New polling data from YouGov/CBS, which shows Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) now ahead of Hillary Rodham Clinton by 22 percentage points in New Hampshire and 10 points in Iowa, prompted a mini media frenzy earlier this week. These numbers were widely reported in news outlets, often under such overhyped headlines The New York Post’s “Bernie is Wiping the Floor with Hillary in Latest Polls,” Salon’s “Hillary is No Lock, Bernie is No Fluke: The Democratic Race is Wide Open,” and Breitbart’s “Poll: Bernie Sanders Surging, Hillary Clinton Cratering”
A simultaneous YouGov/CBS statewide survey of likely Democratic primary voters in South Carolina was nowhere to be found in those eye-catching headlines, though. The media paid much less attention to those numbers that showed Clinton ahead of Sanders by 23 percentage points in the Palmetto State. Sanders’s Cinderella surge, after all, is simply a better narrative than Goliath crushing David in South Carolina.
But the South Carolina poll results are probably more important for understanding how the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination will play out next year. The graph below shows Sanders even with Clinton among white voters nationally and ahead with this group in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. It is not too surprising, then, that he is now winning the almost all-white early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire.
The remaining columns of the display show Hillary Clinton dominating Sanders among non-white voters both nationally and in South Carolina. (YouGov did not report percentages by race in Iowa and New Hampshire because there were so few non-whites in the sample.) As the New York Times recently reported, the Clinton campaign is looking to such strong support in southern states with large minority electorates as a firewall against her rivals.
With non-whites comprising almost half of Barack Obama’s electoral coalition in 2012, Bernie Sanders must make serious inroads with minority voters to have any chance of becoming the Democratic presidential nominee.
Many of the news stories that oversell Sanders’s chances suggest that this could actually happen. Obama, they point out, was losing African American support to Clinton by wide margins in polls conducted during the summer and fall of 2007 before going on to overwhelmingly win the black vote in the primaries. Or as the Huffington Post’s lead political story on Sunday put it, “He [Sanders] does have time on his side. This time in 2007, then-Sen. Barack Obama had yet to engage black voters in his campaign against Clinton, with many expressing skepticism toward his candidacy.”
Even setting aside Barack Obama’s unique potential to appeal to African American voters as a historic racial figure, this frequent comparison of Senator Obama in 2007 and Senator Sanders in 2015 is deeply flawed. Just looking at the data from eight years ago shows how much better positioned Barack Obama was in the summer months of 2007 to surpass Hillary Clinton with black voters than Bernie Sanders currently is.
Pooling together six Gallup surveys from July through September 2007, the graph below shows that Barack Obama was extraordinarily popular among African-Americans even when he was handily losing the black vote to Hillary Clinton in national polls.
His net favorability rating (favorable minus unfavorable) of +62 among blacks in the summer of 2007 was in striking distance of Clinton’s remarkable +71 despite her higher name recognition in those surveys.
But now, Hillary Clinton’s current popularity with African Americans dramatically exceeds black support for Bernie Sanders. These data from daily surveys by Gallup in July and August, indicate that most black people are unfamiliar with Sanders and that he is not particularly popular among those that recognized his name.
So the challenge for Sanders is clear: a little knownsSenator, from an almost all-white state, who has been criticized by black activists for preaching a message of economic equality that ignores the historic and ongoing circumstances entangling race and class in the United States, somehow needs to galvanize minority support for his candidacy against an opponent who has been extremely popular with blacks and Latinos for over two decades.
Early wins by Sanders in Iowa and New Hampshire are unlikely to change that, too. Gary Hart, whose 1984 candidacy is often compared to Sanders’s current campaign, could not translate his better-than-expected strong showing in the Iowa caucuses and resounding victory in the New Hampshire primary into a broader coalition beyond his white base. Nor could Barack Obama’s early-state momentum erode Hillary Clinton’s strong support from Latinos in the 2008 primary.
So until the polls show a substantial upswing in minority support for Sanders, any news story suggesting that “the Democratic race is wide open” is seriously overselling the Senator’s chances.
Michael Tesler is Assistant Professor of Political Science at UC Irvine, co-author of Obama’s Race, and author of the forthcoming, Post-Racial or Most-Racial? Race and Politics in the Obama Era.