When former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton returned to the scene of the bitterly contested 2008 Democratic presidential primary’s most divisive battleground, South Carolina, she found that tensions had not entirely abated over the years. State Representative Boyd Brown, an outspoken supporter of Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, described Clinton’s support in his state as “a mile wide but it’s only an inch deep.” It was a prescient observation, albeit not Brown’s alone. Clinton has campaigned aggressively for a nomination that should, by rights, already be hers. She has contorted herself wildly, recanted her past policy preferences, and all but condemned her husband as a sellout to the cause; all in pursuit of the elusive support of the liberals who robbed her of the nomination once already. And, yet, that seemingly unnecessary posturing has not solidified her support among Democrats. In fact, it appears to be ebbing.
The Democratic Party’s leftward drift over the course of the last 15 years has been observable both in anecdotal and quantitative terms. Speaking with MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell in September of last year, a roundtable of Iowa Democrats uniformly expressed reservations about Clinton’s perceived closeness to Wall Street and her hawkish approach to matters related to foreign affairs. “I’m looking for someone that’s a little more liberal,” one politically active student told Mitchell.
That student is in good company. “In 2015, the proportion of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents who said they were both socially liberal and economically moderate or liberal reached 47 percent,” wrote Real Clear Politics analyst Matthew Disler this month. “Thirty-nine percent of participants in this group answered similarly in 2008, and only 30 percent did so in 2001.”
Many speculated that Clinton’s massive lead over her prospective challengers has been amassed by default. Not only was it “her turn,” as former Obama campaign advisor Jim Messina once said, but she was also easily the most electable candidate in an otherwise lackluster Democratic field. Some suspected that, as a result, Clinton’s support among liberals was ephemeral or even illusory. They might have been right.
Despite Clinton’s theatrical attempts to placate her party’s restive left flank, her support in the key early primary states appears to be fleeting.
A shocking CNN/WMUR survey of New Hampshire’s Democratic primary voters released this week revealed that the most attractive alternative to Clinton for liberals, the self-described socialist Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, is surging. In the state that Clinton’s team views as her backyard, the place where she managed to stage a comeback win after Barack Obama and John Edwards stole both first and second place finishes in Iowa in 2008, Clinton secured just 43 percent support compared with Sanders’ 35 percent. Against her primary competitor, a politician with far less political acumen or general appeal than Obama circa 2008, Clinton’s 52-point lead in February has been cut down to just 8 points. Only 13 percent of Granite State Democrats said they had planned to support Sanders as recently as May.
“Believe it or not,” ProPublica reporter Alec MacGillis observed, “Hillary’s lead over Sanders in WMUR/CNN poll in NH is narrower (43-35) than her lead was over Obama in June ’07 (36-22).” Among Democrats, only 54 percent of respondents said they had permanently determined which candidate they planned to vote for – down from 76 percent in February. 11 percent of Democrats in New Hampshire said they would not vote for Clinton under any circumstances while just 6 percent said the same of Sanders. “Clinton’s net electability score is +31%, followed closely by Sanders at +29%,” WMUR’s write-up read. “No other Democratic candidate has net favorability ratings above +2%.”
This phenomenon is not merely isolated in New Hampshire. In every survey taken of likely Democratic caucus-goers or registered Democrats in Iowa since February, Clinton’s net lead over her nearest competitors had never fallen below 41 points – until this week. For the first time, a Bloomberg survey conducted by the respected Selzer & Co of Des Moines found Clinton with only a bare majority of support – 50 percent – compared to Sanders’ 24 percent. On issues like “will take on Wall Street” and “is authentic,” Hawkeye State Democrats backed Sanders over Clinton by double-digit margins. The two candidates were statistically tied when voters were asked which candidate “will fight for the average person” and “cares about people like me.” Only on matters related to general electability did Clinton maintain her formerly prohibitive advantage over Sanders.
Few believe that Clinton could lose her party’s nomination, let alone to a marginal figure like Sanders. But what once looked like a coronation has become a fight. It’s clear that Democrats are simply not that enthusiastic about Clinton’s candidacy. If this trend continues, the Democratic Party will have to confront the fact that the primary process is going to yield a battered candidate who had to lurch much farther to the left in order to secure the nomination they would probably have preferred.