Here’s an intriguing finding in the new Washington Post/ABC News poll: More Democratic voters think Hillary Clinton, as opposed to Bernie Sanders, is the candidate who would be the most likely to change Washington.
This, despite the fact that Sanders is running as the candidate who will shake up the establishment and status quo, while Clinton is campaigning, in a sense, as the candidate of continuity, since she’s mostly vowing to build more incrementally on President Obama’s agenda.
The Post/ABC poll finds that registered Democrats and Dem-leaning independents say by 49-42 that Clinton “would do more to bring needed change to Washington.” In fairness, that spread is somewhat closer than the overall toplines, which show that Democrats favor Clinton over Sanders by 55-36. But for now at least, it does seem that more Democratic voters see Clinton over Sanders as having the capacity to deliver change.
These numbers — which were supplied to me by the Post polling team — break down strikingly along demographic lines, too:
— Among Democrats, nonwhites say by 62-30 that Clinton would be the most likely to change Washington; those over 50 say that by 58-31; and women say it by 50-39. Those groups, of course, are more a part of Clinton’s coalition.
— By contrast, among Democrats, those aged 18-49 pick Sanders on this question by 51-41. Men are almost exactly divided on it, and college educated whites favor Sanders on it by 61-32. Those groups — particularly young people — tilt more towards Sanders than other groups do.
Obviously the question of which candidate can deliver change is only one among many attributes, so one wouldn’t want to read too much into this. But it is true that the argument over the change question is becoming important to the Democratic primary. As Paul Krugman puts it, Democrats are “torn between two candidates who broadly have similar ideologies but have different visions of the politically possible.” (I’ve talked about the two candidates’ competing theories of change here and here.)
If Sanders wins Iowa and New Hampshire, which is a very real possibility, most observers expect that Clinton will nonetheless be able to prevail, once the battle shifts to contests with more diverse electorates, which will give Clinton’s broader coalition a real advantage. If so, one has to wonder how this change argument will play in these later contests.
Remember, Sanders is not merely saying that Clinton’s agenda is not ambitious enough when it comes to dealing with the challenges we face, though he’s certainly arguing that. Sanders is also arguing that the change of the Obama era was woefully inadequate, given the scale of these challenges. He has implicitly argued this by calling for single payer, while Clinton says our best bet is to build on Obamacare, and by calling for breaking up the big banks to break the power of oligarchy, while Clinton wants to build on Dodd-Frank while focusing on further oversight to shadow banking.
But Sanders has also explicitly made the argument that Obama failed to achieve needed change in a larger and more fundamental sense. As Sanders has put it: “the major political, strategic difference I have with Obama is it’s too late to do anything inside the Beltway. You gotta take your case to the American people, mobilize them, and organize them at the grassroots level in a way that we have never done before.” In other words, Obama failed to rally the grassroots to their full potential. Sanders won’t make that mistake.
And yet, as of now, nonwhite, female, and older Democratic voters seem to see Clinton as the candidate most likely to bring change to Washington. That could mean they view Clinton as the one most likely to build on the advances Obama has achieved, which they continue to view fondly, despite Sanders’s indictment of them as overly incremental and inadequate. Or maybe they don’t buy Sanders’s lofty promises and rhetoric. Or maybe they simply haven’t been sufficiently exposed to Sanders’s arguments yet.
Whatever the reason, how Sanders’s big debate with Clinton over these matters plays in these later contests will be something to watch. And remember, Obama has already taken Clinton’s side in this dispute. There may be more of that to come — something that also could matter to this argument down the stretch.