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Opinion Can Sanders beat Hillary? There’s one big difference between the 2008 and 2016 primaries

Here is the full speech made by Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders at Liberty University in Virginia on September 14, 2015. (Video: Liberty University)

The size of the Bernie Sanders surge has surprised many people in Democratic politics, including, presumably, those on the Hillary Clinton campaign. While Clinton still remains the favorite by most metrics — money, elite endorsements, the demographic breadth of her coalition, which will give her a big advantage beyond Iowa and New Hampshire — many Dems still remember well that Clinton was also the heavy favorite against Barack Obama in 2008, a fact that comes up constantly amid Dem hand-wringing about the current contest.

So it’s worth pointing out that there is one major difference between the 2008 and 2016 Democratic primaries that might help prevent a rerun of Clinton’s 2008 loss. That difference, in three words: The Iraq War.

New York Times analyst Nate Cohn writes today that Clinton’s favorable ratings are at a historical low point, suggesting she may have dropped further than she should have, even taking into account the fundamentals suggesting her numbers would fall as she transitioned into the role of partisan candidate. Cohn suggests there is some evidence the email story might be exacerbating a longtime Clinton difficulty: perceptions of dishonesty.

But ultimately Cohn concludes that she is still favored to defeat Sanders:

Mrs. Clinton, after all, still has a big lead in national polls. It’s no longer a historic advantage. But it’s a big one, and it’s underpinned by all of the fundamentals that help determine the outcome of the primary contest. This time, she won’t be facing a candidate, like Barack Obama, who has the potential to peel away a big part of her coalition.
Party elites haven’t begun to leave her candidacy, either.…So if the damage is done, if saying “sorry” marks the moment when the controversy begins to fade, if the investigation doesn’t take any future turns for the worse, then Mrs. Clinton could remain in a strong position to win the nomination.

If this is right — if Clinton does not start losing party elite support, and if Sanders ultimately fails to peel off a big enough chunk of Clinton’s coalition — one reason may be the absence of a Dem-primary issue such as the Iraq War. In 2008 the Democratic Party’s handling of the war — the sense that leading Dems caved and supported George W. Bush’s invasion out of political fear — was searingly divisive, an emotionally fraught symbol around which Democrats fought over past recriminations and the future direction of the party. That aligned with the Obama-versus-Clinton battle: Obama was the candidate who opposed the war; Clinton — and the other candidates, such as John Edwards and Joe Biden — had all voted for it.

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The Obama campaign worked to convert this into a larger storyline in which Obama represented a new generation of Democrats who would not succumb to the Beltway-inspired caution and insular old thinking that had led Dem elites to acquiesce to Bush’s war. While it’s hard to know how much issues like this matter to outcomes, the history does suggest it played a more important role than perhaps many remember today.

As former Obama adviser David Plouffe details in his memoir of the 2008 election, the campaign turned Obama’s original 2002 speech against the war into a “huge engine of our candidacy.” Obama aides handed out copies of the speech at rallies. The Iraq War defined some of the most intense skirmishes of the campaign. When Clinton’s camp attacked Obama as naive for suggesting he’d negotiate with enemies without preconditions, the Obama camp responded that this wasn’t as naive as following Bush into the Iraq War. When the Clinton campaign ran that infamous ad showing children sleeping suggesting that she — and not he — was prepared to receive a “3 a.m.” White House phone call about an international crisis threatening the country, the Obama camp responded that Clinton had already had her 3 a.m. call — the vote on the Iraq invasion — and had gotten it disastrously wrong.

Senator Ted Kennedy’s seismic endorsement of Obama — Kennedy opposed the war — was partly driven by anger over Bill Clinton’s efforts to obfuscate the differences between Clinton and Obama over Iraq. Kennedy emphatically cited Obama’s opposition to the war twice in his endorsement speech. And so on.

While it’s true that Sanders opposed the Iraq War, Clinton has since admitted getting it wrong, the war is mostly behind us, and it’s plainly not weighing on Democrats’ minds nearly as heavily this time. The Obama-versus-Clinton battle went on for many, many months, and the campaigns attacked each other brutally. This time, Clinton and Sanders (though this could change) aren’t directly attacking one another. That might be in part because no single issue is nearly as divisive or consuming among Dems right now as Iraq was then. Keystone? Wall Street accountability? Inequality? International trade? Sure, there are some differences, but they are mostly overstated, and they are unlikely to unleash anything close to that level of emotion or drive anything close to that deep a schism.

Anything can happen, of course, and as Howard Dean says, you can’t rule out a Sanders upset. But if he doesn’t pull one off, one key reason may end up being that there isn’t anything like the Iraq War around this time.