right now is that Hillary Clinton will be the 2016 Democratic nominee.


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